As marathon open water swimmers in events here and abroad, we live with the knowledge that the ocean is the shark’s domain.
We love the beach, are habitual users of the water and appreciate sharks live in the oceans and we don’t.
One of the great challenges of open water swimming is overcoming the fear of possible shark attack.
It’s a reflection of our respect that we are entering their territory.
But the recent spate of attacks in WA is becoming more than just random.
As a community, there is a growing sense of alarm and fear.
Very few people now train in the ocean, parents are pulling their children out of surf club events, and the fabric of our care-free beach culture is being threatened.
These are the same alarms that prompted the NSW and Queensland governments to commence preventative netting measures from 1937 and are the same reasons why we applaud the Barnett Government’s decision and actions over the past few days.
We are the last people who want to see harm done to sharks but when it comes down to what is the right decision for a government, then duty of care for the people they govern must be paramount.
No government can ever control stupidity and there will always be those who challenge safety by attempting extreme endeavours, but swimming or surfing at a popular beach or surf break shouldn’t be a dangerous past-time, particularly when it provides such a fundamental floor to our society.
Without taking anything away from the research and considered opinions of marine academics Ryan Kempster and Shaun Collin in the Opinion piece in The West Australian, the Government surely must always have a priority position of providing care.
There has to be ongoing research and gathering of data. Not until we know more about sharks and their behavioural attitudes can we truly implement a system to deter and repel shark attacks, but until that time what we know is that we don’t know a lot.
So do we take active measures, such as what the Government has proposed, or continue to research?
In our clearest of minds, we agree with the Government’s intervention proposal additional to continuing with research and monitoring.
But how many more shark attack deaths can we accept without seeking to increase safety in some form?
And while we are not academics, Mr Kempster and Mr Collins are being selective in their reference to shark attack data from NSW.
They are correct in saying there have been shark attacks at netted beaches in NSW, but they failed to state that since shark nets were introduced in 1937, there has only been one fatality since then compared to 21 fatalities prior to 1937.
One death in 76 years in NSW (with more than twice the population) compared to 12 deaths here in 10 years begs questions.
It has to be assumed that there are similar levels of increased beach/population interaction in NSW as there are in WA.
To say that more people are going into the water in WA is correct, but that’s the same for everywhere in Australia.
Why are there more deaths here and less there when it is also known there are just as many sharks?
We recommend people read the report to which Mr Kempster and Mr Collins make reference, and specifically page 47 of the report which can be downloaded here.
Similar results have also been achieved at netted beaches in Queensland and South Africa.
In Hong Kong, where beaches are completely netted, there have been no attacks or fatalities.
We acknowledge that public opinion in Hawaii has moved away from culls in the absence of data but there are no nets there.
For a fully informed debate, we urge people to read the NSW Government report (above).
So while congratulating the Government on its safety initiative, we would encourage an additional step and introduce similar style shark prevention nets along our most popular beaches and surf breaks similar to those deployed along NSW, Queensland and South African coastlines.
The Coogee Beach trial that has finally been approved should only be a first step.
It’s an interesting dynamic that people are encouraged to fence their backyards to keep out predators and prevent attacks, but there’s a different mindset when we think about fencing off some beaches and surf breaks over specific times of the year.
In further support of the Government’s recent decision, and to emphasise the emotive element of sharks, consider what would be your preference if a big venomous snake was found under your house while the children were playing in the backyard.
Would you feel happy watching it, knowing it was there and doing nothing while some research was conducted into why it got there in the first place or having it moved along, permanently?
Ceinwen Roberts and Paul Downie have swum multiple times across the Rottnest Channel, across the English Channel, and in the Manhattan Island and Catalina Strait swims in the United States.