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Shark Attack!

Nicolas Virolle was a 36 year old English teacher from France, enjoying the last day of his holiday, snorkelling off Anse Lazio beach in the Seychelles. Initially the authorities claimed he'd been hit by a propellor, but this was no boating accident. He was attacked by a shark, thirty yards from shore, and died as the result of a single bite.

He was unlucky. Shark conservation would have told him he was more likely to meet his end being struck by lightning. Or a coconut.

And if that sorry epitaph wasn't bad enough, worse followed, when it became apparent that Nicolas Virolle died in vain.

Here's another name you probably won't know. Allow me to introduce Christopher Neff. He's an American PhD student at the University of Sydney, who's written a thesis on the politics of shark attacks; how they are perceived by the media, public and politicians, and how this in turn impacts on beach safety. And shark conservation.

His paper is the best thing I've read since 'Jaws'. Only it's real. Shark conservation makes capital from the fact that author Peter Benchley became an advocate for their cause. Yet the sub plot of his novel, the politics and the public fear, is echoed in real life every time there's a human fatality. In this respect, 'Jaws' is spot on, and Christopher Neff's thesis reinforces it.

He studied attacks that occurred in New South Wales in 1929, 1935, and 2009, to analyse how political figures responded. And refreshingly, the consequences.

In 1929 the culpability for shark attacks was laid squarely on irresponsible bathers. There'd been 13 incidents and 7 fatalities, including 2 each at Sydney's Bondi and Cogee beaches. This is worth noting; there were secondary deaths from shark attacks off the same beach. Ring any bells? It will do.

The authorities introduced a fine for unruly behaviour, such as swimming alone, or at dawn or dusk, when sharks were active. Interestingly those advocates who blamed swimmers lost their jobs come election time, or became isolated, inconsequential figures. Voters are fickle, and blame presiding politicians for natural disasters, whether they deserve it or not.

In 1935, the problem was encouraging the public to return to the beaches after a series of 4 bites and 2 fatalities. To calm the angst, and because the public were clamouring for some kind of enclosure, the authorities erected steel nets, stopped fishing from the beach, and moved a sewage outlet. Crucially, unlike 1929, the politicians did not blame the public for contributing towards the attacks.

Dr. Victor Coppleson, advisor to the Surf Lifesaving Association, led the advocacy. He believed the public were being misled that sharks don't bite humans, (which of course they do), and wrote a paper to that effect.

He was supported by barrister and President of the Surf Lifesaving Association, Adrian Curlewis, who argued shark attacks were driving people away. They were - beach attendance dropped by 25% in a year. So he opened an enclosed swimming area and pushed for state funded netting.

Together they showed shark attacks had nation-wide implications for tourism and presented a common sense solution. Politicians responded. Problem sorted.

In 2009, there was a lack of public confidence in the Government's Beach Safety Programme in the wake of shark attacks. So the Government reviewed beach meshing for the first time since 1971, which in itself indicates it had worked for nearly forty years.

The man in charge was Ian Macdonald. Not only did he have the public to placate, but also his opposite number, who sought to make political capital from the attacks. The public called for more air patrols, Macdonald provided them. He also reinforced the netting programme and published a brochure to educate the public to lower the risk.

Christopher Neff mooted there was little evidence of a lack of public confidence, because although there was an initial drop in beach attendance after the attack of 12th February, numbers swelled on the subsequent weekends of 21st/22nd February, and 7/8th March.

But this was 2009, so of course the beaches were crowded. I'd suggest they took their camera phones in expectation.

"Were you there? Did you witness the shark attack? Send us your photos." Isn't that how news gathering works these days?

A swell in beach attendance proves nothing in terms of public confidence to re-enter the water. As Amity's flamboyant Mayor Larry Vaughn noted back in '75, "Nobody's going in!"

Macdonald said the nets were working and didn't conflict with conservation, because sharks would sense them and move away. If they were caught, then obviously they were coming too close. There was no scientific evidence to support Macdonald's claim, but he won the argument because the public believed him. And a large number of sharks were caught in the nets, reinforcing the concern about sharks coming too close.

In return, conservation received a transfer in beach responsibility, so they could check the nets more often to monitor any trapped endangered species.

So what do we learn from Christopher's Neff's conclusions?

"If the public can play a new role determining its personal level of risk, then a balance between conservation and beach safety becomes more likely."

The onus is on us to change our behaviour, because the shark will not change its. Shark con's default setting is that sharks kill so few of us, and we kill so many of them. It's almost as if there should be parity between our species. There's not, and only the most warped thinking would suggest otherwise.

