Should great white sharks, especially those that have killed people, continue to enjoy protected species status?

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The issue
On Sunday, September 24, at Cactus Beach in South Australia, a white pointer shark attacked and killed a surfer. The next day, some 250 kilometres west, at Anxious Bay, another surfer was taken. Shark experts interviewed by journalists agreed that it was extremely unlikely that the same shark carried out the fatal attacks, as the distance was too far to be travelled by any one shark in so short a time.
Despite the urgings of some, there was no official sanction for hunting the sharks believed responsible, as white pointers are protected and on the endangered marine species list.
Six weeks after the South Australian fatalities, a swimmer was attacked and fatally injured off Perth's Cottesloe Beach. Another swimmer was then attacked in shallow water by the same shark, but the man managed to fend the animal off, while retreating to the sand with serious bite injuries.
The shark in this case was "herded" away from the beach by boats. It disappeared some time later, but the beach remained closed in case of its return. This shark, too, was identified as a white pointer. The West Australian government ultimately sanctioned the hunting of the shark that killed the swimmer.

What they said ...
'Until I see conclusive proof that these beasts are crucial to the ocean ecology, I'll remain of the belief that the only good great white is a dead one.
Fred Pawle, newspaper sub-editor and surfer

'What we should be thinking about is not how we get rid of them, but how we can learn to live with them'
Rodney Fox, shark attack victim, filmmaker and authority on the white pointer

Echo Issue Outline 2000 / 39 - 40
Copyright © Echo Education Services

First published in The Echo news digest and newspaper sources index.

Issue outline by J M McInerney

Male white pointer (or White Death, Great White) sharks are believed to grow to a length of seven metres, while the female can attain a length of five metres. The larger white pointers can weigh in excess of 3000 kilograms.
Marine scientists have studied the sharks for many years, yet information is still sketchy. For instance, it is not known whether the animals are territorial or nomadic, as some tagged fish have been seen to travel 1400 kilometres, while others have shown preference for one particular area.
White pointers do not reproduce each year, but, when the female shark does give birth, it can be to ten pups at a time. Most newborn sharks weigh more than thirty kilograms. The juveniles begin to hunt fish, squid, stingrays and smaller sharks from the day they are born.
Great whites are warm-blooded animals, having a body temperature of up to 27 degrees Celsius. In this they differ from other sharks, which are cold-blooded.

White sharks are listed as vulnerable on Schedule 1 of the Australian Endangered Species Protection Act 1992. They were included on the schedule in 1997. A federal government permit is required to hunt them. In South Australia, the shark is also protected by state legislation, the Fisheries Act, and anyone killing a white pointer in SA waters can be fined $4000,00 for the first offence and $8000,00 for the second. The species is protected in all states under fisheries legislation, whileTasmania and Victoria are considering additional listings under State Threatened Species Acts.
The decline of white shark numbers has been recognised by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which has also listed white sharks as vulnerable. The Australian Society of Fish Biology lists white sharks in the 'Uncertain Status' category. They are fully protected in South Africa, Namibia, Maldives, Malta, Florida and California.

Threats to the recovery of white shark populations include commercial fishing, recreational fishing, shark control activities and ecotourism.

The white shark is found throughout the world in temperate and subtropical oceans, though it prefers temperate waters. They are normally found in inshore waters in the vicinity of rocky reefs and islands, and often near seal colonies. The white shark is an apex predator and their diet consists mainly of finfish, marine mammals, other sharks and rays.

The white shark is most frequently encountered off South Africa, southern Australia, northern
California and the northeastern United States. In Australia, its range extends primarily from Moreton
Bay in Southern Queensland, around the southern coastline to the North West Cape of Western

There have been a total of 563 officially recorded shark attacks in Australia in the last 200 years. 184 of these were fatal attacks. Newspapers reporting these statistics do not distinguish between attacks by white pointers and other types of sharks. However, attacks in South Australian waters have often involved clear identification of white pointers and the Southern Ocean coastline is world-famous as the easiest area in which to observe the animals.

