‘When we find the fish, or when the fish finds us, I want to
go down in the cage and take some pictures. No one’s ever
been able to photograph a fish this big before.’
‘Not a chance,’ said Quint. ‘Not on my boat.’
‘It’s foolishness, that’s why. A sensible man knows his
limits. That’s beyond your limits.’
‘How do you know?’
‘It’s beyond any man’s limits. A fish that big could eat that cage for breakfast.’
‘But would he?’ I don’t think so. I think he might bump it, might even mouth it, but I don’t think he would seriously try to eat it.’
Jaws, Peter Benchley, 1974
Benchley’s character Hooper, the ichthyologist from Jaws opens up an interesting dialogue here – would the shark choose to eat the cage, or would it not? Benchley is acknowledging the animal of being cable of doing something but perhaps not willing to do it, or rather deciding not to do something it could if it wanted to.
The idea of animals being able to decide for themselves is often thought of in a human contest such as lab experiments, skinner boxes and other artificial constructs for human observation. For obvious reasons, observing shark decision-making in a natural setting is almost impossible. Dr. Eugenie Clark set up experiments on captive sharks in pools to train them to ring a bell to receive food and thus proved that sharks can learn. That was in 1958 and little has been done since in terms of agency.
So, then, what do we know about shark agency, ability and decision-making? Very little. Of course, the great deal of research that has been done has been on food preference, preferred feeding times, various attractants – i.e. sound, smell, sight of possible food sources…there has been a lot of great work in this area but in the area of sharks being free to make decisions to bite us or not – bathers, recreational and professional divers, surfers, abalone divers and various other sea visitors are giving sharks those opportunities on a regular basis and the data seems pretty conclusive that sharks are deciding not to make us a prey item. So why then is this data not being held up as evidence to stop netting and drum lines?
In a profound way, sharks ability to make decisions about their agency have been taken away from them by shark nets, drum lines and other government legislated ‘mitigation’ programs. What would happen if we took those apparatus away? Do we really think that sharks will be lining up to dine on us and that our beaches will turn into a shark feeding zone? We, here in Australia, will never know until we allow them that freedom.
For the multitudes of un-netted beaches around the world, the evidence is pretty clear that sharks are not systematically preying on bathers so why is Australia so loathe to have the same faith as other governments?
There are many ways to explore this question yet the path I keep returning to is the perception that the lawmakers seem to hate sharks. Unlike other countries such as South Africa, the United States and Bahamas who seem to embrace the idea and the reality of sharing spaces with sharks, Australian policy makers seem to have a fear that has bred hatred of these fish.
My best guess as to why this is so comes from that colonial fear of the land and sea of this island nation. The colonists’ description of this country was saturated in fear. To them, the place was barren, haunted, ’in rags’. They felt so alienated by their landscape and its flora and fauna that they developed a deep-seeded mistrust and phobia of their ability to exist in it and so, they have waged war on that space – the most un-colonisable of all – the sea.
Sharks inhabit a world we will (hopefully) never fully inhabit or colonise and as such have become a target of scorn, mistrust and hatred. People can see a lion or tiger or bear (oh my!) coming at them and have developed weapons to defend themselves against any possible encounter. Bathers cannot anticipate a similar encounter with a shark as easily, nor can they adequately defend themselves from it in the same way they could with a land animal. The sea is not the domain of humans and there seems to be a resentment of that fact by human lawmakers.
When did we, the public, ask for shark nets and drum lines? I don’t recall any of us marching in the streets asking for government protection from sharks. So why are we being given it? And more importantly, why are we taking it?