But we can only assess risk if we're told the truth. There were no warning signs on the beach after Nicolas Virolle was killed, so Ian Redmond had no idea what might be waiting for him when he went for a snorkel a fortnight later.

Neff concludes that there's a "need to manage public perceptions and limit government overreactions, a focus on solutions aimed at human behaviour rather than shark control."

Now we've gone not only from changing our behaviour to suit the shark, but to a position where we're not even going to try to control the shoreline.

"As a result, beach netting policies validate killing endangered sharks to ease public fears", and that, " the tactics used by politicians that resonate with the public are bad for sharks." One of Neff's recommendations? "The selection of savvy and long-term policy entrepreneurs is essential."

It would be very easy to conclude that this is all about putting fish before people. But that would be simplistic, and quite wrong. Because in a former life, Christopher Neff was a lobbyist.

This is actually about a small group of skilled professionals with an agenda, who are using sharks to influence and control the general public, and the politicians who represent them.

* * *

George Burgess is curator of the Florida based International Shark Attack File, (ISAF), and exactly the kind of "savvy long-term policy entrepreneur" Christopher Neff describes as "essential". He's not in favour of meshed beaches either. When the media wants a go-to guy for shark attack sound bites, George is unquestionably 'The Daddy'.



But given Christopher Neff's assertion that it's the advocacy we want to believe, as opposed to what the advocate actually knows, can we trust George Burgess? Shark conservation does, his line becomes their line, but they're not the ones getting bitten. Or bereaved.

George talks about a "perfect storm"; factors that make a shark attack seemingly inevitable. It's a list that encompasses the indiscriminate distribution of food matter, shiny jewellery, swimming alone, or on the edge of a group, at dawn or dusk, spear fishing, erratic splashing, or swimming with your pet dog, et cetera.

These triggers appear compiled from previous incidents, rather than scientific research, and it seems any single trigger invites an attack, which is never considered intentional under any circumstances.

There's always a human contribution towards undesirable interactions with those species of shark that can cause serious injury and death. The shark is innocent. It was just swimming with its mouth open.

Our latest contribution, in the wake of 12 recorded 'unprovoked' fatalities in 2011, is tourism; we are now travelling to more remote destinations where we are more likely to encounter sharks. True enough. Despite a global recession, some of us vacation in shark infested waters. Except Florida. Definitely not Florida.

"We had a number of fatalities in essentially out-of-the-way places, where there's not the same quantity and quality of medical attention readily available", said George Burgess.

But of the 12 fatalities, only two were tourists; Nicolas Virolle and Ian Redmond in the Seychelles. A third, Texan George Wainwright, was killed scuba diving in Australia on a work visa. The other 9 were all locals. If you include the 2 additional 'provoked' fatal attacks, 11 were locals.

And in all but one case, (a surfer in Costa Rica, who died in hospital 5 days later), the victims were beyond help; Ian Redmond, honeymooning in the Seychelles, was pulled from the water by a surgeon. Kyle James Burden was 50 yards from shore in Western Australia when he was bitten in half, and the bodies of Peter Clarkson, (Australia), and Mathieu Schiller, (Réunion), were never recovered. The sharks took them.

So although the ISAF's view of medical facilities may be somewhat parochial, Jesus Christ, let alone the cast of 'ER', will not save you if you do not provide them with a body.

And I assume, from the ISAF comments, that Florida's beaches are lined with state-of-the-art medical facilities. Take a waterproof copy of your insurance when you swim, just in case. They might need it before they treat you.

And if you have the misfortune to be attacked by a shark 50 yards from shore, consider that even Alain Bernard, the world's fastest swimmer, will take over 20 seconds to reach you, by which time the sea will be red. I guarantee it will take more than 20 seconds to get you back.

Are the Seychelles "out-of-the-way"? The international airport has been there since 1971. There were 130,000 tourists in 2000, 175,000 by 2010. Emirates, Qatar, and Etihad all fly direct. There's over 30 spa resorts. A beachside villa at the Hilton goes for € 8000 per night, if you can't afford Frégate Island at € 10000. There's golf courses, casinos, or you can scuba dive with 'Whitetip Divers'. At 'Shark Rock.'

Because although the ISAF records only 1 non-fatal shark attack in the Seychelles prior to Nicolas Virolle, his death didn't alert the authorities to at least the possibility of Ian Redmond's a fortnight later.

And the Seychelles has a Shark Research Foundation. Now. But local environmental consultant John Nevill told me, "there was already significant shark research ongoing before the tragic events of August 2011."

