Why Sharks Attack and Why Killing Them Isn’t the Answer

shark attack little bay

On Wednesday afternoon, Sydney suffered its first shark fatality in almost 60 years. A man, thought to be a frequent swimmer at the south-eastern beach of Little Bay, was tragically bitten by a shark suspected to be a great white.

Eyewitnesses and video evidence of the attack suggest the animal was at least 3 metres long, meaning it was likely a younger shark on the cusp of adulthood. Great whites of this age are thought to be more likely to attack humans as they transition from eating fish to larger animals.

The man has since been identified as 35-year-old Simon Nellist, a diving instructor from Wolli Creek in Sydney’s south, who visited the beach daily. Eyewitnesses at the beach at the time have said that the water was very choppy, murky, and with schools of fish around that had attracted fishermen and, apparently, sharks.

“I thought, ‘Uh oh, it looks sharky and messy’,” said one woman who was at the beach that afternoon, saying that she had decided to keep close to shore during her afternoon swim.

Shark attacks, while rare, are one of those scary facts of life that all Australian’s simply learn to accept. From the ludicrously deadly snakes and spiders that call this country home, to the saltwater crocs that patrol the northern regions, and even the massive rainforest chooks that can disembowel a person with a single kick, Australia is home to more than its fair share of things that can and will kill you. That’s not to mention the annual droughts, floods, and fires that bear down on us each year. It’s no wonder foreigners look at us a little bit sideways for choosing to live in such a hostile environment.

Still, we all try to do our best to steer clear of these dangers while not letting their existence impact our own fun and enjoyment of the beautiful natural surrounds. By all accounts, the man who unfortunately lost his life yesterday was a keen swimmer and spent most days out in the surf at Little Bay. It’s a freak accident by any measure.

On Thursday, all beaches in Sydney from Bondi to Cronulla were closed while surf lifesavers and police patrolled the area with helicopters and drones. NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet called the attack a “horrific tragedy”, which serves as a reminder “to us all, [of] the fragility of life”.

Perrotett also noted that authorities are working hard “in tracking the shark down,” which, thus far, has not been found.

This final comment has raised questions as to how and why we respond to tragedies like this. As stated above, a shark encounter is a risk that all of us take when we enter the water, it is their territory after all, and yet when something awful like this happens, the response is predictable — and not always helpful.

Why Do Sharks Bite

In truth, no one is really sure why sharks bite humans, although we do have some theories.

First of all, the vast majority of the 500-odd shark species we’ve identified do not bite humans. The three major that are involved in almost all shark attacks on humans in Australia are great whites, bull sharks, and tiger sharks, although grey nurse sharks and a few other smaller species have been known on occasion to bite humans.

As to why, the leading theory is simply mistaken identity. Think about it. Humans are not natural water creatures. We’re slow and uncoordinated in the water, at least when you compare us with the animals that live there. If sharks were really hunting humans, they would have a feast every single day as hundreds of thousands of us take to the beaches. The fact that shark attacks are so rare indicates that they’re just not that into us.

Some suggest that sharks simply have quite poor eyesight and that, from below, humans in wetsuits look a lot like fur seals, their favourite food. However, if this were true, we would see them hunting us like they do seals.

Sharks only ever attack from below, preferring to surprise their prey with a quick bite, but few humans are attacked in this way. Instead, sharks often come in close, taking a nibble of this strange animal they’ve found. Unfortunately for us, a nibble from a great white is potentially life-threatening. Experts have also shown that most sharks that do take a bite of a human often vomit out that mouthful they’ve swallowed, indicating that we’re really not on their menu.

In a typical year, the world sees around 80 shark attacks, with just six of these resulting in fatalities. However, those numbers do appear to be increasing, with eight people in Australia alone having been killed by sharks in 2020. In 2021, that number increased to 12.

Scientists suggest this could be because of a number of factors, including warming oceans, shrinking numbers of certain kinds of prey, changing migration patterns of whales and dolphins, and increasing numbers of fur seals in areas where humans spend time in the water.

Killing Sharks

Unfortunately, films like Jaws, Open Water, and the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week have earned these animals a reputation as both mindless killers and expert hunters, chomping on anything and everything in their path. What’s more, the mythology around sharks suggests that once they have a taste for human flesh, they’ll stop at nothing to get a second bite.

While this all couldn’t be further from the truth, it’s a perception that has inspired countless retaliatory killings of sharks. Most times there is an attack, teams of fishermen and hunters go out to find and destroy the nuisance shark along with any others they might pick up along the way.

In 2014, Western Australia, one of the world’s hotspots for shark attacks, engaged in a highly controversial shark cull where they went out to target “rogue sharks” using baited drum lines. Aiming for great whites, the programme killed 172 sharks, none of them great whites, with 50 of them being tiger sharks greater than 3 metres. While WA has since abandoned the policy as routine procedure, it continues to experiment with the practice, frequently after shark attacks.

Not only is this approach based on a false hypothesis, but it’s also further contributing to the destruction of the ocean. Annually, humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks each year, with some experts suggesting that total populations may be down to just 30% of what they were pre-1970.

The killing of apex predators at the top of the food chain leaves second-order species, like fur seals and larger fish to flourish. Those, in turn, will overpopulate, with nothing to keep them in check, decimating their own food supplies and, in worst cases, starving themselves. This all has major knock-on effects right down through the ecosystem which, as we’re coming to realise more and more, is a fragile and hyper-connected balancing act that requires all parts to remain healthy in order to function.

Sydney has one of the world’s most advanced shark management systems in the world, with the NSW government announcing an additional $22 million in funding for the increased use of drones, shark listening stations, tagging, nets, SMART (Shark Management Alert in Real Time) drumlines and community education in September of last year.

Still, experts have called for greater community awareness and understanding of sharks and their behaviours, saying that while these instances are rare and unfortunate, it’s likely that the shark in question will never be seen again.

Great whites have been classed as a vulnerable species in Australia since 1999 due to sport fishing and entanglement in nets and are thought to be at risk of extinction. Although it’s hard to say with any degree of accuracy, some estimates suggest that there are only 3,500 great whites left in the world, however other surveys have found there to be up to 5,500 around the coast of Australia along.

By killing sharks, we’re not making the oceans safer, we’re actually destroying them. For those who enjoy the oceans, and accept the risk of shark attacks as part and parcel of that experience, this should be the last thing we want to do.

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