SYDNEY — Chris Boyd was surfing at a secluded break on Australia’s western coast when he was attacked by a great white shark in November. The shark severed his left arm and ripped off part of his right leg. The 35-year-old died in its jaws.
The Australian plumber’s gruesome death was part of an increase in shark attacks that has terrified swimmers and triggered a deeply emotional debate in a country where the ocean is considered the national playground.
In response to the panic over the attacks, the government of Western Australia state last month began a cull of great white, tiger and bull sharks more than nine feet long.
“The public is demanding that sharks, where they stay around popular swimming or surfing areas, should be destroyed,” the governor, Colin Barnett, told journalists after Boyd’s death. “I’m in that camp.”
Environmentalists and animal-rights activists are outraged by the policy, and some scientists are concerned too.
“We are never going to stop shark attacks,” said Colin Simpfendorfer, who has studied sharks for 28 years and is director of the Center for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture at James Cook University in Townsville. “Science doesn’t support the cull.”
The chances of being taken by a shark in Western Australia state are remote -- but appear to be rising. Of the 20 people killed by sharks in the state over the last century, seven died in the past three years, according to the state government, which has found a statistically significant increase in attacks since 1995.
With its long coastline and swimmer-friendly warm weather, Australia reports the second-highest number of shark attacks after the United States. Last year 15 percent of all attacks took place in Australian waters compared with 52 percent in the United States, according to Sharkattackfile.info, a website for victims. But Australia has one-thirteenth the population of the United States.
West Australia’s tourism industry, which employees 56,000 people, is deeply concerned about the long-term consequences of the rise in attacks. Sixty-four percent of foreign tourists visit the beach and there is anecdotal evidence some businesses are already being hurt, according to the federal government.
One of the state's prettiest beaches, Cottesloe, in the city of Perth, used to be packed every holiday season. Now, toward the end of the southern hemisphere summer, the water is almost empty.
“It’s hard to convey to outsiders the impact in our community of these shark attacks,” Jane Marwick, a radio broadcaster, wrote in a recent article in The Australian newspaper. “People on the beach talk about sharks, people in shops talk about sharks, patients and staff at the doctor’s surgery talk about sharks. But few are sure of just what, if anything, should be done.”
To cull the shark population, state employees have hung large baited hooks by chains from buoys floating about a mile from popular beaches, including Cottesloe. The government wanted to pay professional fishermen to set the bait and kill or release the fish trapped on the hooks, but few offered their services after animal-rights activists threatened to disrupt the process. Last weekend a protester attached herself with thumb locks to a boat used in the cull. Firefighters cut her free.
Great whites, which can weigh up to 5,000 pounds and are responsible for one-third to half of all shark attacks on humans, are a protected species in Australia and a special exemption was required for the cull. Just last year the federal government updated a plan to increase their population.
The day after the cull was announced, a man barged into one of the governor’s offices, smashed several windows and threatened two staff members with a hammer, according to media reports and the governor, who has taken on extra security.
Later, activists used a projector to shine a giant slogan on a wall of the state legislature: “Great whites have rights”.
Some marine experts say it might be better to use nets to kill the sharks, as is done in eastern Australia, where the number of shark-attack deaths is lower. The nets are suspended in the ocean, extending from just below the surface to about half way to the sea floor. Sharks that try to swim through them drown. But the nets also kill dolphins and other sea life.
Little is known about how to reduce great white attacks on humans. Because the sharks travel long distances instead of staying in the same area, some scientists think killing individual fish is pointless. Another shark could just turn up the next day.
In late January, a female tiger shark was caught on one of the new hooks in Western Australia. The fish was pulled onto a boat and shot four times with a .22 calibre rifle. Its carcass was dumped further out to sea.
The death inflamed public opinion. Last Saturday, protesters gathered at beaches and in cities across Australia for speeches condemning the cull. At Cottesloe, about 6,000 people faced the sea and stood silently for 15 seconds in a mark of respect for the tiger shark. One held a sign saying: “Sharks are more important than human recreation.”
One of the speakers was a U.S.-born state legislator from the Greens party, Lynne MacLaren, who has campaigned for animals’ rights for decades. Afterwards she said the protest was a sign the global movement to protect ocean life is advancing.
The public anger about the cull “is the best thing that has ever happened to the shark around the world,” she said.