We have heard many stories around shark incidents over the past few months with a current focus on the stories from the north coast of NSW. Once you go beyond the shock of the Mick Fanning video and the stories of surfers attacked whilst out on their morning paddle, we're now receiving a bombardment of images of “Monster” sharks and headlines of mindless killers.
Its easy to call newspapers, like Sydney's Daily Telegraph, just a collection of poorly written click bait. But that is too kind and it goes much deeper than that. It goes to the heart of humans loosing contact with the fact that we are part of an ecosystem, and no matter how much we try to control and manipulate our environment we cannot remove ourselves as a protein source for apex predators.
Fear of such monsters ready to ambush you
We're hearing quotes today from prominent locals claiming that shark numbers on the northern NSW beaches are an "unprecedented crisis”. So are we are to believe that there has never been a similar situation of the current number of sharks moving along the NSW coastline? Ever? Not in the tens of thousands, arguably hundreds of thousands of years that humans have lived on the NSW north coast. The stories of Indigenous Australians and rock carvings tell a very different story.
Indigenous Australians have thrived in Australia and lived in balance with the environment, as part of the ecosystem both on land and in the oceans, rivers and lakes. This included a deep, respectful relationship with sharks, not only as an apex predator but as a critical connection for people to survive, thrive and be in balance.
With Western Australia actively culling sharks it is heart breaking to hear similar calls in NSW. Now I am no sideline commentator. I love the ocean. I was a professional triathlete who has swum in the oceans around the world. I love to get out for a paddle and every time I have seen a shadow in the water I’ve jumped. Every time I’ve been swimming and seen a shark my heart has skipped a few beats. The feeling of vulnerability is hard to describe. It's the same emotion highlighted by everyone who has survived an encounter with a shark.
Many local spokespeople don’t call for a cull as a first port of call, they want to know the reasons behind the perceived blowout in shark numbers and culling is then a quick and (seemingly) logical solution. Knowledge is a noble pursuit. But why aren't more people accessing Indigenous Australians, with tens of thousands of years of knowledge and experience to draw from?
Many of the decisions around shark management is based on the records collected in the Australian Shark Attack File (ASAF) established in 1984, where the first recorded attack was in 1791 on Indigenous Women on the NSW north coast. Without tapping into the knowledge of Indigenous Australians we are disregarding hundreds of thousands of years of records of shark behaviour for a snapshot of the past 224 years. This is madness. The official files show since 1791 there have been 1001 cases, of which 233 were fatal and 175 were uninjured. Compare that to drownings in Australia, there were 266 drowning deaths in Australian waterways between 1 July 2013 and 30 June 2014 according to Royal Lifesaving Reports, nearly more than sharks claimed in 224 years! So why such a heavy media and policy focus one what is statistically such a small impact? Maybe it is just the disbelief that we are still part of an eco system and more vulnerable than we wish to admit to other creatures we share this planet with.
Custodians of Wangal and Gadigal lands of Sydney harbour have understood, spoken of, and carved rocks around the harbour warning of a “bull shark season” during January and February each year. This was recently supported in research in the documentary “Shark Harbour ”. Why is Indigenous knowledge going unheard and undervalued?
Engravings found around Sydney
Solutions need to take into account not only the shark's impact on human life, and the "economic" impact on a region, but also the impact on the the whole ecosystem. What happens when we take an apex predator out of the ecosystem? Humans are guilty of making decisions that do not take into account the full impact of outcomes. Indigenous Australians provide a greater data point in which we can base policies and decision making, rather than engaging in knee-jerk, emotional, decision making.
A fantastic article on a legend of the ocean and surfer Otis Carey goes to explain some of the connection Indigenous Australians have with land, ocean, rivers. In particular his connection and experience with sharks. There are powerful opportunities for understanding the local factors that feed into the current "shark" situation on the north coast, like commercial trawlers, the seasons, and location histories tied to whaling stations and abattoirs (like north coast of NSW). Making a snap decision to introduce shark culling takes none of these factors into consideration.
Around the world the shark attack files demonstrate there is a strong connection to local beaches and waterways connected to whaling stations, fisheries and abattoirs. Locations like Australia, Brazil, and America are just a few. Scientists are now trying to understand how sharks younger than the closing of an abattoir know the route to travel to find these locations. We need to have a greater understanding of the complex habitation of sharks, that searches history, and shares the lessons of the past to guide our future.
"Big Blue" 20ft long great white
The video footage of "Big Blue" showing a majestic creature larger than a bus sliding through the ocean is a powerful image. Big Blue is what we call an Elder, a knowledge holder. Think for a moment of the impact of culling adults from any species and the knock on effect that has on the transfer of knowledge, customs, and the survival.
What we are missing as a species is the insight and connection to our environment. I'll put it this way, we all know that sharks follow migration of whales and fish and we know the history of whaling in this country and the disposal of excess back into the oceans, yes? So why are we surprised that during the migration season at locations associated with whaling there are sharks?
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