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Murky waters: understanding and responding to unprovoked shark bite

A shark cull in northern New South Wales in response to the recent spate of unprovoked shark bites is not the short term answer to the problem, according to a Bond University shark expert.

Dr Daryl McPhee, Associate Dean of Research at Bond University, said it would take approximately 18 months to prepare the necessary documentation and undertake the consultation to meet the Commonwealth environmental assessment requirements, and would most likely be unsuccessful.

He will be delivering a keynote address into shark ecology and shark attack mitigation at Bond University's Research Week, running from November 16 to 20. The event is held annually to showcase the diverse research underway at the private Gold Coast University.

"When a series of shark bites occur at a particular location over a short period of time, the issue becomes a societal problem where the Government faces heavy pressure to intervene," said Dr McPhee.

"We have seen this happen in Western Australia and in Cape Town in South Africa and we are now seeing it happen in northern New South Wales.

“White sharks in Australia are listed as threatened species which have the same conservation status as the numbat, golden bandicoot and some populations of koalas.

“The conservation status of white sharks along with the potential for shark nets or drumlines to catch other threatened species such as marine turtles on the New South Wales north coast makes their introduction there exceptionally difficult, if not impossible under Commonwealth environment legislation.

"There are a number of better avenues we are currently exploring as a solution to the problem such as bather protection enclosures, electrical and chemical deterrents and 'shark spotters' programs.

"I commend the commitment of both the New South Wales Premier Mike Baird and the Minster for Primary Industries Niall Blair to a forward looking, balanced, and science-based approach to dealing with this difficult issue."

Dr McPhee recently authored a report into the effectiveness of shark deterrent and detection methods, which he presented at the international shark summit held in Sydney in September, attended by more than 70 shark scientists and experts from across the globe.

"Methods to detect and deter sharks is a rapidly advancing field, but there is no 'magic bullet'," he said.

"If an individual chooses to use a personal deterrent, such as an electric deterrent, they should consider one that has been independently trialled and tested and choose a deterrent that suits their particular circumstances.

"Mitigation must be a mix of personal decisions and government action, however the government should not and cannot be expected to reduce the probability of a shark bite to zero.

"Above all, we need to be 'shark smart' in the water, for example not swimming at dawn or dusk, or swimming in areas of baitfish."

Dr McPhee said unprovoked shark bites were increasing globally and there were a number of explanations for this.

"Globally, we have a lot more people entering the water, which has undoubtedly contributed to the increase in shark incidents, and also our reporting on the issue has improved over time," he said.

"However, the probability of an unprovoked shark bite is extraordinarily low, and is an extremely infrequent source of harm to people at beaches despite a recent rise in prevalence.

"You are much more likely to drown at a beach than be killed by a shark. Indeed, globally more people are killed by falling coconuts and jellyfish stings, than by sharks."

Dr McPhee's public lecture is open to members of the general public to attend free of charge, and will be held in the Basil Sellers Theatre at Bond University on Thursday, November 19, from 6.00pm to 7.30pm.

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