It’s easy too see why the great white shark is so feared with their jet black eye but they are not the mindless killer they are made out to be
It’s easy too see why the great white shark is so feared with their jet black eye but they are not the mindless killer they are made out to be

The shark net secret you don’t know about

IT'S that feeling as your feet drift up from the sand and your body rises, weightless, as you're lifted by a wave.

You're floating at the edge of a vast body of water … and no longer the master of your domain.

A shadow darts below your legs. That was just seaweed, right?

Nervously, you look around, starting to turn back to shore.

It's okay, you tell yourself, we have shark nets.

Thank goodness for shark nets.... right?
Thank goodness for shark nets.... right?

Then you remember that said shark nets are only 6m deep. You can literally swim under them. As can Jaws.

And if that's already freaking you out, you may not want to read on.

A Bond University associate professor of environmental management and head of higher degree research, Daryl McPhee, who is also a national shark expert, says there is no conclusive evidence that these shark control measures actually mitigate the ever-increasing number of unprovoked shark attacks occurring in Australia.

Dr McPhee says there’s no evidence the nets actually mitigate shark attacks. Picture: Jerad Williams
Dr McPhee says there’s no evidence the nets actually mitigate shark attacks. Picture: Jerad Williams

But don't worry, swimming with sharks is still a hell of a lot safer than sunbathing on the sand.

"Most people understand the risk of being bitten by a shark is still very low, even with increased numbers and attacks," he says.

"But sharks are still one of our greatest fears. When you unpack this concept of fear, you realise that we still fear the same things as our ancestors - snakes, sharks, heights - and we fear that which we can't control and that which is immediate.

"Sharks tick all those boxes. It doesn't matter that smoking or even driving is far more dangerous, we don't fear those because we still maintain an element of control or it lacks immediacy in its danger.

Horrified but fascinated by sharks. Yep, sounds right. Picture: Al McGlashan
Horrified but fascinated by sharks. Yep, sounds right. Picture: Al McGlashan

"We're horrified and yet fascinated by sharks. They're constantly in our consciousness through movies and media."

In fact, Dr McPhee says the ocean's apex predator has become so popular that "sharks are the new dolphins''.

Which is great, until they behave as nature intended and bite into a particularly human piece of prey.

"When there are a series of shark bites, the government is put in a very difficult circumstance of having to do something, and the option of what that 'something' is, is very limited," says Dr McPhee.

Don’t want to get bitten by a shark? Minimise your risk by not swimming in the ocean. Picture: Al McGlashan
Don’t want to get bitten by a shark? Minimise your risk by not swimming in the ocean. Picture: Al McGlashan

"The biggest quandary is what do people want with sharks? The vast majority want sharks protected as a species. But they also want to swim where they want, when they want. They want 100 per cent protection from shark attacks. And they don't want to spend any money on it.

"Governments then are really stuck between a rock and a hard place.

"My personal position is that we really need to take responsibility for our own actions. We can't expect governments to create an ocean environment where there is zero risk. The risk is low of an attack, but if you want there to be zero risk then stay out of the water.

Why do we expect to have zero risk when we swim in the ocean? It’s not feasible, says Dr McPhee. Picture: Jerad Williams
Why do we expect to have zero risk when we swim in the ocean? It’s not feasible, says Dr McPhee. Picture: Jerad Williams

"We don't expect the government to create a zero-risk environment for the sports of mountain biking or rock climbing. Why should the ocean be any different? It is not our right to be safe in the water.

"Even if we had an endless pot of money to spend on beach safety, we would spend zero on shark mitigation and all of it on sun and water safety. However, that is simply not a viable option for governments to do."

The issue of personal risk will gain ever more pertinence with shark populations swelling and their behaviour becoming more aggressive, particularly in tropical areas.

Snorkeling with a whale shark (Rhincodon typus) at Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth, Western Australia. Picture: Istock
Snorkeling with a whale shark (Rhincodon typus) at Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth, Western Australia. Picture: Istock

Dr McPhee says while popular sentiment is now to protect sharks from culling, this intervention has led to record numbers.

