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New Shark Deterrent Technology: A Long Way from Nets, Drumlines and Culling

Anyone who even passively watches the news would be able to recall the publicity of Mick Fanning warding off a curious shark by attempting to punch it while competing at last summer’s World Surf League Jay Bay Open. If only shark determent was that simple.

Of all the shark incidents in the world, just over one quarter of them happen in Australia. Now as a budding shark lover I have to point out as frightening as those statistics appear, the chances of encountering a shark is still less likely than you dying from fireworks, lightening, drowning, a car accident, stroke or heart disease.

Still, the government of West Australia feels a strong need to address the number of incidents that occur in the popular waters. According to the Australian Shark Attack File, which is kept by researchers at Sydney's Taronga Conservation Society, there have been 1003 shark incidents in Australia since records began in 1791. Of these incidents 1/4 of them resulted in death, which averages out to one fatal incident per year.

So how will Australia prevent such incidents from continuing? Up until now, shark deterrent solutions have mainly included shark nets and drum lines. Unfortunately, both have noted devastating consequences. Shark nets are designed specifically to capture sharks and prevent their escape until they eventually die. Like shark nets, a drum line is a device used to reduce the amount of shark incidents by capturing sharks on the drum line's hook. Considering in 2015 Australia recorded 18 shark incidents, with one fatality we can say with confidence these methods are not proven effective.

Thanks to shark conservation efforts, what appears to be the perfect solution lies in the world’s first million dollar shark-repellent cable. Commissioned by the South African Government, the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board recently tested this innovative technology.

According to the trial that lasted four weeks, more than 50 great whites approached the cable and all veered away upon swimming too close. Remarkably, the trial ended in a 100 percent success rate.

One would ask, “So how does the cable work?” However, the nagging question should be, “Does it harm sharks, humans or any wildlife for that matter?” Researchers assure the device is harmless to both humans and sharks and that it simply confuses the sensory system of the sharks resulting in them peacefully swimming away.

But really, is anything ever that simple? Not according to Christopher Neff, who studies West Australian policy and wrote the world’s first doctorate on global government policies reacting to shark bites. Dr. Neff’s states electrical shark deterrent technology over the years has been hit or miss due to geographical variations in salinity and water density movement. In other words, the conditions in South Africa vary from those that exist in the waters of Western Australia where the proposed cable is to be equipped.

While Dr. Neff feels that effective non-lethal shark deterrence is a huge step in the right direction, he counters the success of the study with valid points: How will it affect ocean swimmers with pacemakers?; Will its efficiency change depending on the swell or weather?; Will it go out to the surf line and finally what are the long-term environmental impacts?

Currently the hefty price tag for this technology is one million dollars. Paul von Blerk, project manager of Shark Boards, estimates with commercial production the cost will be reduced to 200,000. Dr. Neff argues the Western Australian government should use the 300,000 it has allocated for the cable and educate the public on how to swim safely. While we at Sharkbytes agree with Dr. Neff’s belief in the power of education, we are excited for this seemingly perfect technology and look forward to seeing a decrease in shark incidents off the shores of Western Australia.

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