Western Australia's "imminent threat" policy is singled out by researchers as a program that fails to reduce the risk of incidents between sharks and beachgoers.

The ‘Rogue’ Great White Shark: A Dangerous Cultural Myth?

A great white shark managed to evade baited drumlines off the coast of Warnbro earlier this week, yet the Western Australian government’s response to the predator has sparked a flurry of criticism from shark researchers, some of whom assert that the state’s policies are founded on questionable cultural beliefs.

Late last month, a tagged great white was detected off Warnbro beach, lingering in the area for weeks. After it remained in the area for an extended period of time, amid an expected rise in beach usage, government authorities issued a catch and kill order for the white shark, as the Inquisitr previously reported. Though drumlines were deployed over the course of several days, the great white was able to evade capture, escaping out to sea.

The policies behind the controversial catch and kill order have sparked a rash of criticism from scientific circles. As the Guardian reports, Western Australia practices an “imminent threat” policy, under which a shark can be killed if certain conditions are met, despite the fact that great whites are a legally protected and threatened species.

University of Sydney shark policy expert Dr. Christopher Neff recalls that he was labelled “hysterical” for a 2012 claim that tags placed on sharks as part of the government’s early warning system could be used to kill the great whites, an eventuality acted out in Warnbro.

“Tagging provides an early warning system, and by killing that shark you are killing the early warning system,” he said.

“It’s a step backwards for science and for beach safety.”

Neff noted that using data from tags to track and kill great whites is an unheard of practice that has angered researchers. He has repeatedly criticized the imminent threat policy, which he asserts is informed by the same rouge shark theories that gave birth to Jaws.

In an interview with Salon, Neff elaborated on points he raised during a 2012 TED Talk in which he discussed the myth of the rogue great white. He noted that only Jaws itself, along with the book that originally inspired it, 1958’s Shark Attack by Victor Coppleson, supports the rogue shark theory, which posits that a great white that has bitten a human is more likely to attack again.

Examining the history of rogue animals, Neff notes that the idea originated from the late colonial period between 1900 and 1925, during which explorers wrote of a variety of “rogue” beasts. He asserts that the idea has evolved over the years into a potent political tool, which stands in stark contrast to scientific understanding that finds little validity behind the idea of an out-of-control, man-eating great white.

In the marriage of politics, public policy, and predators, Neff posits that various factors combine to justify the killing of great whites. In 2011, when Western Australia experienced three fatalities from white shark attacks in as many months, the imminent threat policy gained traction.

“In the middle of all of this, the government flies me over there, and asks me to talk about what’s happening. It was just before the George Wainwright incident, and I said, look, what’s going to happen is that this is about to go off. Your third is your trigger point, that’s where politicians feel that this is about political survival, not beach survival, and so we’ve got to figure out what we’re doing here to protect ourselves. And this is why the Jaws Effect is so powerful, because it serves as a political advice to cue the public: you take a tragic situation and you make it worse by saying this wasn’t an act of nature, this wasn’t an accident, this was a rogue serial-killing shark that has come to our beaches, and if we don’t kill it, it’s going to continue to kill other bathers. And so we need to preemptively kill any shark that swims by the beach, because that one might be rogue.”

Neff also points to the use of the phrase “shark attack” as a cultural trigger, implying more danger than genuinely exists. A full 87 percent of shark bites are non-fatal, while nearly 40 percent of incidents involve no injury at all.

“One of the things that makes the Jaws Effect so effective is just saying the phrase ‘shark attack,'” he noted.

“The issue is that, first, a government only has to say there have been so many shark attacks in order to trigger a policy window, right? ‘There have been six shark attacks, something has to be done.’ I did this paper with Bob Hueter of the Marine Lab in Sarasota that found that 38 percent of reported shark attacks in Sydney in the last 30 years had no injury whatsoever.”

For many years, incidents involving great whites and their brethren were referred to as “shark accidents,” a term that Neff points out is far more accurate, if less hyperbolic.

“The whole thing was invented, and then it’s used by politicians even when there’s no injury at all. I’m not saying that sharks don’t attack. I’m saying the rate at which that ends up happening is so small, we’re blowing it way out of proportion and it has political implications — especially when you have a movie like Jaws that give you a certain picture of a certain kind of event.”

Only one shark has ever been definitively identified as responsible for multiple incidents with humans, Neff says. In that case, the shark was inadvertently trained to understand that divers in its environment kept fish behind their backs.

This observation would likely ring true to Dr. Greg Skomal, a senior shark researcher for the state of Massachusetts, who spoke with National Geographic amid a controversy about baiting white sharks this summer. The real danger in such a practice, Skomal said, comes from the possibility that great whites and other sharks would begin to associate human divers with food, setting the stage for future misunderstandings between the species.

Despite the implementation of the imminent threat policy, Neff and his fellow scientists claim that it doesn’t lessen the risk of a great white incident. Instead, they point to effective policies utilized in South Africa that employ shark spotters to help clear the beaches when a white shark is in the area. While he notes that you can always use tropes like the Jaws theme to overwhelm science in the public mind, Neff points out that our current understanding of great white behavior doesn’t allow for the idea of a rogue shark beyond the silver screen.

[Image: Ian Waldie/AFP/Getty Images via Global Post]