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How to come to terms with Sydney's latest shark fatality

Last week in Sydney, at approximately 4.35pm on Wednesday 16 February 2022, there was an unprovoked shark incident that sadly resulted in the death of Simon Nellist, an ocean lover, engaged to be married and described by friends as "one of the best humans on this planet". A number of witnesses saw horrific scenes that play into our worst nightmares.


What can we take from this experience, and how can we come to terms with this tragedy?


While the immediate reaction may be that the ocean is no longer safe, or we should stay out of the water, the reality is that it is the safest it has been for hundreds of years. This was the first fatality in Sydney since 1963, almost 60 years ago. There have been many more shark incidents in Sydney in these 60 years. For example, Glenn Orgias at the famous Bondi Beach in 2009, but luckily fast responses from emergency services and lifesavers have avoided any of these turning fatal. Unfortunately, due to the location and nature of this recent incident, this streak has been broken, and friends and family have lost a loved one.


In the last 100 years, we have developed a deeper understanding of marine ecosystems and sharks. In addition, our technology has become far more advanced and accessible to the community, including:

  • lifeguards and paramedics with advanced life-saving techniques and equipment at hand

  • helicopters are regularly out on patrol, along with drone technology looking for signs of large sharks

  • shark tagging programs and listening stations that help locate sharks in the area and send you a message to your phone or apple watch

  • shark deterrent technology that people can wear to send out electrical signals whilst swimming or surfing that can deter sharks from approaching humans


Technology has made our coastal beaches arguably safer than they have ever been. However, the ocean is not entirely safe. Rip currents, jellyfish, boat traffic and sharks present dangers to us. It would be unwise to step into the ocean without remembering that some risks cannot be fully mitigated, despite the best technology or life-saving techniques. The ocean is not our home, and it is wise to remember that stepping into the ocean means that you "enter at risk".


When something like this happens, some call for blood - an eye for an eye - but most just want answers. Why?


Close to the time of last week's fatality, I was myself swimming at a nearby beach out beyond the head at Bondi and can report that the water was green, dirty and had poor visibility making it harder for sharks to distinguish their natural prey.


Jason Eggleden, a local shark enthusiast who uses drone footage to help educate people on marine life interactions (DroneSharkApp), shared footage of a large tuna bait ball just a couple of days after the attack. The bait ball could have contributed to why the shark was in the area.


Rock fishermen and spearfishers frequent this very spot because it is known to attract lots of marine life, and with that, again come sharks. In addition, the topography of this spot features a steep drop off in depth, again a haven for sharks who sit deep, then come up only when their interest is piqued. Also, a recent marine heatwave changed ocean temperatures and currents, affecting species distribution, bringing sharks potentially closer to shore than usual.


Which of these variables created this tragic situation? The reality is it could be some, all, or even none. The more important reality is that none of this takes away the horror of the events, nor can it bring Simon back, but it can help provide knowledge over time.


Since last week's incident, there have been predictable debates about whether we should cull sharks. The sad truth is that, unbeknown to most people, there is already an active shark cull through the use of shark nets in New South Wales (NSW). Many people are unaware that everyday sharks up and down the coast of NSW are intentionally caught and killed in the nets (and in Queensland, killed by nets and lethal drumlines).


Culling sharks has been happening for decades and does not work, contrary to what was envisaged in 1937 when the NSW program commenced. So to call for a cull is to call for something already occurring and proving ineffective.


We know that shark nets are set in nearby beaches where this tragedy occurred, including Maroubra, Coogee, Bronte and Bondi. In these shark nets, it is common for animals to be caught and left for a number of hours and even days before being picked up by the Department of Primary Industries or their contractor. 92% of the animals caught in the nets are considered non-threatening and are not the target sharks the nets are intended to catch. However, dozens of images collected by Freedom of Information requests show that many animals caught in the shark nets have large bites taken from them, indicating that the shark nets are attracting large sharks for opportunistic feeding.


The false sense of security that shark nets provide, along with shark nets attracting sharks to the area, is only exacerbating the issue. This is not to suggest that these conditions contributed to last week's death, but they are a variable to consider - is it wise having a 150m fishing net at our popular beaches?


To come to terms with a tragedy like this, we should remember that it is still an extremely unlikely and uncommon occurrence. More people are entering the ocean nowadays due to the rise of recreational activities. There are more people nowadays living close to the beach. More beaches are accessible to people too. People spend longer periods of time in the water due to ever-improving wetsuit technology.


There is no evidence to suggest that there are more sharks or shark incidents today than previously—but there are more opportunities for human-wildlife interaction in the ocean.

The ocean needs sharks to maintain healthy ecosystems, and we need to come to terms with their existence. An ocean with sharks may appear scary, but an ocean without sharks and the subsequent collapse of fish stocks, algal blooms, eutrophication and whatever other unknown consequences there may be, is an even scarier prospect.


We will, in time, be able to sanitise the shallows of our most popular beaches entirely. Drones will spot a shark in waist-deep water no matter what the visibility. Eco-barriers can be installed instead of nets to separate sharks from people close to shore, and there are also electrical versions of these barriers being tested.


But as we head deeper, to the locations best suited for ocean swimming, diving, surfing—we need to remember that the ocean is a wilderness. While we can continue to learn how to make it safer, it's unlikely ever to be fully tamed, and that is part of why we love it.


 

Statement from the Editor and Director


We offer our sincere sympathies to the family and friends of Simon Nellist who was killed by a shark at Little Bay last week.


This tragedy has hit hard through the whole community. It's a reminder that anyone's life can be cut short at any time, anywhere, and when we least expect it.


It hit those of us who love the ocean extra hard. Simon felt like one of us. A diver, an ocean swimmer, someone who valued the ocean and its inhabitants, someone who supported our campaign, and above all a great guy.


People are processing this confronting incident in different ways.


Some feel fear, some feel a deep sadness, and some are responding out of anger, looking at who to blame. One thing is for sure, we must all be united in our respect for the victim's family and friends.


If you're pro shark culling out of fear, or a belief that it works, we can understand that. It's however important to understand that a cull has already been happening on the East Coast of Australia for the last 84 years, and that this outdated program did not help Simon.


Whether you're for or against shark nets and drumlines, please be compassionate and patient with those who might hold a different opinion about how to make the ocean safer.


It's surprising how receptive many people are to learning and reassessing their position upon finding out new information, but not when emotions are running high.


Let's work together with kindness, respect for each other, and focus on scientifically supported solutions that protect both ocean users and marine animals.


It's time for a modern approach.


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