"In the Great Barrier Reef, more than 30 per cent of the area has no fishing at all while there is now great control of any illegal shark harvest. The commercial harvest in the remaining areas has been reduced and recreational catches are also controlled,'' he says.

"The numbers there are growing and have been for some time and their aggression has increased. Any recreational fisherman up there will tell you there are more and more aggressive sharks. They're used to hanging around the boats, they aren't scared any more.

"Meanwhile, over the last 30 years globally the number of unprovoked shark attacks has consistently increased, with spikes in specific hot spots.

Daryl McPhee is a shark expert and an associate professor of environmental science and a leading expert on sharks in Australia. Picture: Jerad Williams
Daryl McPhee is a shark expert and an associate professor of environmental science and a leading expert on sharks in Australia. Picture: Jerad Williams

"Part of this is that there are more people in the water but that's not all of it. There is a per capita increase in the number of shark bites in Australia.

"My research has shown that there is also an increase in food resources for white sharks. Protection of seals and humpback whales means there is now a greater overlap of shark food and people in the same waters.

"It is time to bite the bullet and recognise that our intervention is leading to more sharks and more attacks."

Dr McPhee says the number of sharks is such that available evidence demonstrates we could sustainably catch 1000 tonnes per year off the east coast of Queensland alone and the population would still be sustainable.

So why then cull six sharks in the wake of the two Whitsunday Island attacks if it makes no impact?

"Part of it is that it makes us feel better, it's back to that element of control," he says.

"It does also help to demonstrate how many sharks are in that area. But does it make any difference to future attacks? Probably not.

"What would make a difference is improving a warning or alert system once there has been one attack. Research shows that where there has been one attack, there is often more in the following days or weeks.

"We need to get the word out about an attack quickly and effectively, particularly in remote holiday spots like the Whitsundays. That would really make a difference. If no one is in the water, no one will get hurt."

Dr McPhee says his interest in the marine environment grew from a childhood love of fishing.

It was something that fed not just his soul, but his family's stomach.

Growing up with his mother in Sydney, he used to fish in the harbour to provide them with a free dinner.

"She was a single parent with no job, we really didn't have a lot. Fishing was something that I loved, I came to on it my own - I guess out of necessity. I was atypical in that there was no father figure guiding me to it.

"But I enjoyed it. We moved to Indooroopilly in the late 80s and were taken in by the Legion of Mary in Indooroopilly. I found Moreton Bay and kept on fishing.

"My own children love it as well. They even have their own YouTube fishing channel. It's a sport that encourages reflection and meditation. It gave me food and gave me focus so I always knew I wanted to stay a part of that marine environment."

Dr McPhee says while he was always interested in sharks, he initially concentrated on surf zone fish, believing the field studying the popular predators was already too crowded.

However, when a spate of shark attacks rocked Western Australia, he was surprised to be contacted by that state's fisheries department.

"I had always avoided dolphins, dugongs and sharks, it's what everyone wants to do. "Unfortunately, there just aren't too many jobs around for swimming with the dolphins," he says.

"When the WA fisheries department called me after their shark attacks, I said to them, 'you do realise I'm not a shark person?' But they knew who I was, they knew I had an understanding of the social and economic issues, as well as the ecological knowledge of marine environments and that's what they wanted.

"It came back to what I first understood about fish in the surf zone. You cannot manage fish. You can't control what they do. But you can try to understand them and then to teach that to people, who can manage their own behaviours.

"That's what we need to do with sharks. There is nothing cheap, available and immediate that we can do to protect ourselves in the water, other than stay out of it.

"But we can recognise and communicate the very minor risk and make our own choice. The WA government did listen to me and at my recommendation decided not to use shark nets.

"Living on the Gold Coast, I'd be far more worried about a cyclone or a storm surge than sharks. That's the clear and present danger, not swimming in the ocean.

"Although having said that, I would probably stay out of the canals."

So there you go … don't go in the water. Or do. It's your risk to calculate.

And if you see that eerie shadow glide beneath your body, just remember that there's every chance that it's nothing to worry about.