Four people have been killed by sharks in the South-West of WA this summer. Most recently Peter Kurmann was killed by a white pointer while diving off shore from Busselton. Another diver was killed off Rottnest and a surfer was killed near Busselton and an ocean swimmer was taken at Cottesloe. In the 213 years since records began in Australia in 1791, there have been 215 recorded fatal shark attacks. One per year for the nation as a whole, so four separate deaths in one small region in a single summer is a lot.
It is commonly believed in WA that shark numbers have increased substantially in recent years, and that the increase in white pointer numbers is related to the increase in whale numbers. Whales migrate north along the WA coastline to breed in warmer waters and sharks migrate north at the same time. Sharks certainly feed on dead whale carcasses. But whether increased whale numbers have increased shark numbers, I don’t know. It seems plausible.
It is impressive how sanguine people are in WA about shark attacks. I recall going to beach south of Perth in 2009, the day after a swimmer had been killed just a few kilometers away. You would have thought that nothing had happened — people were swimming and snorkling around the little islands off-shore from the beach without any concern. WA sometimes seems like the Australia-of-Australia, everything that is good or bad about Australia seems to have its maximum expression in WA. The good things are better — it is sunnier, more isolated, has better beaches and more unique flora and fauna. The bad things — such as the mis-treatment of indigenous Australians and the environment — are worse. Everything is more extreme, so more sharks attacks somehow seems like the natural state of affairs in WA.
But four attacks is a lot. There is not widespread public support for a shark cull, but sympathy for sharks falls considerably with each attack. I personally have the following view. Sharks off-shore are fine — there are monsters in the deep and you enter their domain at your own peril. But if sharks seriously threaten heavily populated beaches, rivers or harbours, then we should catch (and eat) them. If you go into the jungle then beware of tigers. But if a tiger comes near the village then it will be attacked. That seems perfectly natural to me.
You sometimes hear people say that we should not kill any sharks even after an attack because we cannot be sure which shark is ‘guilty’ of the attack. But justice is irrelevant here. It is protection that we need, so any shark that seriously threatens populated areas should be dealt with. The WA Premier has again ruled out a cull of sharks. But, I suspect that if sharks are sighted near Busselton anytime soon then it is not going to matter much what the Government thinks.