In South Australia’s Port Lincoln, shark cage diving is a popular tourist attraction, but some residents have concerns that berley used to attract sharks increases the likelihood of attacks.
Jonas Woolford is a second generation abalone diver from the west coast of the Eyre Peninsula. Abalone diving carries one of the highest risks of attack among all water activities.
“A number of my mates have been fatally taken by sharks and there have been a few close calls as well. Some have lost limbs and have to live with that for the rest of their lives,” said Woolford.
“Of course we know the risks going into the water. We know that’s the territory of great whites and fully accept that. What we don’t accept is if there are any activities taking place such as the berleying and teasing great white sharks that could increase our chances of being attacked,” he said.
Port Lincoln has traditionally been a fishing and farming town, but the role of tourism in the local economy is increasing. The waters around it are famous as a breeding ground for great white sharks, in part due to the 40,000 seals that congregate nearby.
The great white was listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in 1999, and thus is protected from commercial or recreational fishing. Observers say that the number of sharks in the area has significantly increased since the protections were introduced.
“We all know that it’s brought tourism dollars in to the town,” Woolford said. “But it’s only a few businesses that are benefitting. There are tens of hundreds of other businesses that rely on people coming to the coast to go in or on the water. If people become too scared to go anywhere near the water, they’re all going to suffer.”
'We see more great whites these days'
Andrew Wright is the general manager of Calypso Star Charters, one of the three licensed operators in the area, and agrees that the population of sharks is on the rise.
“Without a doubt, we see more great whites these days than we did back ten or even twelve years ago,” he said.
Calypso Star Charters uses tuna offal to attract the sharks to his tourist cages. Wright strongly disagrees with those who connect the number of sharks with the use of berley.
“To my knowledge, there’s no scientific provable link between shark cage diving and shark attacks,” he said.
“A lot of people hold a negative perception of the use of berley. The industry’s come a long way in the last ten or twelve years. It’s really tightened up on the use of bait and berley in shark cage diving to a point where it is minimal.”
Shark cage industry 'tightly regulated'
Chris Thomas, South Australia’s manager at the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources [DEWNR] claims that the regulation is sufficient.
“The shark cage industry is very tightly regulated. We review all of the arrangements and conditions to make sure its world’s best practice,” he said.
“Shark cage diving has only really been active for five or six years. The numbers of shark attacks hasn’t significantly changed over that time,” he said.
In 2011 a CSIRO report in to berleying by shark cage operators found that the practice did change shark behaviour, but stressed that the findings related to the Neptune Islands only.
“There’s been a lot of misinterpretation of the shark research. People tend to selectively use the information to misrepresent the views of scientists,” said Thomas.
“The CSIRO study drew the conclusion that the sharks going to the Neptunes were staying there longer, but there was nothing to say that was of any real concern. And it’s impossible to pin that down to shark cage diving,” said Wright.
Sharks 'more confident and more aggressive'
Andrew McLeod, a surfer from Elliston, doesn’t believe that berleying has had no effect on the behaviour of sharks in the area.
“The risk of being attacked has been increased by them conditioning the sharks to associate food with humans and aggressive behaviour,” he claimed. “Being in the water now is risky, because the sharks are more confident and more aggressive around humans than they ever were before.”
McLeod has been surfing for twenty years, and was attacked by a shark for the first time on May 14, 2014, while surfing with two friends on the Elliston Bar, about 2km offshore.
“It was like being in a car crash,” he said. “I got launched out of the water and landed about three metres away from my board. The size and thickness of the board I was riding was all that saved me. The top jaw of the shark actually went around one side of the rail, where my thigh would have been.”
McLeod rates his chances of surviving the attack as “one in a million” but he was unharmed. He and his friends bunched together to paddle back to shore, and was back in the water surfing the next day.
“It hasn’t stopped me from surfing,” he said. “But I do get a bit scared considering what’s going on. Everyone here, especially in the surfing community, knows someone that has seen a shark attack or been at a shark attack. It’s quite common.”
“A major factor is the berleying by the shark cage operators in Port Lincoln,” he said.
McLeod believes the defense that the report only related specifically to the Neptunes is “ridiculous. That’s like saying that if I teach my dog a trick in the back yard, she’ll forget it by the time she gets to the front yard.”
“It’s well known that sharks travel long distances. Obviously what takes place on The Neptunes Islands effect everyone who wants to use the water where great white sharks frequent.”
“How many more attacks will it take before something happens?”
Woolford agrees that berleying should not be considered safe. “The case is so far that a link between shark attacks and the shark cage tourism operations has not been proved. However, I don’t believe it’s been disproved either.”
“How many more attacks will it take before something happens?” he questioned. “Human life is far more precious.”
One operator has taken a novel approach to attracting sharks, using music rather than berley - Matt Waller from Adventure Bay Tours.
“Rather than using blood and berley, which comes with political concerns, we’re using what we call acoustic attraction; specific frequencies in a range that appeals to sharks.”
“There’s a large number of consumers that are conscious about sustainable tourism. It’s a big growing industry,” he said.
The underwater speaker is lowered under the surface so the sharks can pick up on the frequency vibrations.
“When they’re really interested and engaged they will actually come up and rub their face on it and feel the vibrations,” said Waller. “You can see a couple of teeth marks.”
He claims that, true to their heritage, the local sharks are partial to Aussie music. “They like AC/DC. There are a couple of three metre males that are really into the Hilltop Hoods at the moment.”
Woodford and McLeod both support this kind of innovation, and see it as the future of the cage diving industry.
“We in the abalone industry would like to see changes like what Matt Weller has undertaken. I’d like to see berleying and baiting be phased out and stopped altogether, not only here in Port Lincoln, but in other locations like New Zealand and South Africa,” said Woodford.
Wright believes that controversy about the causes of attacks will likely continue regardless of whether berley is abandoned.
“To be honest, I don’t think the debate will ever be put to bed,” he said. Shark cage diving could stop worldwide tomorrow and it won’t stop shark attacks. There’s always going to be human and shark interactions for as long as sharks and humans are both on the planet.”