By Jessica Arellano
THERE are a lot of myths about sharks: they’re all big with lots of sharp teeth; they attack humans a lot; they aren’t important in keeping our oceans healthy.
But Jessica Meeuwig, from the University of Western Australia, studies sharks and the marine environment, and she says they’re definitely not true.
“It’s important to remember that there [are more than] 400 different species of sharks,” says Professor Meeuwig.
That means they come in all different shapes and sizes, and each one is very important for the ecosystem.
Myth #1: sharks aren’t important
On July 28 Professor Meeuwig came back from a four-month expedition where she studied sharks and coral reefs from Cairns to Broome.
“There was a place in the Kimberley [in Western Australia] that was just hopping with reef sharks … and then there was a bay that had a [cluster] of oceanic sharks, an open water shark, but we saw really small ones,” she says.
From what the researchers saw, the more sharks there are in a reef, the healthier the corals.
That’s because the sharks keep the food chain in order by controlling the numbers of medium-sized fish that eat the little fish that take care of the coral!
Myth #2: shark attacks happen a lot
Professor Meeuwig says shark attacks don’t happen a lot.
“There are some sharks that can, on occasion, have interactions with people in the water, but those incidents remain so rare and unusual,” she says.
“We should be more concerned that shark numbers are going down globally, that they are really important to our environment, and that they are really vulnerable to fishing.”
However, Taronga Conservation Society Australia says that in 2016, 26 people were involved in shark attacks in Australia.
Putting up barriers
Casting a wide net
In November 2016 the federal government began an inquiry into ways to stop sharks from coming into beaches. It’s looking at things such as shark numbers, the number of attacks in Australia and ways to stop them, including shark nets.
A lot of beaches in NSW and Queensland have shark nets, but sometimes other marine life can get trapped. On July 15, a baby humpback whale got tangled in a shark net on the Gold Coast and died.
Peter Scott is from Surf Life Saving Western Australia. He says barriers are the best way to stop sharks from coming into beaches.
“I think in general shark barriers are the most effective solution, but the problem is they aren’t suitable for most coastal locations,” he says.
The federal environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, also wants swimmers to be protected from sharks.
“After 15 shark fatalities in less than 20 years in Western Australia it’s time the [Western Australian] government put people first and sharks second,” he told the ABC.
“Be it more nets, drum lines or indeed culling in order to protect Western Australians from the threat of the great white shark.”
But Professor Meeuwig says there are better options, such as eco-barriers that don’t catch animals, and more research to better understand sharks and their movements.