In late September, several sharks were baited and killed in the warm Queensland water of Cid Harbour. One was a tiger shark, 3.7 metres long, named for the dark stripes that would have appeared, shadow-like, on its sleek, grey body until adolescence. The tiger has the widest food spectrum of all sharks and is a reputed ‘garbage eater’ – those examined often have stomachs full of tires, nails, car licence plates. Another was a blacktip shark, smaller, 1.2 metres in length, timid compared with other sharks of a similar size and known for leaping out of the water in pursuit of fish.
Six sharks were euthanised, measured and disposed of in the week before I began writing this essay, after a 46-year-old woman and 12-year-old girl were bitten and critically injured while swimming in the Whitsundays.
The shark imagined sits at the apotheosis of terror: lunging from the ocean, red mouth agape to reveal rows of hungry, pointed teeth. Or we think of them as a powerful dorsal fin slicing through the surface to an ominous soundtrack. Jaws, the novel turned 1975 Steven Spielberg classic, featured a great white with a taste for human that inspired three sequels and a generation of fear. The film’s unforgettable theme music spells almost-certain doom for the fateful swimmer – we are in its territory and literally out of our depth.
The horror-shark canon has since seen inspired titles like Deep Blue Sea (1999), Open Water (2003), The Reef (2010), The Shallows (2016) and 47 Meters Down (2017). The details might be different – in Deep Blue Sea, for instance, the sharks are genetically altered and super smart – but all follow a well-worn synopsis: a person or persons struggling to survive as dark, shadowy monsters swim below.
Obviously, sharks are much more than the robotic, mindless killers depicted in Western popular culture. Dr Eugenie Clark, a revered Japanese-American ichthyologist known as The Shark Lady, worked tirelessly from the 1940s until her last dive at age 92 to pioneer ocean science and improve their reputation. ‘Sharks are among the most perfectly constructed creatures in nature,’ Clark wrote. ‘Some forms have survived for two hundred million years.’
Jaws author Peter Benchley actually spent his later years campaigning for shark conservation and spoke with some regret over his creation: ‘I could never write Jaws today. I could never demonise an animal, especially not an animal that is much older and much more successful in its habitat than man is, has been, or ever will be.’
The 2003 BBC documentary Smart Sharks starred Andrew Smeath’s ‘Roboshark’, an electronic, life-size reincarnation with an attached camera that was used to capture unique footage of sharks in the ocean. Through Roboshark’s rectangular gaze we see a school of whale sharks off the coast of Belize, their immense, spotted bodies moving sleekly through a horde of snapper fish. The sharks have learned, and remembered, the precise location that these fish return to every year to spawn under a full moon.
A 2016 study published in Nature observed in sand tiger sharks group behaviour that had historically been associated with higher-order mammals. This year, researchers in California discovered that a small type of hammerhead, the bonnethead, grazes on large amounts of seagrass, the first known shark ‘flexitarian’. And the cold water porbeagle is one of the only fish species known to exhibit playfulness – they have been observed rolling in and chasing one another with kelp.
Much of shark behaviour remains a mystery. We know they are superior sensory detectors, able to sniff out a drop of blood in 25 million drops of sea water. We know they are equipped with pressure detectors along their sides which allow them to create 3D ‘maps’ of their surroundings. And we know they able to detect the tiniest of electrical impulses made by other living things. It’s unsurprising that sharks are among the world’s most successful hunters. Their status as apex predator, coupled with humanity’s inability to tame or truly understand the ocean, inspires in us a kind of primal terror, an obsession well reflected in reportage and documentary. Every time they resurface in the news, the media are whipped into a frenzy, circling the story like, well, sharks.
Drumlines, Australia’s preferred method of shark culling, were introduced in 1962 – making them even older than Jaws and its crude animatronic monster. They are a rudimentary fishing device, involving a large baited hook on a rope or metal trace, attached to the seafloor or a floating buoy. The shark takes the bait and dies, or, if newer ‘SMART’ drumlines are in place, sends a signal to authorities who travel to either tow it out to sea or kill it.
Drumlines were the mechanism deployed recently in the Whitsundays. They were trialled briefly in Western Australia in 2014 following a series of fatal attacks – a controversial ‘catch and kill’ policy that attracted widespread derision within Australia and the international community. Sharks in WA can still be killed on an individual basis, however, and drumlines are also in place along the coasts of Queensland and New South Wales. Queensland’s Shark Control Program also harms turtles and species of shark not at all dangerous to humans.
Due to the sporadic nature of shark attacks, it’s difficult to say whether culling has a marked effect on swimmer safety. In a 2014 piece for The Conversation, Director for Marine Futures at the University of Western Australia Jessica Meeuwig writes that most are set-up at locations where a fatal attack has never occurred. Nearly all sharks caught and killed in Queensland between 2001 and 2013, meanwhile, were at some level of conservation risk. Unlike the vegetarian, conference-holding variety seen in Finding Nemo, real sharks cannot heed the warning of nets and drumlins.
But there are other less harmful and more effective practices, including electronic deterrents and the ‘Eco Shark Barrier’, which is made from nylon. Since 2004, the Shark Spotters program has been in place in Cape Town, which uses a flag and alarm system to monitor beaches for at least 10 hours a day, 365 days a year. And as part of a 2013 study, scientists in Brazil began to catch and tag sharks that came close to popular beaches, towing them 8 kilometres away from the shore, resulting in a massive reduction of incidents.
I think that the culling of sharks emulates a pattern of invasion and violently enforced compliance. Above all, it reflects the inability of some human beings to relinquish their attempted control of the ocean. In fact, the predatory threat is actually the other way around: at least 70 million sharks are killed each year for their fins alone, which are often removed at sea while the shark is still alive. Luxurious shark fin soup, and the fins themselves, are readily available at restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney, even if they aren’t listed openly on the menu.
Australia, a country whose waters are home to 170 shark species, has some nebulous regulations around finning – in New South Wales and Victoria, all caught sharks must be brought back to land with their fins attached to their bodies, while in all other states the fins can be cut off at sea provided the fishers bring back a certain ratio of shark fins to meat. But we still import and export fins by the ton.
The shark’s role as zenith predator is a vital one in regulating the ocean, and the loss of sharks has cascading effects on complete ecosystems. A 2007 study, for example, found that reduced numbers of sharks along the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States effectively ended a century old shellfish industry. Less sharks meant an unchecked population of cow-nose rays, which eat scallops. New research suggests that changing seawater chemistry and increased ocean acidification affect the ways sharks smell and track prey. As the ocean warms and fish are depleted, sharks come closer to shore and, incidentally, us.