Australia records sharp hike in shark bites

Following a recent shark bite incident in Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay, experts were consulted to determine whether shark attacks are becoming more frequent in Australia and how one can ensure safety. Here is a comprehensive overview. Temperatures are on the rise, causing an increase in water temperatures and prompting more individuals to spend extended periods in the water, potentially bringing sharks closer to the shore.

Sydney Harbour hosts a diverse range of sharks and rays, with the majority posing no threat to humans, according to Dr. Vincent Raoult, a postdoctoral fellow at Macquarie University. However, white sharks, tiger sharks, and bull sharks, which can be potentially dangerous, do inhabit the harbor. Although shark bites in Sydney Harbour are infrequent, data from the Australian Shark Incident Database indicates 36 recorded incidents since 1791, with the latest prior to this week’s occurrence in 2009. No shark-related deaths have occurred in Sydney Harbour since 1963, except for a fatal incident at Little Bay Beach in 2022.

Dr. Chris Pepin-Neff, the author of “Flaws: Shark Bites and Emotional Public Policymaking,” notes that bull sharks typically inhabit Sydney Harbour during summer, later moving to the Brisbane River in winter. The warmer months from November to March also coincide with the majority of shark bites. On average, Australia experiences 10 to 15 bites annually, with 10% resulting in fatalities. Despite Sydney Harbour being widely used for swimming, the occurrence of bites has been minimal in the last four decades.

Dr. Raoult emphasizes that intentional shark bites, with the aim of consuming humans, are extremely rare, as humans are not a preferred food source for sharks due to their low fat content. Exploratory bites, often occurring when sharks are uncertain about human presence, can be life-threatening, especially with larger predators like bull sharks. Accidental bites may happen when sharks encounter people while feeding in schools of baitfish, underscoring the importance of avoiding swimming among fish.

According to Pepin-Neff, most shark bites occur between 12 pm and 2 pm, aligning with peak water activity hours. Bull sharks, however, tend to stay deeper within the harbor during the day and come closer to the surface during cooler periods, urging caution during dawn and dusk. Swimming in Sydney Harbour is considered safer in winter when bull sharks move to the Brisbane River.

Swimmers are advised to be aware of their distance from the shore, as going further out increases the risk, particularly in murky water. Pepin-Neff recommends avoiding swimming in areas without enclosures, cautioning against the unreliability of nets. In the event of a bull shark encounter, experts advise facing the shark, swimming backward or sideways, and remaining calm to avoid triggering predatory behavior.

As climate change contributes to warmer waters, there is a potential increase in shark encounters. Raoult explains that improved camera technology, including drones, has led to more frequent sightings, though the overall shark population remains stable. Sydney Harbour’s cleaner environment and increased biodiversity have created a more dynamic ecosystem, altering fish and shark behavior, potentially leading to more interactions between sharks and people. Overall, the combination of warmer waters, increased human presence, and ecosystem changes contributes to a higher likelihood of shark bites.

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