Internet links

The Shark Foundation is an international organisation dedicated to the conservation of sharks and their environment. The Shark Foundation was founded on August, 29th 1997, in St. Gallen, Switzerland.
It has an Internet sight which gives information on the extent of shark hunting and the various threats shark face. The index page of the Foundation site can be found at

SeaScape is an online magazine about life in and around the sea. Each issue is dedicated to one subject through photography and text. The text and photographs dealing with sharks can be found at
The edition is titled Man vs Shark: who's the bigger threat. The magazine is an American publication and it looks at shark management and conservation from an American perspective.

It is a requirement of the Australian Endangered Species Protection Act that recovery plans be prepared for all endangered and vulnerable species that occur within Australia.
The Draft Recovery Plan for Great White Sharks has been prepared and made available for public comment. It will soon be ratified by Parliament and become binding.
The full plan can be found at
It is a lengthy document but repays careful reading. It gives a great deal of information on the great white shark, the threats it faces and plans to help overcome these.
It needs to be downloaded using Adobe Acrobat reader.

Apex Predators Wildlife in Motion Internet site has a large number of photographs of great white sharks. These are very dramatic photographs. Many show shark leaping out of the water. The photographs are the property of Chris Fallows. A number of these photographs were reproduced in The Australian on November 18, 2000.
The Apex predator site can be found at

The Smithsonian has a site given over to marine life and marine environments. It is titled Ocean Planet. Some of this material deals with sharks. Its index can be accessed at
Included on the site is an article by Jaws author Peter Benchley. The article is titled Oceans In Peril. It looks at threats to marine environments and in particular the dangers faced by great white shark. It can be found at

Arguments for removing protected species status from great white sharks that have killed people.

1. Great white sharks are a serious threat to surfers and swimmers.
It is argued that great white sharks are one of the few marine species capable of preying on human beings and therefore that it is not appropriate to give them protected species status.
Fred Pawle, sub-editor for The Australian and also a recreational surfer, has described the great white pointer as 'one of the planet's most vicious killing machines.'
Mr Pawle has further noted, 'I ask you, would you feel ... [like protecting] a red-back or a funnel-web if you found one in your backyard? Would you care if these deadly creatures were wiped out of existence?'

2. The number of people killed by great white sharks is generally under-estimated
Mr Vic Hislop, a professional shark hunter for over 30 years, has claimed that official records of the number of human beings taken by sharks annually under-estimate the extent of the danger. Mr Hislop has claimed, 'A hell of a lot of the people who go missing in the ocean, whose bodies are never recovered, are eaten by sharks.'
Those who are calling for the re-introduction of at least the limited hunting of great white sharks have noted that so far this year these animals have killed three Australians.

3. The threat to human life from great white sharks is increasing
Critics of the current protection policies have claimed that preventing the hunting of great white sharks has increased the risk they pose to human beings.
A former shark hunter, mr Vic Hislop, predicted that the ban on killing great white sharks would result in increased human deaths.
Mr Hislop has stated, 'This ban is costing so many lives that you wouldn't believe it.'
There are two possible reasons suggested for the increased risk to human life. One is that the ban is likely to lead to an absolute increase in the number of great white sharks. The other is that the ban may increase the number of sharks that could come into shallow areas where human beings are likely to be swimming.
It is further claimed that over-fishing of other marine species has reduced the great white sharks food supply and is forcing them to hunt in areas closer to shore where they are more likely to encounter people.

4. Governments should be legally responsible for the lives of people killed in waters where the great white shark is a protected species
It has been suggested that the families of people killed by sharks should sue either the state or federal governments for contributing to the death by their policy of protecting great white sharks.
This point has been made by Mr Vic Hislop who has stated, 'The only thing that is going to make the Government wake up here is for the family of the New Zealand kid (one of the recent shark victims) to sue them for $200 million for a lack of duty of care.'
This point was also made by the West Australian premier, Mr Richard Court, after his government sanctioned a hunt for the great white shark which killed a WA swimmer on November 6, 2000.
Mr Court stated, 'If that shark is going to endanger public safety; if it comes back near the beaches, in this case I believe we've got a responsibility to put public safety first.'

5. Governments have protected the great white shark because they have bowed to the voting pressure of the conservation lobby
Those who argue this claim that governments are motivated by a concern for their own political survival. They claim that popular concern about the condition of the world's oceans has made their conservation a politically sensitive issue.
The suggestion is that Australia's political leaders are prepared to discount the safety of those who use its beaches because those who are concerned about ocean conservation are a more powerful voting force.
Fred Pawle, sub-editor of The Australian and a recreational surfer has made this point. Mr Pawle has claimed, 'Against an overwhelming fear that humans are ruining the oceans and anecdotal evidence that one of its most famous inhabitants is dying out, politicians are impelled to appease the majority. The lives of a few surfers ... barely register a concern.'

