Australian Great White Shark Attack Spurs Intense Debate Over Public Safety

Dustin Wicksell

Authorities in New South Wales are implementing new drum lines to deter the region’s great white shark population following a widely reported attack last week, but the incident has already reignited a contentious and at times caustic public debate about the role of the state government in managing the predatory species.

The incident that spurred the most recent conversation took place last Sunday, as the BBC notes, when a 17-year-old surfer was struck on the leg by a great white, which missed his arteries but left behind several deep gashes. Lifeguards were able to spot a white shark and chase it out of the area, though it was unclear whether it was the same shark responsible for the attack.

Almost immediately in the wake of the attack, a longstanding public debate regarding the best management practices for the species was reignited, with strong opinions surfacing on both sides. Former prime minister and part-time surfer Tony Abbott advocated not only for the installation of nets to deter the sharks, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, but also for a targeted cull, a practice that is deeply controversial in the state.

“If it’s a choice between people and animals, I’m on the side of the people every time.”

Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg, who would have the final say over any such cull, echoed Abbott’s comments by stating that he was open to considering such a measure, as the Australian points out, further asserting that the safety of beachgoers must take priority over any concern for the shark population.

“I absolutely put human safety first and foremost in my mind. State governments… can take whatever mitigation measures they like within reason, other than the culling, without needing the federal approval. Now if they were to put a proposal to the federal government I would consider it but we have to put human safety first.”

Frydenberg and Abbott represent only one side of the debate, however, and there are more than a few voices in New South Wales who feel that such measures are unnecessary. Federal Nationals MP Luke Hartsuyker, a surfer himself, noted that his community is largely opposed to aggressive measures meant to curtail the shark population.

“Overwhelmingly, the surfers I speak to at my local beaches are not in favor of shark culls or other measures that will injure or kill sharks.”

Ironically, Cooper Allen, the 17-year-old who was attacked last week, was himself opposed to the installation of nets or drum lines. Dan Webber, a local surfer who was in the water at the time of Allen’s attack, noted that the tone of the conversation has shifted in town, making for some uneasy moments among residents.

“It’s nerve-racking starting a conversation in town these days. You just don’t know if the person you are speaking to is going to turn on you.”

Ballina mayor David Wright has suggested that if nets were installed offshore, they would “last a night,” seemingly referencing the fact that smart drum lines, which were deployed on a trial basis back in December, were tampered with. These barriers are a mixture of old and new technology, and while they do ensnare sharks, they alert scientists to the animal’s presence, allowing them to tag and relocate it before the experience proves fatal.

While 15 of these drum lines are already in place, the state government announced this week that a further 85 would be installed following the attack on Allen, a move that is sure to spur even stronger debate between those who fear the local great white shark population and those who support them.

[Featured Image by Elias Levy/ Flickr | Cropped and Resized | CC BY 2.0]