The decision by Australian officials to exercise this authority for the first time — despite the target being an otherwise protected species — highlights the contradictory relationship humans now have with sharks. Some people would like to protect them in theory, but it’s harder to do it in practice.
The number of shark-related deaths this year — 13 worldwide — is nearly triple the annual average, prompting some coastal communities to take drastic action. But shark conservation measures are gathering momentum in the United States and abroad, as policymakers and scientists warn that the sea’s most feared predator is in danger of disappearing.
“It’s the ‘Jaws’ effect. There’s something primal about this fear of shark attacks that you don’t have with other animals,” said Maryland Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), who is drafting a measure that would ban the sale, trade and possession of shark fins in Maryland. Luedtke thinks his bill stands a strong chance of passage next year, and he has watched the Australian hunt with dismay.
“It’s sad to see that, because it’s not going to make you any safer,” he said.
George Burgess, curator of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said no single factor explains what he called the “big jump” in the number of deaths this year. (The total number of incidents, including non-fatal encounters, 64, is in keeping with previous years.) Warmer waters in places such as the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, could be connected to the unusual shark strikes off Russia, Burgess said, while human activities such as fish farming may have lured sharks to Reunion Island, east of Madagascar, where two deaths occurred.
This weekend’s shark hunt was the fifth this year, according to University of Sydney doctoral researcher Christopher Neff, marking what may be an all-time high. The other ones took place in the Seychelles, Reunion Island, Mexico and Russia. In almost every instance, communities sought to kill sharks after multiple attacks. The searches have had different stated aims: Reunion Island authorities said they were gathering scientific data by killing sharks, while Seychelles officials said they were paying fishermen for dead sharks in hopes of recovering the wedding ring of the British honeymooner who died off their shores. But in each case, officials emphasized they were seeking to protect the public.