6. Many of those who promote the conservation of the great white shark are motivated by self-interest
The claim has been made that among those who seek to preserve the great white shark are those who want to profit from the animal rather than preserve it for its unique features or its ecological importance.
Former shark hunter Vic Hislop has put this argument. Mr Hislop has claimed, 'They [sharks] are not always protected for conservation. They're also protected by people who make a fortune out of them, charging thousands of dollars a day to view them from cages.'

Arguments for retaining protected species status for great white sharks that have killed people.

1. One shark is no more likely to kill a human being than is any other shark
It has been claimed that there are no rogue sharks. By this is meant there are no sharks which develop a particular taste for human flesh.
Mr Barry Bruce, a white shark researcher at CSIRO, has made this point. Mr Bruce has stated, 'White sharks are not adapted to cue in on people. Sharks do not have a cognitive process that says "a person, I'll eat that.'
Mr Bruce has claimed that the idea that a rogue shark would come to prefer human flesh was fanciful and had been perpetuated by Hollywood films since the 1950s.

2. Great white sharks do not pose a significant threat to human beings
It has been claimed that white sharks do not represent a significant danger to swimmers and surfers. A range of statistics is cited to suggest that the risk of being taken by a shark in Australian waters is relatively slight. In the last 20 years sharks in the waters around Australia have killed 12 people. This figure has been compared with the fatalities from bee stings (two or three a year) and from lightning strikes (19 deaths in 20 years).
It has been estimated that worldwide sharks kill approximately 100 people a year.
It has further been claimed that the three deaths from shark attack that have occurred over the last two months are highly atypical. It has also been noted that when each of the recent attacks occurred there
It has further been claimed that biting is one of the shark's principal ways of determining whether something thrashing in the water is suitable food. The shark may actually be attempting to identify an animal when it bites it and will only persist in the attack if after the first bite the animal seems a suitable food source. It is claimed that this is one of the reasons why only 20 to 40 per cent of attacks are fatal.

3. Great white sharks are threatened with extinction
Sharks are regarded as a threatened species around the world. They are fully protected in South Africa, Namibia, Maldives, Malta, Florida and California. Shark numbers are continuing to decline, possibly because of their degenerating ecosystem.
Despite great white sharks having been classed as a vulnerable species in Australia since 1997 it is claimed it will take at least a decade for their numbers to recover from the impact of commercial and recreactional fishing. A further reason for this is their low fucundity. Female sharks do not reproduce until they are seven. When they do produce a litter it is very small compared to that of most fish. In addition, female shark produce young only one year in three.

4. Sharks have a valuable role to play in the ocean's ecology
Shark are an apex predator. It is claimed this gives them a vital role to play in marine ecosystems. They are the sole or predominant predator of many species and without them these species would increase in numbers and put pressure on other species further down the food chain.
Great white shark are also among the scavengers of the oceans, eating wounded or dead fish. This is seen as a necessary function for the health of various fish populations and gene pools.
This point has been made by Peter Benchley, author of the 1970s best seller Jaws. Mr Benchley has claimed, ' We are already perilously close to killing off the top of the oceanic food chain - with catastrophic consequences that we can't begin to imagine.'

5. Great white sharks act in accord with their instincts; it is up to human beings to avoid putting themselves in danger
According to this line of argument great white sharks cannot be held responsible for any of their attacks on human beings. They are, it is claimed, doing no more than following their instincts. It is not appropriate to punish sharks as if they had deliberately and maliciously acted against the people whom they attack.
The responsibility for avoiding shark attacks, it has been suggested, rests with human beings who can modify their behaviour and take precautions.
It has been suggested that swimmers and surfers should be very careful about where they choose to swim and should avoid areas known to be frequented by sharks. They should also avoid entering the water near seals or dolphins, as both are preferred prey for shark.
It has also been suggested that there should be further research into electrical shark repellents which would reduce the already low risk of shark attack.

