A fatal shark attack off Buchan Point, Malabar has rocked Australia.
The attack happened at about 4.35pm on Wednesday, near Little Bay, a popular beach just south of Maroubra. A rock fisherman told media he saw the shark “vertically” attack a swimmer wearing a wetsuit.
It is the first fatal attack in Sydney in recent memory.
“We heard a yell and turned around – it looked like a car had landed in the water,” one witness said.
Another witness said they thought the shark was 4.5 meters long.
The New South Wales government has spent millions on shark attack prevention technology. According to Sky News: “It has beaches nets at 51, as well as drones and shark listening stations that can track great white sharks by satellite and send an alert when one is sighted.”
“Department of industries, now looking for the shark” … Yeha look it’s sad but it’s a shark attack in the ocean, can’t do anything about it. Everyone knows the risks when you go swimming in the sea.
— TSM (@TSM9490) February 16, 2022
In the wake of this tragic attack, East Coast residents have been discussing how the government should respond.
As always happens after an attack, there are two camps. One group maintains we should do nothing – and that this is the risk you take when you enter the ocean. The other, more reactionary, group say we should cull.
The 4m shark that fatally attacked a man in Sydney’s Little Bay yesterday will not be killed but will be chased out to sea.
Authorities have laid out drum lines at the scene of yesterday’s attack in the hopes of tagging the animal. pic.twitter.com/PYvgsVMlVZ
— 10 News First Sydney (@10NewsFirstSyd) February 16, 2022
One Facebook user commenting on 10 News First Sydney’s reporting of the news wrote: “Yet another human being horrifically killed by a dangerous fish species which should not be protected.”
Another wrote: “Time to move them off the endangered species list. There numbers are out of control and expect more of this.”
On the other side of the coin, one Facebook user wrote: “So sad to hear. Please leave the shark alone he was doing what comes naturally in his waters!”
On Twitter, one user wrote: “Sydney shark attack is very sad for those affected but I can’t see the point in chasing/hunting a 4m+ great white shark that attacked in quite ideally, its expected & habitat. Deep water straight off rocks. late afternoon. Low sun. It’s not ‘Jaws.’
Sydney shark attack is very sad for those affected but I can’t see the point in chasing/hunting a 4m+ great white shark that attacked in quite literally, its expected & ideal habitat. Deep water straight off rocks. late afternoon. Low sun. It’s not ‘Jaws’. https://t.co/b9PTzIeCKZ pic.twitter.com/WAAJFMRQpj
— hamishwyatt (@hamishwyatt) February 16, 2022
Another suggestion, also left by a Facebook user on the 10 News First Sydney’s comments section, was not to call, but to take more preventative measures.
The user wrote: “The Government needs to make the solar shark anklets, bracelets, installed on surf boards etc deterrents mandatory to prevent attacks. Why weren’t there patrols out and shark warnings notices put up. Very negligent of the NSW Government. Leave the sharks alone. RIP.”
One popular attitude among surfers, as expressed by a former BeachGrit writer Longtom in 2020, in the wake of a previous deadly attack further up north, but which still seems relevant now, is this: “We accept our place in the food chain, it even, but we don’t let the killer escape back into a highly populated surf zone. At the least, not without a tag and a free trip out of the area.”
The same writer also claimed: “The White shark has become the post-modern avenging angel du jour.”
“The latest attack is usually less than a day old before those comments are delivered with a misanthropic glee. This avenging angel function of the white shark has raised its status as an environmental icon, above that of the whale, the dolphin, even the intriguing old man of the forest, the orangutan.”
“In this world view the white shark is a way of being, a cypher, a means of understanding and taking revenge on a human created world gone mad.”
He also provided an insight into the consistent ocean goer’s psyche: “I’ll take this flight of fancy; this danger serrated with an Abrahamic edge over the vortex of tech addiction any day” while questioning “Just how far down the path are we to a Reunion Island reality?” and asking “Is there an end state where we can say, OK, too many, let’s go fishing?”
He also claimed that “by accident and on purpose, an almost ideal world for the White shark has been created.”
Marine biologist Lawrence Chlebeck at the Humane Society International told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2021 that living safely with sharks is not about shark-proofing the sea. “That’s a very Australian idea,” he told the SMH. “[Bites] are horrific, and they make us think authorities should do something, but the way to stay safe isn’t what might feel right; it’s not [vengeance].”
In its explainer article, the SMH reported: “The problem for sharks is that they also mature and reproduce very slowly. So if their populations start to decline rapidly, as they are today under overfishing pressure, they cannot make up for the losses fast enough.”
This is part of the reason Great Whites have been protected in NSW since 1996 (after they were previously hunted to the point of being vulnerable to extinction).
Gavin Naylor, an evolutionary biologist who curates the International Shark Attack File, told the SMH that, while sharks have already survived four of the five big extinction events on Earth, and will likely survive climate change too, “the one thing they won’t survive is being fished out of the water by a bunch of monkeys, [without] end.”
“And there will be consequences if we remove sharks; we don’t know exactly what yet. It could be algae all over our beaches, blanketing the Gold Coast. It could be much worse.”
Leading shark scientist Yannis Papastamatiou who has swum with whites and hammerheads and “looked into their eyes,” told the SMH: “They’re not harmless, they don’t care about your feelings, but they’re not out to get you either. They have very basic reasons for attacking, which we still don’t fully understand but we do know it’s not malice or spite.”
The question, then, for scientists is, as the SMH asked in 2021: “If shark numbers are actually going down, why are attacks going up?”
Though East Coast surfers will tell you sharks attacks are getting more common because there are more sharks around (and perhaps, white sharks being protected for the last 20 years, this isn’t such an unreasonable hypothesis), scientists have said it’s more likely the case that detection technology and increased usage of the ocean means we are noticing them more. They also say that climate conditions have been bringing bigger sharks nearer to shore, leading to more “encounters.”
Research tells us killing sharks doesn’t make us safer but, with calls for a shark cull again printed today, here’s an explainer on why we might be seeing more sharks near Australian shores (even as their numbers plummet overall) and how we live with themhttps://t.co/NkJEAfMjNK
— Sherryn Groch (@Sherryn_G) February 8, 2021
Reseachers say the risk of a shark attack goes up near river mouths, or after high rainfall stirs up the sea. Big sharks also like to hunt where cool waters meet warm ones. On top of that, changes in the East Australian Current due to climate change are pushing nutrient-rich upwellings closer to shore. This year’s La Nina climate conditions could be increasing upwellings.
According to scientists from Macquarie University, who the SMH interviewed, a big hotspot for white shark attacks on the east coast even lines up to the western boundary of the EAC current. Climate change also means that Bull sharks are being found further south.
Read about how to avoid a shark attack here.