With shark attacks at an all-time high, humans become the hunters

In some parts of the world, when a shark attacks a human, the shark becomes the hunted.

Off Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, where in the past five years nearly 20 attacks and seven fatalities have occurred, anti-shark efforts include huge nets and underwater spotters armed with harpoons.

Areas of South Africa also have offshore nets and a flag system to alert beachgoers when sharks are lurking nearby. And in Australia, after two deadly shark attacks in a week, a 14-foot shark was captured and killed on a baited drum line.

As shark attacks become more common – last year was an all-time record for shark attacks worldwide – governments and lifeguard agencies are figuring out how to protect the public, sometimes in controversial ways.

In Orange County – where the most serious shark attack in recent history took place May 29, when a triathalete was seriously injured by what experts believe was a great white – the weapon of choice, so far, is information.

Since the attack in Corona del Mar, local lifeguards have met with great white experts to learn more about the species. They’re surveying the coast more carefully and more frequently. And they’re shutting down beaches (at least twice last month) with less provocation. At least one agency, Seal Beach, is using a drone to scan the waters for sharks. Longtime Orange County lifeguards and experts are seeing more sharks than ever before.

Former surf champion Ian Cairns is no stranger to coastal waters turning sharky.

The Laguna Beach resident grew up in Western Australia, where he never feared sharks, even though he knew some might be nearby.

But after deadly attacks in the region – 12 since 2000 – the attitude is shifting.

“The whole environment with sharks has changed,” Cairns said. “They’ve grown big, and they’ve grown deadly.

“I see a real parallel to what is happening here,” Cairns added. “We never thought about sharks. Now, they are everywhere.”

Just like off California, where hunting great whites is banned, Australia years ago implemented restrictions on killing great white sharks. Now, the sharks that were saved as juveniles are adults; big, hungry adults.

“You just have this massive population of great white sharks,” Cairns said.

“Everyone’s vibe will change really soon when someone gets killed.”

He remembers visiting his hometown in Perth, Australia, where people would regularly swim and surf. But with the recent deaths in the region, Cairns said people are afraid to get in the water.

“Someone gets bitten in half, it sort of cuts down on the enthusiasm,” he said.

In the wake of the two recent attacks, Australia’s Department of Fisheries patrolled waters and set up shark capture gear. After the first attack, which occurred near where a shark had injured a person just a month earlier, officers trapped a great white.

The 14-foot shark died on the baited line, and its carcass was disposed of at sea after scientists had taken measurements and tissue samples, according to sharksmart.com.au, a government-sponsored website dedicated to shark news in Australia.

The government is considering re-opening a shark fishery, shut down in 2007, and the regular use of baited drum lines to capture sharks. Baited drum lines were used in the summer of 2014, but the tactic was stopped amid public outcry.

While some might argue that the tactic is pointless, Cairns compared it to eliminating a rogue mountain lion that goes on a killing spree, saying authorities would be quick to kill the creature “as soon as it becomes a man eater.”

“I love having a healthy marine environment. But is it healthy when one population grows so dramatically?” he asks. “It’s out of balance.”

Decades ago, shark attacks prompted officials in Sydney, Australia to set up nets off the beach. They did the same in Durban and other areas of South Africa, Cairns said.

Some coastal areas in South Africa also have a shark flag system. A red flag means a shark has been spotted, but its exact whereabouts aren’t currently known. A white flag with a black shark means a shark has been spotted and remains close enough to make it unsafe for humans to be in the water.

In Reunion Island, a small island in French territory in the Indian Ocean, officials put a ban on surfing and swimming in 2013 after seven deaths in just a few years. The waters recently re-opened after long nets were installed and underwater lookouts were trained to patrol the shark nets with harpoon guns.

The government has also set up “smart drum lines,” which sends real-time information back to the land. They have tagged 90 bull and tiger sharks in an attempt to track them, and they hope that real-time tracking someday might produce instant alerts that could be issued when sharks approach beaches used by humans. Areas of Australia have started using similar technology.

In addition to how governments are responding to attacks, several shark-deterrent products have hit the market in response to the influx of attacks.

Sharkbanz uses something the company describes as a “magnetic shark repellent technology” in a wristband the company claims is an anti-shark device. More recently, the company (after teaming with Australian surf brand Modem) said it’s developed a new surfboard leash that issues an electromagnetic field that the company says interferes with a shark’s electrical sense.

A Sharkbanz press release describes the the process like this: “This interference reduces the risk of attack by causing inquisitive sharks to flee. The unpleasant experience for the shark is similar to a person suddenly shining a very bright light in another person’s eyes in a dark room,”

“It’s important to note that Sharkbanz technology does not harm the shark or other nearby marine life.”

Cost for the product is $180. The press release notes that while the new leash will reduce the risk of shark interactions, it don’t promise complete safety.

“(T)here is no 100 percent guarantee that interactions will not take place.”

Contact the writer: lconnelly@ocregister.com

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