6. Some of those who stress the danger posed by sharks are motivated by self-interest or hysteria
It has been claimed that some of those who have encouraged moves to re-introduce the hunting of great white shark are motivated by financial considerations. These are said to include professional fishermen and shark hunters, both of whom would gain if great white shark could once again be legally killed.
It has further been suggested that many of those who fear sharks suffer a dread that is out of proportion to the danger sharks actually represent. It has been claimed that popular representations of great white shark in books and films have created an exaggerated fear in the public mind.
This point has been made by Mr Rodney Fox, the survivor of a shark attack. Mr Fox has claimed, '... I find people's thinking on them to be so irrational.'

Further implications
At this point the decision to allow the shark which took a West Australian swimmer to be hunted and killed seems unlikely to have any further ramifications. The shark has so far not been found and seems unlikely to be. It has also been claimed that the decision to allow the destruction of this shark was a deliberately restricted one and does not presage a general re-introduction of the hunting of great white shark.
However, many conservationists have been disappointed that the decision was taken at all. According to this line of argument a species is either listed as vulnerable and therefore protected or it is not. Those who take this view argue that once the killing of one great white shark is officially sanctioned it becomes easier to authorise the killing of another. It has also been suggested that the West Australian government decision sends mixed messages to all Australians about whether it should be legally permissible to kill great white shark.
Two recently conducted surveys suggest that a majority of Australians do not support the killing of great white shark. That community attitude might shift should any more swimmers or surfers be taken by sharks within the next couple of months.

Newspaper items used in the preparation of this outline
Available as a press cuttings package (with an issue outline reprint): price: $37.00 (NO LONGER AVAILABLE)

The Age 25/9/00 page 3 news item by Stephen Cauchi, ‘Shark takes surfer off SA beach’
27/9/00 page 4 news item by Rebekah Devlin, ‘On the beach, a fact of life and death’
27/9/00 page 4 news item by Penny Fannin, ‘Surfers taken by different sharks’
8/11/00 page 7 news item by David Reardon, ‘Hunt fails to find a killer’
8/11/00 page 7 news item by Penny Fannin, ‘Shark experts try to calm our fear and loathing’
10/11/00 page 9 news item by Richard Baker, ‘Sharks elude searchers in two states’
11/11/00 page 2 (News Extra) comment by Peter Benchley, ‘Leave sharks alone, pleads Jaws author’
The Australian 25/9/00 page 25 news item by Matthew Spencer, ‘Great white shark kills honeymoon surfer’
26/9/00 page 23 news item by Terry Plane and Carol Altmann, ‘Second fatal shark attack’
26/9/00 page 23 news item by Stephen Brook, ‘Shark attacks not linked’
29/9/00 page 26 news item by Duncan Macfarlane, ‘Great white hunters face jail term’ 27/9/00 page 28 news item by Duncan Macfarlane, ‘We should track down and kill man-eaters: shark hunter’
27/9/00 page 28 news item by Carol Altmann, ‘Research the key: survivor’
27/9/00 page 35 comment by Fred Pawle, ‘Helping sharks is counter-productive’
7/11/00 page 1 news item, ‘Shark hunters licensed to kill’
7/11/00 page 6 news item by Roger Martin & Stephen Brook, ‘Air, sea hunt for man-eater’
8/11/00 page 5 news item by Amanda Keenan, ‘City divided over the fate of man-eating shark’
8/11/00 page 12 letter from Craig Keller, ‘Shark-hunt logic’
18/11/00 page 7 analysis by Stephen Brook, ‘Anatomy of a perfect killer’
The Herald Sun 25/9/00 page 5 news item by Mark Butler, ‘Killers lurk in surfing heaven’
26/9/00 page 11 news item by Mark Butler, ‘Second surfer taken by shark’
7/11/00 page 3 analysis, ‘Shark deaths a rarity’
8/11/00 page 16 letter from Jacky Macdonald, ‘Humans need the protection’
10/11/00 page 18 letter from Melissa Armstrong, ‘Respect all God’s creatures’
11/11/00 page 25 analysis by Michelle Pountney, ‘Blue water, white death’
13/11/00 page 17 letter from Dot Andrews, ‘Don’t blame the shark’
13/11/00 page 17 letter from R Pretty, ‘Killer will strike again’
15/11/00 page 19 letter from Andrew Buckley, ‘Instinct to attack’
17/11/00 page 19 letter from Andrea Panatou, ‘Humans at fault’

Analyses of two newspaper items

Article analysis No 1
Discussion of the language devices used in a letter to the editor.

