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Great white shark (Flickr: Paul Mannix)

Sharks may no longer be protected after recent attack

19th July 2012

The government in Western Australia may be re-evaluating the endangered status of the great white shark, after the fifth fatal shark attack in a year in the area

An increase in shark attacks off the coast of Western Australia could lead to the great white shark losing its protected status. Usually authorities record one fatal shark attack per year, across Australian waters. This year, five have been reported in Western Australia alone.

The great white shark became a protected species in the 1990s. It has been suggested that numbers have significantly increased, with the increase in shark fatalities being used to back up this theory. However, there is no concrete evidence to support this as of yet.

Norman Moore, Western Australia's Fisheries Minister said the great white sharks: “have been protected by the Commonwealth and by the state for about 20 years because they were considered to be a threatened species. But there seems to be a view that there's an increase in the number of great whites within our waters in recent times.”

Conservationists have suggested that an increase in surfing and other water sports could be to blame, and raise the point that humans are a greater threat to sharks than sharks are to humans. They estimate around 40 million sharks are killed by humans every year.

Chairman of The Shark Trust and the Shark Conservation Society Richard Peirce commented that, while the exact number of great white sharks is unknown, "We do know they can be considered critically endangered." He described the reaction to blame the attacks on an increase in numbers and therefore to allow the killing of some sharks as "wrong and disproportionate".

He suggested that, rather than an increase in shark numbers, for which there is no real hard scientific evidence, it is much more probable that the increase in attacks is due to the increasing human population. He also referenced other factors such as wetsuits, the introduction of which "has meant that surfers can spend a lot longer in water", making more likely the "possibility of a human-shark encounter".

Jenita Enevoldsen of The Wilderness Society described the Western Australian government's response as “an extremely short-sighted approach to what could become [a] long-term problem.”

“The sharks that have protection in Western Australia need to remain protected,” she added.

She said that it was “highly improbable” that the great white shark population has risen, as the species has only been protected for little over a decade. “Further research into marine climate change could be hugely beneficial into understanding why we are seeing more sharks closer to our beaches.

“Kim Hames’ (Western Australia's Tourism Minister) call for a hunt and kill of a protected shark – to protect our tourism is ludicrous... We will be calling for the protected status of the great white to be held, and for the government to run awareness raising campaigns about the changes to our oceans and how we can stay safe in our coastal waters".

For increasing shark safety awareness and investing in shark activity research, £9 million has been allocated. Peirce said: "There's a lot humans can do to help ensure their own safety," such as not being in the water at dawn or dusk, avoiding areas where sharks are likely to be patrolling or attracted to (such as places where fish catch is discarded), sticking to well-patrolled beaches and using electronic repellants that are available.

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