Byron Bay attack: fear of sharks not what it used to be as opposition to culls increases

“Small surf in the Bay this morning with messy waves … Try the northern protected corners for some cleaner peaks.”

That is Coastalwatch’s word of advice on the waves at The Pass, Byron Bay’s premier surf spot, on Wednesday morning.

The “northern protected corner” referred to by Coastalwatch is Clarkes Beach, the site of Tuesday’s fatal shark attack on Byron Bay local Paul Wilcox.

Twenty-four hours after the death, all beaches around The Bay remained closed.

Coastalwatch’s surf cam shows messy windswept washing-machine waves at the spot. The surf is so bad that nobody would bother going out even though the water is a pleasant 20 degrees.

Coastalwatch’s casual attitude to danger is perhaps indicative of a huge sea change that has swept the beach culture and its attitude to sharks.

Boardriders want to rock on regardless and conservationists are fighting a rearguard action against the old attitude that the only good shark is a dead one.

Sharnie Connell, a Manly Sea Life Sanctuary aquarist who has organised Stop the Shark Cull rallies around Australia, said she had been heartened by the fact that authorities and Byron Bay fishers had not started hunting the shark.

“At this stage nobody really knows what has happened,” she said. “We’ll have to await the coroner’s finding so we should not leap to conclusions: the poor man could have had a heart attack, or something else, we just don’t know.”

Once people were too afraid to return to the water for days after an attack.

Sharks have been one of the worst things about living here since early colonists recorded a fatal attack on an Aboriginal woman in 1791 somewhere in Port Jackson.

When the Surf Life Saving movement started to make the beach culture part of the Australian ethos after World War I, a series of well-publicised fatal attacks at Bondi, Maroubra, North Narrabeen and Manly saw the installation of shark nets along Sydney beaches in 1936.

Nobody has been taken at a netted beach since.

But that still has not stopped a groundswell of opposition to the netting program. Leading NSW green groups, including the Total Environment Centre and the Wilderness Society, want the nets removed.

And where men with guns and fishers descended on a shark attack site to hunt down the killer, in recent years conservationists have started appearing to call for an end to the cull.

The stop-the-cull movement got into high gear last year when seven people were taken off Western Australia between 2010 and 2013 and the government started killing large sharks using baited rum lines.

The WA cull targeted great whites, bull sharks and tiger sharks over three metres in length.

The government was criticised by various animal rights activists including the  Humane Society International, Greenpeace Australia, and Surfrider Foundation. Celebrities including golfer Greg Norman, surfer Kelly Slater, business mogul Richard Branson and entertainers Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais lent their voices to the outcry as rallies occurred around the globe.

The NSW government has moved over the years to protect some shark species – like the grey nurse shark – but is especially sensitive to criticism over its shark netting program.

It will not allow the media to interview private contractors who carry out shark netting but at the same time overreacts when shark attack stories start to teeter towards hysteria in the media.

In January 2006 the Iemma government ordered shark nets be returned from off the Royal National Park to safeguard Bondi, Bronte, Coogee and Maroubra after a media frenzy over a shark attack death off North Stradbroke Island in Brisbane’s Moreton Bay.

On Sunday, about 1000 people turned up to a No Shark Cull rally at Manly. Some 2000 had attended a similar rally at Manly in February when the weather was sunnier.

About 2000 people turned up last February at Manly to protest the cull.

Manly’s Sharnie Connell said about 90 per cent of the world’s sharks had disappeared.

“Look, the sea is a wilderness. It’s the shark’s world. People who enter it have to assess the risks and make their own decision,” she said.

“But there is never any reason to go off killing animals just because some foolish politician thinks it makes for good politics.”