Did Shark Victim ‘Get What He Had Coming’?

Published August 1, 2002

A young Australian man was recently killed and eaten by a 20-foot-long great white shark while diving for scallops at Smokey Bay on the Australian West Coast. You may, therefore, be expecting the Australian government to be spearheading an effort to capture and kill the man-eater. You would, however, be wrong.

The director of fisheries policy for the South Australia Fisheries Department says, “We’ve no plans to hunt down the shark and kill it at this stage. It would be a last resort to destroy the shark because it’s a protected species.”

Some of the area’s residents agree. “Some people think it should be killed; others, like myself, think when you enter the water, you’ve entered the food chain and that’s the risk you take,” said a local resident chatting with a reporter outside the Smokey Bay General Store.

In other words, the young man had it coming. Man equals shark, and no more, on God’s (or nature’s) hierarchical totem pole. Tens of thousands of years of human beings struggling up to the top of the food chain is being surrendered by a sort of unilateral disarmament.

Never in America?

Of course, this happened in Australia—the land of rugged individualism and legendary personal toughness, as so aptly illustrated in the television ads for a somewhat-overrated beer. This “oh well …” sentiment in the wake of a gruesome shark attack would never hold water with the U.S. government, right? Don’t bet the mortgage on it.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have teamed up to “dispel the myths” that last year was the “summer of the shark.” The government spent $23,000 on a news conference at Washington’s National Press Club to advertise a June conference in Tampa, Florida (undoubtedly costing even more money) designed to say “ho-hum” about last year’s widely reported shark attacks.

“We have to correct some misconceptions that jumped out last year,” and launch a pre-emptive media attack, said shark apologist George Burgess of the University of Florida.

“Last year the rate of attacks on humans was about the same as the year before,” said Burgess, “but we had 800 percent more media coverage. … The real story is that through overfishing, man bites shark.”

Is that really the case, or are the government and shark advocacy groups playing fast and loose with the truth?

Government statistics show there were indeed roughly the same number of “unprovoked” shark attacks in U.S. waters last year as there were in 2000. However, what Burgess and the federal government conveniently forget to mention is that 2000 absolutely obliterated all previous records for U.S. shark attacks. The fact that shark attacks in 2001 matched the record number of attacks in 2000 is hardly cause for complacency or comfort.

In the mid-1990s, Save the Ocean groups convinced the federal government to ban commercial shark fishing along the Florida coast. Not coincidentally, Florida is, and has been, home to more shark attacks than anywhere else in the country.

Throughout the early 1990s, before the shark fishing ban took effect, Florida already experienced double-digit “unprovoked” shark attacks every year. Since the ban, however, the number of shark attacks has gone through the roof.

From 1990 through 1993, there were, on average, 11 shark attacks per year in Florida waters. From 1994 through 1999, there were twice as many: an average of 23 shark attacks per year. In 2000 alone, the number jumped to 37 Florida shark attacks, and 2001 followed with 36 attacks. That’s more than triple the number of annual shark attacks, in what was already the nation’s shark attack capital, since the fishing ban took effect.

Even more tellingly, the number of attacks in other notorious shark states, such as California and Hawaii, remained constant during this period. Neither California nor Hawaii had been subjected to shark fishing bans.

And what’s this about “unprovoked”?

The number of “unprovoked” shark attacks in 2000 and 2001 was clearly unprecedented and cause for alarm.

And why, for that matter, do shark-loving groups always presage their already self-incriminating statistics with the phrase “unprovoked attacks”? How many “provoked” attacks occur, and just how does one go about “provoking” a shark?

Are gangs of juvenile delinquents staying past their curfews, taunting great whites and wearing t-shirts saying “Bite me”? Are middle-aged, overweight dads trying to impress their pre-teen children by poking nature’s most efficient killers in the eye and saying “Oh yeah? What are you going to do about it?” Are comely young ladies going out into the surf wearing seal masks, fake seal fins, and artificial tails, all the while laughing like The Lone Stripper in the famous episode of Happy Days? Neither the definition nor the numbers of “provoked” shark attacks are ever given.

It didn’t take Neanderthal man long to figure out that angry gray skies lead to rain. It likewise shouldn’t take modern government long to figure out that bans on shark fishing in the shark attack capital of the nation lead to increased shark attacks and increased human deaths.

Burgess and his government partners have called for still more stringent protections for Florida sharks and a still greater increase in Florida shark numbers. “We don’t need to rebuild a virgin shark population, but we do need to rebuild a sustainable portion,” Burgess was quoted as saying in the St. Petersburg Times.

Will somebody from the federal government or the University of Florida please visit eight-year-old Florida shark-attack victim Jesse Arbogast and tell him that?