YESTERDAY’s fatal shark attack near Ballina is driving debate about how safe it is to get in the water off NSW’s beaches.
On Monday, a 41-year-old man died after an encounter with a shark at Ballina’s Shelly Beach.
There has been three fatal attacks in the past two years on the NSW North Coast, but researchers said this is not evidence of a trend towards more shark numbers or more aggressive behaviour.
In fact, before those three incidents, the last fatal encounter occurred in 2008. According to Australian National Geographic’s fatal attack timeline, there have been periods of up to seven years when no fatal attacks were registered.
The most recent victim was attacked while surfing with a group, who helped him from the water, but died on the beach from massive blood loss.
The incident followed a shark attack on Sunday at Seven Mile Beach near Broken Head, about 20 kilometres north, which left a man with bites to the shoulder and back.
Northern Rivers fishermen and surfers say there has been more shark activity this summer, but shark researcher Dr Danny Bucher, of Southern Cross University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre in Lismore, said shark numbers off NSW were not on the rise.
It’s unknown what species were involved in this week’s attacks.
NSW Department of Primary Industries experts are investigating the incident with the aim of determining the species based on wound patterns.
The two candidates for the fatal attack are the Great White and the Tiger Shark.
Dr Bucher says it would be unusual for a large Great White to be in the area at this time of year.
They are more likely to be in southern waters where seals are pupping, he said.
The reported increase in shark numbers this summer on North Coast beaches was likely a result of warm clear water, he said.
“Firstly, that means people can see sharks easier but also the sharks tend to feed more in those conditions,” Dr Bucher said.
“The two attacks were 50 metres to 60m offshore. It’s not unusual for sharks to be there.
“Fish come to the breaker zone to shelter and sharks patrol the edge of that zone, which is just where surfers sit to catch a wave. That is typical behaviour.
“Also the big rain events mean sharks will come in to see what the rivers are discharging in the way of food.”
Along NSW’s coast, shark numbers have decreased in the past few decades, although in recent years they have stayed steady, he said.
An increased number of non-provoked shark incidents is more likely related to population increase and a change in the way the ocean is being used.
“There are many more people using different areas, such as that zone just beyond the breakers, than there have been in the past,” Dr Bucher said.
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