On November 8, 2000, the Herald Sun published a letter to the editor under the heading ‘Humans need the protection’. It was written by a Ms Jacky MacDonald and was published on page 16.

The headline is relatively low-key. It makes no mention of sharks and its is only once the letter has been read that it becomes apparent that the headline is an implied comparison. Thus the headline actually suggests that though sharks are a protected species, it is humans who should have this status. On first reading, however, this is not clear, and the headline is only likely to attract reader interest to the extent that they want to find out what the letter is about as its headline does not tell them.

The letter itself is very short, a mere two paragraphs. Each paragraph is only two sentences long.

Its brevity is likely to add to its effectiveness as its author can be fairly sure that the whole letter will be read.

The piece opens with a statement which is almost a question, ‘I find it very difficult to understand why sharks have more protection than humans.’ The implied question is ‘Why should this be so?’ and the suggested position is that sharks should not enjoy this privilege. The letter was published two days after a fatal shark attack in Western Australian and six weeks after two similar attacks in South Australia. It relies on the readers’ knowledge of these events.

The paragraph ends with the question, ‘How many people does this shark have to kill before something is done?’ Questions are a generally useful device to encourage reader engagement with a topic. In this case, the question is a particularly interesting one. It draws attention to the three deaths that have already occurred and suggests that more are likely. Its phrasing also suggests that the one shark is responsible ‘How many people does this shark have to kill …’ The author may actually be referring to the species rather than a particular shark, and this would in fact be accurate as experts have ruled out the possibility that the one animal could have been responsible for all of these attacks. However, what the exact phrasing does is particularise the focus of reader fear to one shark. It plays on reader fears of the mythical rogue shark, the animal that develops a particular taste for human flesh and subsequently deliberately hunts human beings. This phrasing also diverts any possible reader concerns about whole species considerations. The question implies we are not discussing a species, we are discussing one fish, and therefore ecological or conservation issues do not come into play.

This question serves another purpose as well. It suggests, as already noted, that many more people are likely to die. Statistically this is not accurate, as experts have claimed that on average no more than one person a year dies due to shark attack in Australian waters. However, facts are not being used to advance this argument. Whether accurate or not, the clear implication that many more people will die is likely to create fear in readers and lead them to support the removal of protected species status from great white shark.

The second paragraph opens with a speculation which is actually an implied criticism of the shark’s protected species status. ‘I would have thought humans had more rights than a fish’. The implication here is clearly that human beings should have more rights. Note again the reference to ‘a fish’. Here the author is not simply particularising, she is also trivialising. She is putting the lives of human beings on the scale against the life of a, by implication, mere fish. Imagine if she had referred to the shark as a ‘marine monster’ or a ‘denizen of the deep’. Though each of these phrases creates fairly negative images, they are not belittling in the way the phrase ‘a fish’ is.

The second paragraphs ends with a rhetorical question. ‘After all, who doesn’t eat flake?’ The clearly anticipated response is, ‘No one.’ The implication of this question is, "If we are all already eating shark as flake, why should this animal enjoy protection from hunting when it kills human beings?’ The response being shaped is that it should not enjoy this protection. The whole intent of this last paragraph is to place shark in a clearly inferior position to human beings. Shark are merely ‘a fish’. As a fish, they are already food for human beings, the humble and commonly consumed ‘flake’.

The author’s argument is a gross simplification. It ignores the fact that the species of shark consumed as ‘flake’ are not great white shark. It ignores other facts as well, such as that the shark hunted as food are not vulnerable or endangered species. It also ignores any ecologically based argument that might be put in the great white shark’s defence, such as its important position within its ecosystem.

The letter makes one point simply and clearly. People are more important than fish/sharks. The same point is made in each paragraph using quite similar devices. The simplicity of the message and its appeal to commonly held anthropocentric values is likely to make it appealing to many readers.

Analysis No 2

Discussion of the language used in a newspaper analysis.

The analysis is titled ‘Blue water, white death’

It was written by Michelle Pountney and published in the Herald Sun on November 11, 2000 on page 25.

