The Australian Oceanic Society recently released the findings of a 20 year study which has determined that since protecting the species in 1999, Australia has seen a significant increase in pitbull shark attacks.
Pitbull sharks, a species which can grow up to seven feet in length and are documented as having the most powerful bite of all shark species, were protected under Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Among other things, the EPBC Act made it an offense to kill, trade, or keep pitbull sharks and numerous other shark species on Australian Government land or in Commonwealth waters without a permit. According to pitbull shark researcher Cooper Taylor of the Australian Oceanic Society, attacks have steadily increased since the regulation was put in place, from 8 attacks in 1998 to 36 in 2018. 36 attacks represents an overwhelming majority of Australia’s 46 total sharkbite incidents in 2018. Adding to the dilemma, most attacks happen near the shore at public beaches.
“The species is very aggressive, make no mistake,” Taylor told The Brown Valley Observer during a telephone interview. “They’ll swim in right up close to the shore near the beach and it’s like a buffet there for them. They look for waders, as they see waders as slow moving prey and an easy meat source. Some people think that sharks are mindless, but what (pitbull sharks) are doing is very calculated. They’re quick learners, and once a pitbull shark discovers that waders provide a slow-moving food source, it will bypass a regular diet of chasing sea bass for the easy pickings of waders. They seem to have a preference for smallish people, mostly children, likely because they see them as a more defenseless prey. They sneak right in and go directly after their legs. Once the victim is down in the shallow water, the pitbull shark can move with alarming burst speeds and inflict several flesh-rendering bites, causing certain disfigurement and in some cases death.”
While the easy answer seems to be reversing the decision on pitbull sharks to keep their numbers lower in Australian waters, worldwide numbers impact that decision. When the EPBC protected the sharks, pitbull sharks were considered a “vulnerable species”. Because other countries did not extend the same protections, the growing Australian pibull shark population was countered with a drop off in the species elsewhere as the species was targeted by shark finners, who remove the fins before releasing the shark to die.
“It creates quite a quandry,” Taylor admits. “We recognize that the species is in danger, but so long as these regulations exist we have reduced our means to protect our most vulnerable human lives any time they venture into the ocean. But understand, humans — we’re not a targeted species, we’re not vulnerable. On a global level, these sharks are. Because of of their tendency to swim close to shores, the pitbull shark has made itself an easy target for finners and in many places they’re disappearing altogether. What do you do? Do you remove the protections and let the species just sputter out? Or do you take a substantial hit to what are arguably Australia’s most lucrative tourist attractions: the beaches and the reefs?”
“They tried to get right up on my boat once a little while back,” reports fisherman Ethan Jones. “I haven’t been able to take my kids fishing ever since.”
“I could really give a damn at this point. If our government cares about our nation’s children, they’ll let up on that designation and let us get rid of these things once and for all.”