Shark deterrent research: WA pledges $2m

By Alyce Taylor 14 December 2012
Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page
Funding from the WA government aims to boost shark deterrents following a spate of attacks.

THE WESTERN AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT has announced $2 million in funding for shark hazard-reduction research, following one of the worst years for shark attacks in the state’s history.

Over the last 10 months, the WA coast has been the site of five fatal shark attacks. Attacks have increased nationally over the last 20 years, although scientists are unable to pinpoint exactly why.

“The confidence of the people of WA to go into the water and enjoy watersports has definitely lessened,” says grant recipient Professor Shaun Collin, a neuroecologist at University of WA. “Especially with summer coming up, the state government has now invested in trying to restore that confidence.”

The grants will be spread over the next three years, with $900,000 already allocated to four major research projects.

Testing shark deterrent devices

Shaun’s first project aims to test existing shark deterrent devices. Among these is a device that produces an electric field, aiming to provide swimmers with a radius of protection by interfering with the electroreceptor organs that help sharks find prey. Together with Associate Professor Nathan Hart, Shaun also plans to test new deterrent methods, including the ways in which light, sound and bubble curtains may be used to encourage sharks to migrate elsewhere. 

“We would hope to deter sharks from the source of [strobe] light. This could be at a personal level or a larger level, such as to protect a populated beach,” Shaun says.

Bubbles would work by interfering with the minute hair cells along the flank and head of the shark that help it to detect water movement, he adds. “We want to use bubbles, probably high-intensity ones, to set up a non-physical barrier such as a curtain or a wall of bubble. This could, at beach level, protect swimmers between the flags.”

The aim with acoustic deterrents would be to design something that produces a sound which sharks either find uncomfortable or interferes with their inner ears. “We do have to be careful because sound is a very important signal for whales and lots of other animals. Sound also travels very quickly underwater so we do have to make sure we work outside of those ranges [of other animals],” says Shaun.

“There is still a lot to learn but we do know that every species is different in relation to how developed a certain sense is,” he told Australian Geographic. Hazard-prevention technologies are a way to try to protect both humans and sharks, by providing an alternative to the practice of shark culling.

“These animals form a very important part of the food chain and they are being decimated worldwide. If we start culling because of these attacks, which are still extremely rare, we are also going to upset the fine balance of our aquatic ecosystems,” he says.

How to avoid shark attacks

Christopher Neff, a shark attack researcher at the University of Sydney, says that in combination with shark deterrent technologies, Australians need to change their mindsets when spending time in coastal areas. He says Australians should think of the beach the way they think of the bush: as a wild and potentially dangerous ecosystem.

“When you think of the beach as a dynamic ecosystem, that it is not the local swimming pool, it prepares you in a different way,” Christopher says. “You are aware of the risks, you are aware of what you are in control of – it is the way forward for thinking about beach safety.”

Shaun agrees that public education is an essential part of diminishing the risk of shark attacks. “Education about sharks and their behaviour should be public knowledge and effectively disseminated widely, especially in beach areas with prominent shark activity.”

Swimmers should avoid straying from the beach, swimming or surfing at dawn or dusk, and swimming or diving where there are known shark food sources.

For more on the spate of deadly shark attacks in WA see the Nov/Dec issue of the Australian Geographic journal (AG 111).