Shark attacks provoke WA into better deterrence plans

By June, 2015 October 29th, 2015 State

While the rest of the world is enjoying another round of dinosaur fever, the Western Australian government can never seem to shake off its fixation on another prehistoric creature that still prowls in the abyss.

The iconic great white shark, and its smaller relative, the tiger shark have historically wreaked havoc on WA coastal waters where human swimmers have played roulette with their lives by entering their natural habitat.

Occasionally, this has resulted in life-threatening shark bites that have led to either permanent disfigurement or even death. Vigilante mentality has emerged, and the government takes the initiative to act on it.

It was a big temptation for the Colin Barnett government to simply shoot them if they approached a populated beach too closely, provoking the wrath of advocates for shark preservation, who demanded the government look into alternate measures to keep those imposing jaws away from unassuming bathers.

That’s why the state government allocated more than $28 million since 2008 on shark hazard mitigation strategies, aerial patrols, increased resources for Surf Life Saving WA, beach enclosures, community education and shark response operations.

Researching the beasts and their behaviour has been a big part of the state government’s push for shark attack mitigation, where it awarded almost $1.9 million for eight applied research projects to minimise the risk of shark attack for beach goers and surfers.

The government has also had five ongoing projects that seek to determine the cues that trigger shark attacks, develop systems to disguise beachgoers from sharks, develop novel surfboard-based electrical shark deterrents and develop novel acoustic shark detection systems.

The research that comes under the $1.9 million Applied Research Program – Shark Hazard Mitigation, which has had three projects that have been recently completed by scientists at The University of Western Australia (UWA).

Premier Colin Barnett announced that they have contributed a “great deal of knowledge” about sharks and shark detection.

He also said the projects have contributed to understanding the effectiveness of some deterrent measures and have led to the development of an advanced visual shark detection system.

Although the UWA’s Oceans Institute has conducted laboratory and field trials on existing electrical shark deterrents and potential novel shark deterrents such as loud underwater sounds, bright flashing lights and bubbles, Mr Barnett presented some preliminary analysis that indicated mixed results.

Out of all the tested deterrents including electrical deterrents, strobe lights and loud under water sounds, only one emerged as the winner in deterring sharks from approaching swimmers.

This device was the Shark Shield, developed by Shark Shield Pty Ltd, which was found to be effective in deterring a range of shark species including tiger sharks and white sharks.

But the government wants further testing to be statistically confident in the species-specific effects.

The creators of Shark Shielf claim that the device consists of two electrodes which when both are submerged emit a three dimensional electronic field that surrounds the user.

“When a shark comes to within a few meters of the Shark Shield, the strong electronic pulses emitted by the device cause the shark to experience muscle spasms,” the creators said on their site.

But those fearing for the health of the animals need not worry, according to Shark Shield, as they said that this doesn’t harm the shark in any way, but merely causes it to experience a high level of discomfort.

“From testing, the closer the shark is to the Shark Shield field, the more spasms occur in the sharks’ snouts, which results in it turning away from the electronic field, thereby protecting the user,” the creators at Shark Shield said.

According to the WA government, UWA is collaborating with Shark Shield on the field testing of its surfboard-based electrical shark deterrents being developed under another project in the state’s shark hazard mitigation program.

Mr Barnett said collaboration between industry and researchers is essential for the development, manufacture and marketing of effective shark deterrents.

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