John specialises in shark facts, rather than "perfect storms", and unlike George Burgess is happy to answer my questions. He told me shark fishing with nets was banned, although long lines remained, that shark populations had decreased over time, but two tigers and a bull shark were caught in the subsequent cull.

It may be worth noting that George Burgess describes shark hunts in the wake of human fatalities as "misguided", because;

a) it's unlikely to be just one shark that is responsible,

b) the chances of identifying and killing even a specific shark are practically nil,

c) it's a waste of time and money to satisfy an urge for revenge.

All perfectly true. However such hunts prove coastal sharks aren't that endangered, because numerous sharks are landed, and, as in the Seychelles, establish that there was more than one localised man eater.

The annual recorded (unprovoked) attacks for 2011, according to the ISAF was 75, a decrease from 81 the previous year. However shark attacks have grown every decade since 1900. It's attributed to us spending more time in the water, because, "the number of shark-human interactions occurring in a given year is (sic) directly correlates with the amount of time humans spent in the sea."

However that's impossible to extrapolate without knowing exactly how many man eating sharks there are in any given year, (incalculable), and the ISAF recognises that not all attacks are reported, especially in the developing world. They also compare the likelihood of being killed by a shark to being killed by lightning - without correlating the time we collectively spend in the sea to the time we collectively spend on land.

Lightning doesn't intend to strike us, whereas a shark intends to bite. Same with coconuts. They don't 'decide' to fall on someone's head. So the need to placate our fear by offering up meaningless comparisons is exactly that. Meaningless. Sharks aren't 'mindless killers', but some species intentionally attack and bite humans. Sometimes we die as a result.

Even the ISAF does not recommend a passive reaction when a shark has you. It's probably not a case of mistaken identity as so often claimed. Chances are you're going to lose a lot of blood, possibly a limb. You're potentially fighting for your life, given you're in a position to do so.

* * *

Unusually Florida escaped fatalities in 2011. George Burgess attributed this to the "post 9/11 slow downs" and the recession, which explained why there were fewer people in the water. But strangely only in Florida. Everyone else was travelling far and wide to dice with sharks. There were fewer people in the water in Florida. But it had little to do with a discriminatory global recession.

It had a lot to do with an event so blindingly obvious, not only could George Burgess see it from his desk at the Florida Museum of Natural History, but I could see it from mine, four and a half thousand miles away. It was so obvious you could see it from outer space. Literally. It was called Deepwater Horizon.

This was the largest marine oil spill in history. It gushed some 5 million barrels of crude from 20th April 2010 until 19th September wrecking havoc to marine habitats, fishing, and tourism. By July 2011 roughly 491 miles of coastline, including Florida, remained contaminated according to NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration). In October 2011, they reported dolphins and whales were still dying at twice the normal rate.

Even if this did not affect one single shark, it kept people away. We know this because BP, (British Petroleum), gave Florida $25 million to promote those beaches that were still oil free. The US Travel Association estimated an economic impact to tourism over a three year period in excess of $23 billion.

The Visit Florida Marketing Plan for 2011/2012 mentions Deepwater Horizon in the introduction. Inside there's a whole section devoted to the fall out;

"Looking ahead to 2011-12, the challenge will be recapturing lost market share in a very difficult environment."

George Burgess didn't say a word about Deepwater Horizon. He's a "savvy long-term policy entrepreneur" after all. And what George Burgess presumably knows is that the Petroleum Industry funds shark conservation through charitable foundations. The big hitter is Pew, founded from the profits of the Sunoco Oil Corporation. They've estimated assets in excess of $5 billion, with stock in other oil and energy corporations. They don't make money from sharks, but they're intent on expanding their ocean real estate portfolio by instigating shark sanctuaries and marine protection areas. Some ring-fenced areas are the size of Saudi Arabia.

Marine resources are of great interest to such foundations. Some 25% of the planet's untapped oil and gas reserves are in the ocean. And it's your ocean. The United Nations gave it to "all of humanity", and there's no clause that states it should be managed by charitable foundations of oil corporations.

Consequently I wouldn't trust George Burgess. The twelve fatalities of 2011 had everything to do with individuals who were in the water with a shark, and nothing to do with whether they were wearing hoop earrings.

Shark conservation has been bought, infiltrated and overrun by a cabal with loudhailers, the black arts of PR, and an agenda that has very little to do with conserving sharks and everything to do with acquiring large tracts of our greatest natural resource. They're simply using sharks as a poster child to influence and control the public, and the politicians who represent them.

"Donate", and "sign petitions", knowing this. And swim at your own risk.