Shark attack survivor Port Macquarie engineer and surfer Dale Carr

Good Weekend - Bite Club. Bite Club, a group set up by shark attack survivor Dave Pearson who was attacked by a Bull Shark in 2011. The group was created to offer support for survivors and first responders. A men's shed for Shark attack victims. Photographed at Crowdy Head on the mid north coast of NSW. Dale Carr shows the wounds of his attack. Saturday 16th January 2016. Photograph by James Brickwood.

Good Weekend - Bite Club. Bite Club, a group set up by shark attack survivor Dave Pearson who was attacked by a Bull Shark in 2011. The group was created to offer support for survivors and first responders. A men's shed for Shark attack victims. Photographed at Crowdy Head on the mid north coast of NSW. Dale Carr shows the wounds of his attack. Saturday 16th January 2016. Photograph by James Brickwood.

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Port Macquarie engineer and surfer Dale Carr has a joke about how he got bitten on the "fart gun".

But there was nothing very funny about his experience one August afternoon in 2015, when he was attacked by a 2.7 metre shark, about 150 metres from the shore at Lighthouse Beach. The lacerations to his buttocks meant he lost two-and-a-half litres of blood and needed three rounds of surgery before he was able to go home to his wife and kids.

Since the attack, Carr has been keen to share his experience with other survivors through a members-only online forum called Bite Club. But he quickly decided not to express a public opinion on how to deal with sharks. When Carr awoke in hospital, he was bombarded with insensitive Facebook messages from trolls telling him he deserved the bite because he had gone into the water, while others called for all sharks to be killed.

In his view, sharks should be added to politics, religion and sex as conversation topics best avoided. "I have never seen anything like it. It is so polarising."

Sydney University public policy lecturer Christopher Neff, who has researched shark bites for the last 10 years, says sharks are politicised in Australia "in a way I haven't seen anywhere else in the world".

There is certainly a long history of community anxiety and passion about sharks, thanks in part to Jaws' efforts to promote them as scary monsters. There have also been reports of fatal attacks in Australia since the earliest days of European settlement.

But a recent spate of high-profile attacks and deaths has put sharks at the forefront of public debate.

Northern NSW has been severely shaken by a number of attacks since 2014, including two fatalities. In March this year, 17-year-old Laeticia Brouwer was killed by a shark while surfing with her family in Esperance. Last Sunday, a man was knocked off his bodyboard by a shark in Bunbury. Meanwhile, there are anecdotal reports of more sharks in the water: in Melbourne, there were three reports of shark sightings at city beaches over three days in February.

Politicians are feeling the heat. Sharks are on the agenda for the the Liberal Party's federal council meeting next weekend, with WA Liberals pushing to have white sharks removed from the vulnerable species list. Shortly before he stepped down last year, former NSW premier Mike Baird announced a trial of shark nets in his state in a significant policy backdown, while former prime minister and dedicated surfer Tony Abbott has been among those calling for lethal methods to deal with sharks.

In Canberra, the Senate's environment committee is holding an inquiry into shark mitigation and deterrent measures, due to report later this year.

Overall, the numbers of fatal shark attacks remain steady and relatively small. According to the Australia Shark Attack File, kept by Taronga Zoo, there were 26 unprovoked and provoked shark attacks in 2016. Of these two were fatal, 16 involved injuries and eight did not involve injuries. This is slightly up from 22 attacks in 2012, which included two fatalities and 14 injuries.

There is no hard evidence that the shark population is increasing. The CSIRO told the Senate inquiry there is no reliable data about the numbers of tiger, bull or white sharks, and therefore it is impossible to say whether numbers are growing or not. The Australian Institute of Marine Science cautions that because may shark species that interact with humans are "apex predators" (at the top of the food chain), they are few in number and spread out.

"It is extremely difficult to predict where attacks will occur, when they are likely to occur or even define why they occur," it says in its submission to the Senate inquiry. It says smart tagging technology and satellite and drone developments over the last decade are starting to build more information, but it is still "early days".

Jessica Meeuwig, director of the Centre for Marine Futures at the University of Western Australia, says the increase in shark bites is more probably due to an increase in people in the water, not an increase in sharks. Professor Meeuwig is also adamant that killing sharks, whether through culls, nets or baited drum lines, is a "really dumb idea".

"We have no hard evidence that lethal methods decrease the frequency of shark bites," she says, cautioning they can also kill other species. Along with several species of shark, the NSW government's recent trial of nets has caught turtles, tuna, dolphins and rays, among other marine life.

Chair of the shark inquiry, Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson, agrees shark nets indiscriminately kill marine life and wants to see more government attention given to technology-based deterrence measures. Shark Shield, which make personal devices that emit electrical waveforms, is working on something that could cover a whole beach.

As a mad keen surfer, Whish-Wilson understands people's fear of sharks but stresses there are no fail-safe solutions. "Giving people a false sense of security is one of the worst things we can do," he says.

However, opinions differ on the committee. Another Senate inquiry member, WA Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, is unconvinced nets and drum lines do not work, noting there has only been one fatal attack in Queensland in over 50 years at beaches where these measures are in place. She is also concerned about anecdotal reports from local WA commercial fishers that sharks are increasing in number and are more aggressive in their behaviour.

Senator Reynolds says all measures need to be on the table as the Senate inquiry makes its recommendations. "It's very simple, it's human lives over the lives of fish."

One thing lost in all the talk about shark attacks is that far more people drown at our beaches each year than get bitten by a shark. Since 2004-05, the lowest number of drowning deaths per year has been 69, while the highest number of shark fatalities has been four. In 2015-16, coastal drownings were up 24 per cent on the year before to 130 - in part due to a warmer summer and more people swimming - but this has not seen politicians or the public up in arms.

"The shark is revered and feared at the same time by the general community. It invokes that passion and ignites those fears," says Surf Life Saving Australia's national coastal risk manager Shane Daw. "If you're going swimming, no one sees that as a general risk. Swimming's swimming."

While not downplaying the tragedy of shark attacks, Surf Life Saving Australia says more focus is needed on broader safety in the ocean.

And as emotions and politics swirls over sharks and policymakers look for answers, victims, their families and communities are left with the ongoing trauma of a shark attack.

Dale Carr got back in the ocean eight weeks after his attack. But he finds himself having shorter surfs now.

"Every time you watch the TV and you see another shark attack victim, you know what they've been through," he says. "You relive the experience again in your mind, dredging up [the] trauma."

The Sydney Morning Herald

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