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Fears and memories haunt locals on usually surf-friendly stretch of NSW coast after surge in shark attacks

  The increase in sharks along Shelly Beach, Ballina, are partly attributed to high volumes of bait fish. Photo / Getty Images

Darren Rogers’ living room is full of surfboards, but it is all he
can do to get back in the water. The first time he tried, he looked down
at his submerged legs and had a flashback of fellow surfer Tadashi
Nakahara’s horrific injuries.
Rogers is haunted by his final
moments with the man he tried to keep alive after a catastrophic
encounter with a great white shark. It severed both of Nakahara’s legs.
“I do have vivid images of his injuries but because I was so close to
his face, his eyes are the things that get me … just wishing I could
make him alive again.”
Rogers did not know Nakahara, a Japanese
surfer who had been living in Ballina for a year, before the attack –
“but we’re bonded permanently now. I breathed his last breaths.”
death in February heralded a series of shark attacks that have cast a
pall over Ballina, a coastal town popular with surfers in New South
Wales. The latest shark attack, just two weeks ago at Lighthouse Beach
in East Ballina, left 20-year-old Sam Morgan with serious leg injuries.

The dramatic spike in shark attacks along the northern New
South Wales coast comes as great whites have been seen lingering ever
closer to shore in largely unexplained numbers. Unprovoked shark attacks
were, until now, relatively rare in Australia – in the past century
they averaged just over five a year. This year, however, there have
already been 14 attacks along this stretch of coast.
Now one of
the country’s most idyllic surfing spots is all but deserted. Schools,
families and surfer clubs are cancelling trips to the tourist town. Some
local surfers have gone to the Gold Coast or to Byron Bay where there
is “safety in numbers”. Those who do summon the courage to brave the
waves at Ballina stay in tight-knit “pods”. Some have adopted boards and
wetsuits with bold stripes which are said to confuse and repel sharks.
But all of them are nervous.
“Sometimes you last only 15
minutes,” says David Hall, owner of the Flat Rock tent park. “If the
sun’s not out and the water’s murky, it plays on your mind.” His wife,
Kellie, says watching children surf is nerve-racking. “You stand on the
beach and you just panic.” Jeff Templeton, owner of surf shop
Beachworkz, says sales of “anything to do with getting in the water –
boards, wetsuits, flippers – are as dead as dead”.
now-routine sight of a helicopter carrying out shark surveillance
flights is a source of comfort. The Mayor of Ballina shire, David
Wright, has held countless meetings this year with New South Wales
officials, surf lifesavers, environmentalists and shark experts, and
attended the “world’s first” shark summit in Sydney, where they examined
options for dealing with the problem. “The only thing that’s going to
protect the whole beach is a barrier.”
Thanks to Wright’s
advocacy, the state Government has agreed to make Ballina the focal
point of a new shark mitigation trial which has funding of A$16 million
($17.6 million) over five years. The programme is aimed at improving
shark surveillance and warning systems, with helicopters, drones and
buoys detecting sharks using sonar and satellite, as well as shark
tagging, phone app alerts and beach sirens.
The cornerstone of
the trial is a new form of shark net already in use in Western
Australia, which features rigid plastic loops that retain their size,
thereby reducing the risk of entangling fish, dolphins and turtles.
These “eco-nets”, which are expensive to make, install and maintain, are
destined for only two north coast beaches, including an 800m stretch
along Lighthouse beach, the site of Nakahara’s fatal attack. But that is
not expected to be until after Christmas, the peak holiday season.
absent from the discussion in New South Wales is any serious
consideration of culling, a traditional kneejerk response to rises in
shark attacks elsewhere. Marine ecologist Daniel Bucher, of Southern
Cross University, is pleased that community opposition to culling is
shared by politicians and officials.
As to why there have been so
many shark attacks at Ballina, Bucher says one of the most plausible
theories is the lure of unusually high numbers of “bait fish” close to
shore, a factor of warmer waters and more nutrients. Bucher says the
“eco-net” is likely to prove safe for marine life, but he notes the
expense and wonders if the money would not be better spent on things
that could bring safety to more areas – including a boost to the surf
lifesaving service.
In the meantime, the recent spate of attacks
may drive usage of fledgling shark-repelling technology. The current
market leader, an electro-magnetic cable by SharkShield called a
“Surf7”, has been shown in testing to have had a “significant” deterrent
effect on great white shark attacks on tuna bait, Bucher says. While
these could be eventually developed on a larger scale as a shield for
entire beaches, Bucher says it could be “more cost-effective to
subsidise uptake among individual surfers”. Wright has paid A$900 to
order one for Rogers. “When I get that,” Rogers said, “I’ll get out and
go for it. I’ve got to get back in the water – properly.”
A day
later, Rogers returned to the water at Lighthouse and noticed a large
rock under the water. “I looked down and I saw a 4m great white”. He
steeled himself and looked again. “Then I saw a rock.”
Dangerous waters
• Fourteen shark attacks along the northern New South Wales coast this year.
• Five attacks have occurred at Ballina’s Shelly and Lighthouse beaches.