The article is an interesting example of a piece which essentially attempts to reassure the public, while at the same time displaying some sensationalist features which seem intended to attract reader interest. These sensationalist features are likely to produce fear in the reader and thus are at odds with what appears to be the overall intention of the piece - to reduce reader anxiety about shark attack.

The headline is very vivid and likely to generate fear in readers. It highlights the contrast between the appeal of ‘blue water’ ocean beaches and the frightening possibility of being taken by a shark, ‘white death’. It is very likely to attract readers’ interest and encourage them to continue with the article. Its interest value is strengthened by the accompanying photographs. One is a front view of a shark rising out of the water with its mouth open and large, jagged teeth clearly visible. It is a very confronting photograph. Its capacity to disturb readers is heightened by its similarity to some of the promotional material used for the 1970s blockbuster movie, Jaws. The two other photographs recall two of the recent deaths in Australian waters from shark attacks. One shows a smiling young man whom the caption indicates was on his honeymoon when taken by a shark. This is likely to generate significant reader sympathy and to encourage them to identify with victims of shark attacks.

The three opening paragraphs are a strong appeal to the average Australian holiday-maker. Summer is ‘on the horizon’. ‘Australian families’ are presented as looking forward to their beach holiday in their ‘hundreds of thousands’. They are vividly described with the ‘stinging hot sand under their feet’. This is a strong appeal to common experience and the general attraction that seaside holidays have for many Australians. It is quietly stressed that this is a family experience, one enjoyed by ‘men, women and children’. The apparent innocence of this experience, its typicality and the vulnerability of those who share it is then brought into sharp contrast with their ‘one big fear’ - by implication, shark attack. The reader is encouraged to identify with this situation and to share this fear.

The next six paragraphs recall the details of the three recent shark attack deaths in Australian waters. Names, dates and locations are given. Sympathy and fear are encouraged via these details. One victim was a ‘honeymooner’, another was a ‘teenager … dragged off his surfboard.’ The violence of these deaths and the danger of these sharks is emphasised. One of the victims is described as being ‘mauled in the shallows’, another is taken by ‘a massive shark’.

Throughout these paragraphs there is a tension set up between the reassurances of the ‘experts’ - ‘the three recent attacks are a coincidence and sharks are not turning to people for food’ and the supposed fears of the general public - ‘are … [sharks] attacking humans more often’.

The next six paragraphs give the views of one key expert, Mr John West, curator of the Australian Shark Attack File. The whole emphasis of these quotes, all of which are either direct citations or apparently detailed paraphrasings, is to reassure readers. The last paraphrase in this section has Mr West urging swimmers not to ‘fall victim to the "Jaws mentality"’. The implication is that though sharks can be dangerous, there is no reason for a panic-driven over-reaction.

The next nine paragraphs give details of the number of shark attacks in Australian waters since 1791 and contrast the number of human deaths due to sharks with those from other sources, such as bee stings, lightning strikes and accidental drowning. The source of this information is apparently Mr West. Given Mr West’s position as curator of the Australian Shark Attack File people are likely to accept this information as accurate. The paragraphs also suggest that the risk posed by sharks is relatively slight. Again, given the reliability of the source and the detail of the statistics supplied the reader is likely to accept that the risk of being fatally attacked by a shark is very small.

The piece concludes firstly with a reference to the vulnerability of a sharks as a ‘protected species’ whose numbers are still declining due to their ‘degenerating ecosystem’ and then moves on to give information about the electronic shark-repellent devices that are being developed. The likely intention of these references is to create some reader sympathy for sharks and also to reassure readers that with these repellent devices they will be able to take some effective action to protect themselves.

The order of presentation in this piece is quite important. Although in terms of column-centimetres, it would appear that the article is mainly concerned to reassure readers, the order in which the material is presented does not support this aim. The disturbing headline and photographs, the fear-inducing lead paragraphs and the detail supplied about recent shark attack victims are all likely to create anxiety in the reader. In any newspaper article first impressions are extremely important. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, readers’ initial impressions shape their subsequent reactions. Secondly, many readers do not progress beyond the opening paragraphs and so the first impressions they form may literally be the only impressions they form. Thus, in this article, it appears that the newspaper’s desire to prompt reader interest via the more sensational elements of the shark story cuts across its desire to allay community fears.