Shark Parks

On Wednesday, December 7, a shark investigated a 14-year-old surfer at Maroubra Beach near Sydney. Ronald Mason sustained minor injuries to his left leg. On Sunday, December 11, 51-year-old Stephen King also injured his leg while surfing at Angourie, in northern New South Wales, when a shark mistook him for tastier fodder. King was thrust into the air on impact and returned to the beach with a less buoyant board--exactly one bite less buoyant. A 4-meter tiger shark was supposedly spotted off of Point Danger, a few miles to the north -- also on Sunday. A mystery shark reared its decidedly undolphin-like fin at D'bah on Monday afternoon, and earlier this year, the Western Australia government made international headlines when it declared great whites fair game after three fatal attacks in the space of two months.

It's fair to say that sharks are occupying more Aussie brain space than usual these days. While Western Australia is on the offensive, the other side of the country is circulating a notion that protected marine parks and sanctuaries ("no-take" zones) have become the most viable feeding grounds for sharks whose food supply is depleted elsewhere. Concurrently, many of our favorite surf spots are situated within or near marine parks. Take Byron Bay, for example. The Cape Byron Marine Park, which was established in November of 2002, covers 22,000 hectares between Brunswick Heads and Lennox Head.

"The main reason they put a marine park in here was to protect the grey nurse sharks around the Julian Islands," says George Greenough (avid fisherman, Byron area resident, and all-around legend).

The Australian Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population, and Communities lists the grey nurse shark as critically endangered on the east coast. In a 2000 study, New South Wales Fisheries found their numbers to be as few as 292. To clarify, grey nurse sharks are generally docile and not harmful to humans, though there are certainly less friendly sharks residing along Australia's coastlines -- namely bull, tiger, and great white sharks.

Marine conservation is important to surfers for a number of reasons. Not least among which is the fact that we're constantly ingesting seawater and we want it to be free from petrol and other waste. We're also generally uninterested in floating above the aquatic equivalent to Chernobyl. An argument against marine conservation is surely something new, and its basis on imminent bodily harm certainly ups its potency.

Marine parks are established to protect fish populations and, more generally, marine biodiversity. They meet a lot of resistance, mostly from fishermen. Greenough has no qualms with the fishing restrictions around the Julians, "where the sharks hang out," though he believes smaller bag limits and habitat enhancement by way of artificial reefs are other options for fostering fish populations. He isn't thrilled about fishing restrictions in nearby areas like Broken Head, where he lives.

"I've gone fishing down below my house ever since I've lived here, and now I can't," he says. "And you turn around and say, 'Well, where can we fish?'"

"There's still a huge controversy about the whole thing," he continues. "You know, they're banning fishing in some areas and not in others. I don't know. If they keep going on with it, it's going to cost this country a huge amount of money. They're putting thousands of people out of work."

Commercial fishing gigs may be harder to come by these days, but there are still some areas within the parks where commercial fishing is permitted and fish stocks are finally beginning to replenish themselves after years of undeniable plundering. It's also noteworthy that marine parks aren't just hastily plunked down in an attempt to hinder recreational fishing. Creating one is actually quite a lengthy process involving exhaustive research and a dialogue with the public.

Now, back to the main questions here: Are there more sharks in marine parks? Is it possible that we're placing our surfing selves at risk to save the fishes?

"I would say yes, obviously there are more sharks in marine parks and reserves, because the presence of sharks means that you have a healthy reef," explains Hearts for Sharks Co-founder Jana McGeachy. "Sharks are the apex predator and they keep everything else in check. There's such a delicate ecosystem and a balance to the coral reef system -- temperate or tropical -- and sharks help maintain healthy fish populations by taking out the weak and the sick."

But a greater shark population simply doesn't equate to more attacks.

"Sharks are the most misunderstood species on the planet," McGeachy says. "And they're also one of the most threatened. A lot of people think if you're in the water with a shark, it's going to eat you. That's absolutely untrue."

McGeachy is originally from inland Canada and was petrified of sharks until she watched the documentary Shark Water. "I was like, 'Oh my God, this whole time, I've been scared of sharks and I've had it all wrong,'" she says. Now, she swims with sharks on the reg.

"The truth is that sharks kill 10 people every year. We're killing 100 million [sharks]. 650,000 people die every year from drowning. You're 65,000 times more likely to drown when you go into the water than be killed by a shark. That's one of my favorite stats. You're more likely to be killed by a beach umbrella, a vending machine falling on you, pigs, tigers, elephants, coconuts ... and you're many, many times more likely to be killed by your partner than you are by a shark. In the last 10 years in Australia, 18,000 people were killed in car accidents and 13 were killed by sharks. But this year, there were three shark attacks in WA -- well, two shark attacks and one guy who disappeared and it's been attributed to sharks -- and they want to kill all the sharks. I think it's a misguided attempt by the government to be seen as doing something, but they're taking action that's definitely not right."

Western Australia is catching heaps of flak for its decision to hunt white sharks, but the state is actually pretty stringent in terms of protecting marine life. According to WA Fisheries, "over 50% of the 'West Coast Bioregion' inside 200-meter depth could be classified as a marine protected area." Also according to WA Fisheries, the current level of catch is "acceptable." In the past it has been too high. The population of finfish (tuna, salmon, etc.) in the Perth region remains at "high" risk near shore and "moderate" in deeper water, despite said measures. The total catch of finfish in the Perth area has decreased from an astonishing 1672.4 tonnes to 388.7 tonnes since 2006. Most fish stocks along the WA coast are classified, at least, as recovering now.

The proposed Capes Ngari Marine Park would include two world-renowned surf spots: Yallingup and Margaret River. Naturally, you may be wondering whether any of the recent WA attacks occurred in marine parks.

One attack happened on Rottnest Island, which is not technically part of a marine park, though it is surrounded by three in the Perth area. Cottesloe Beach, where a swimmer disappeared in October, is in the same vicinity. The third spot, Bunker Bay, is in a proposed marine park area, but fishing still seems to be pretty unrestricted. What all of these places really have in common, aside from thriving tourism and diving industries, is pristineness. Which reiterates the fact that the presence of sharks generally means good things for the ocean.

Gemma Clark from the Department of Fisheries WA says there aren't really conclusive stats on shark attacks and sightings in and around protected areas over the last 20 years. "To be honest, we get hundreds of shark sightings a year and we only put out a media alert if people are in imminent danger or it's a serious situation," she says. "Also, the technology on our coastline has changed over the past 20 years, so if we had stats, it'd look like there are more sharks when, really, the technology we have to see or detect them has just improved."

The Australian Marine Conservation Society's Marine Campaigner Tooni Mahto says it's also tricky to assess whether overfishing is encouraging sharks to congregate near protected surf spots. "Identifying ecosystem level effects of overfishing is notoriously difficult in science, as you need to have a thorough understanding of the way in which fishing affects other animals in the ocean," she writes via email. "At this point in time, there is little information on whether the fish stocks being targeted in fishing are coping with the level of fishing pressure."

The fact remains that we're merely guests in the home that sharks have been tending for 400 million years and accordingly, as McGeachy says, co-existence is our best option.

Most surfers who experience shark skirmishes are back in the water as soon as they're fit for it. Greenough, who recently wrote about a series of terrifying shark encounters for Surfing World, is probably more conscious of their presence than lots of surfers, and he is yet to be deterred. The only person who seemed keen on getting out of the water at D'bah that stormy afternoon was me. In a place like Australia, with its multitude of marine riches and vast stretches of surfable coast, we either choose to ignore the threat or accept the risk, but surfers and sharks live with each other. Otherwise, we'd lose our minds on dry land.