Shark Menace: Nets and perceptions of fear/risk

In September, the NSW government announced that its controversial shark net program—the oldest lethal shark mitigation strategy in the world—will continue for another summer. Much of the criticism of the program centres around what the nets do and don’t kill, and whether they in fact protect the community. A Department of Primary Industries report found that almost 90 per cent of the animals caught in the nets were non-target species such as turtles, rays and whales. One year, in Sydney, they also failed to catch a single great white or tiger shark—two of their three target species. But when they do catch these sharks, one of which is protected in all Australian states, their chances of survival are close to zero.

Since 1937, when the program was introduced, there has only been one human fatality at a netted beach in New South Wales. Despite this statistic, the program’s efficacy is heavily questioned. Research conducted in 2019 by the British Ecological Society concluded that the nets are ‘frequently presented as the key or sole factor responsible for reducing shark bite incidence in New South Wales. However, the evidence does not support this claim’. They write that social and cultural factors have largely been overlooked. This is in line with the opinions of other experts, who criticise the linking of shark nets with the falling human death rate seen over the past few decades as an explanation that ignores our growing understanding of sharks, improved beach patrols, faster response times and advances in medical aid.

Other states use or have used the same methods as New South Wales. Queensland’s program is now over sixty years old; in 2019, a court found it ‘does not reduce the risk of unprovoked shark interactions. The scientific evidence before [the court] is overwhelming in this regard’. Western Australia also has a history of shark culls, a tactic that was abandoned in 2014 following a massive community protest and scrutiny from the Environmental Protection Authority regarding the ‘scientific uncertainty’ of such programs. In the years following, Western Australia also scrapped the use of smart drumlines—an option currently being touted by New South Wales—following a three-year trial that found ‘scientific evidence establishing smart drumlines are not effective at catching or reducing the potential risk posed by white sharks’.

Much of the media coverage of New South Wales’s shark control program focuses, and rightly so, on contested evidence and scientific and community criticisms. But something that isn’t often discussed is the origin of the oldest shark control program—and what it tells us about policy-making.

‘It is idle for the committee to compare the small number of deaths from sharks with the toll taken by, say, motor cars … Death from shark attacks is particularly horrible, and it is impossible to overlook the psychological effect’. This quote appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1935, in an article titled ‘SHARK MENACE’. The story was about the newly released report of the Shark Menace Committee, a body created following a cluster of fatalities and designed to address Australia’s fear of sharks, which was growing in step with beach tourism. The report proposed many measures to protect the community, with shark nets being the last on the list.

As high as the price tags were for nets and swimming enclosures—something that is still true today—the article made it clear that the expenditure was seen as ‘more than justified, as the public would never be satisfied until it had complete protection from sharks’, despite many of those who suggested the implementation of such a program also admitting that the public’s fear of sharks was overblown. Later in the same article, the Deputy Mayor of Manly said the report did ‘one excellent thing in suggesting that the so-called shark menace is actually only a shark scare’.

This understanding of minimal risk but intense public fear was echoed in SHARK ATTACK, written in 1958 by Sir Victor Murphy Coppleson and said to be the first research on shark attacks ever published. In the opening pages, among the notes of thanks to members of the Shark Menace Committee, Victor writes that ‘Readers may be consoled by the fact that the risk of attack is infinitesimal. Nevertheless, statistics offer little solace’.

Back then we knew very little about sharks. In 1919, one fatality in America was attributed to a school of turtles due to the jagged bite marks. Even in the 50s, a leading Australian expert attributed most recorded bites to the grey nurse. This lack of knowledge might not be surprising, but the accurate understanding of real versus perceived risk—and its relationship to policy-making—might surprise some.

Christopher Pepin-Neff, an Australian academic lecturing on policy at the University of Sydney, has written that he studies sharks because they are ‘broadly emblematic of the way governments often respond to highly emotional events’. In fact, many researchers use shark attacks as a measure of dread events, which are defined as ‘low-likelihood, high-impact’—types of death that are greatly feared because of their combination of immediacy, uncontrollability and catastrophic and fatal outcomes. One study includes sharks for their ‘status as a quintessentially dreaded danger, yet one that poses very little actual risk to humans’.

Regardless of this reality, the level of dread can turn statistical nothings into preoccupations of doom. Other studies showed that dread events which kill next to no one can provoke more calls for government intervention than the frequently lethal events of our everyday lives. A fatal shark bite in Sydney last year triggered community calls for a cull, despite this being Sydney’s first shark-related fatality since 1963.

And here is the problem for those in government. Shark attacks have been described as largely ungovernable, so when you’re stuck between the unruly forces of the wilderness and a frightened community that demands protection, what do you do?

In Western Australia, following the cluster of deaths in 2014, the government followed the Jaws playbook. According to them, one rogue man-eater was responsible, and so a great shark hunt began. This tactic, also known as revenge killing, is condemned by experts as there is no evidence of it increasing public safety. Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, even wrote an open letter to the Australian government trying to explain that despite what they have seen on the big screen, serial killer sharks—something known as the rogue shark theory—don’t exist. But the culling continued.

This reaction is something Pepin-Neff dubbed the Jaws Effect, in which fiction is used as historical analogies to frame reality. Pepin-Neff writes that using this well-known story and blaming an individual shark ‘made the issue a governable one for state authorities’ and ‘helped two different governments, from two opposing parties, maintain control of the narrative and achieve their policy outputs’.

These polices are examples of how we seek safety from our most dreaded terrors regardless of whether these fears are realistic or whether our actions work. But what is striking about New South Wales’s program is that the understanding of the difference between risk and fear was openly acknowledged from the very beginning. It was not a misunderstanding of the natural world and its hazards, but an understanding of the public: an understanding that fear can outweigh data, and that a token act of protection would be enough. That a feeling of safety would suffice. And as the program rolls into its eighty-seventh year, it looks as though this feeling is still worth the costs both environmental and financial.

About the author

John W. Moyle

John W. Moyle is a freelance writer and journalist whose work focuses on communication and belief in the information age.

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