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After Protecting Sharks, New Pressure to Protect Humans

26 Mar 2017 11:00 am
By Rachel Pannett 

LENNOX HEAD, Australia--Australia is plowing millions of dollars into shark control technologies, as experts conclude that a rise in shark populations is likely to lead to more attacks.

Authorities are testing everything from drones to wearable deterrents and sonar buoys that use facial recognition technology to detect and identify sharks after a spate of attacks jolted communities like this one.

The effort is being closely watched around the world--especially tourism-focused places like Réunion, a French territory whose economy was devastated after sharks killed seven people in recent years.

Sharks have long been threatened by overfishing and hunting. Some, like oceanic whitetips--used in sharkfin soup--were so troubled by 2010 that the five major international fishery organizations forbade vessels from catching them. A quarter of the world's sharks and rays are endangered.

However, researchers say conservation efforts in places like Australia and the U.S. are causing shark populations to rebound in places where people frequently swim. That is creating a clash of humans and beasts along some popular seashores.

"In some ways it's an unintended consequence of success in having better environmental outcomes," said Colin Simpfendorfer, a marine biologist. "Where some of these species of sharks bite people, it becomes more of a social issue, whether the government should be responsible for the safety of their citizens when they go into the ocean."

Record keeping on shark attacks is fragmented and inconsistent, and the emotional reaction disproportionate to the risk. Attacks have generally risen over the past five years, with a fall last year. But unusual strings of attacks have drawn lots of attention.

Seven people were attacked in North Carolina within a few weeks in June 2015 during a record year for attacks globally before dipping to 81 last year. There were 39 unprovoked shark attacks in Australia in 2015 and 2016, three of them fatal.

In response, Australia expanded its shark-control trials this summer, which is now winding down. Helicopter pilots and drones flew over roughly 60,000 miles of coastline and spotted more than 500 sharks--including 31 great whites, the deadly predators in Steven Spielberg's 1975 movie "Jaws."

The government has offered grants to researchers studying whether electronic and magnetic shark deterrent devices work, while other researchers will test cameras attached to tagged sharks in the hopes of getting a better understanding of their patterns and movements. So-called clever buoys use sonar and identification software to detect sharks and relay messages to authorities responsible for beach safety.

At Lennox Head on the New South Wales coast, authorities experimented with a conservation-friendly Aquarius Barrier--which combines heavy duty marine ropes with robust nylon struts that prevent marine animals such as dolphins, whales, turtles and rays from becoming entangled and killed like they are in traditional shark nets.

The barriers were controversial, with some people advocating to just kill more sharks, and ultimately failed in rough surf, leaving a string of concrete anchors jutting from the surf.

"We were 98% there, installing the last wall when we discovered the damage," said Edward Khoury, the net's designer, after a day spent reeling the vast coils back onto the beach. "It's devastating."

So-called smart drumlines installed in December along the coast have had better luck. The devices are a large baited hook suspended from a plastic float, which is anchored to the seabed. Unlike traditional nets that can kill the sharks and other sea creatures, they are designed to catch sharks and alert authorities so they can be tagged and relocated away from swimmers. Since December, they've caught 14 great whites, two tiger sharks and two gray nurse sharks, all alive.

"We wanted to see if we could do it differently, do it better, using technology," said Niall Blair, the minister in charge of the trial, a cartoon painting of a shark grinning ominously on the wall of his office.

The best-documented example of reviving shark populations is in the U.S., where an official survey in 2015 tagged more than 2,800 sharks along the East Coast, a 55% increase on 2012 and the most in its 29-year history.

In Australia, blacktip sharks have rebounded since foreign gillnet vessels were banned in the 1980s. Several comprehensive shark-population studies are under way in Australia, including one using sophisticated genetic techniques to develop population data for great white sharks.

But Mr. Simpfendorfer, who has been studying sharks for more than 25 years and is now working on a big global study, is already sure numbers are rising. He has thousands of underwater video tapes showing that sharks are much more abundant in northern Australia than in unprotected waters like those surrounding Indonesia--the world's biggest shark-fishing nation.

More sharks are being spotted closer to shore, researchers believe. Varying theories hold that depleted fish stocks are luring sharks closer to shore in search of food in some areas and that recovering seal populations along coasts are attracting them in others.

Australian researchers are studying water temperatures, tides and commercial fishing records to study why. But the trend caused officials in recent months to temporarily closed beaches from Western Australia to southeastern Victoria, home to some of the world's most famous surf beaches.

At Lennox Head, members of the surf lifesaving clubs' youth program, known as "Nippers," have had to hone their swimming skills on an algae-tinged lake. Many locals only paddle out to the area's famous surf breaks only in groups.

"People for some reason have a real fear of sharks," Geoff Harris, the club's president and a veteran lifesaver, said as he surveyed the town's deserted white-sand beach one morning. "I think it's the fear of being eaten by something."

Write to Rachel Pannett at rachel.pannett@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 26, 2017 07:00 ET (11:00 GMT)

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