Rebecca Le May/EPA/Landov
A shark warning is displayed near Gracetown, Western Australia, in November. An Australian man was killed by a shark near the area that month, sparking a catch-and-kill order.
A shark warning is displayed near Gracetown, Western Australia, in November. An Australian man was killed by a shark near the area that month, sparking a catch-and-kill order. Rebecca Le May/EPA/Landov
Sharks in Western Australia are now tweeting out where they are — in a way.
Government researchers have tagged 338 sharks with acoustic transmitters that monitor where the animals are. When a tagged shark is about half a mile away from a beach, it triggers a computer alert, which tweets out a message on the Surf Life Saving Western Australia Twitter feed. The tweet notes the shark's size, breed and approximate location.
Since 2011, Australia has had more fatal shark attacks than any other country; there have been six over the past two years — the most recent in November.
The tagging system alerts beachgoers far quicker than traditional warnings, says Chris Peck, operations manager of Surf Life Saving Western Australia. "Now it's instant information," he tells Sky News, "and really people don't have an excuse to say we're not getting the information. It's about whether you are searching for it and finding it."
The tags will also be monitored by scientists studying the sharks. Researchers have tagged great whites, whaler sharks and tiger sharks.
"This kind of innovative thinking is exactly what we need more of when it comes to finding solutions to human-wildlife conflict," says Alison Kock, research manager of the Shark Spotters program in South Africa. Kock tells NPR that the project is a good idea — but that people should know that not all sharks are tagged.
Her program does the same work, but humans do the spotting and tweeting.
Kock and Kim Holland, a marine biologist who leads shark research at the University of Hawaii, agree that the tweets won't be enough to protect swimmers.
"It can, in fact, provide a false sense of security — that is, if there is no tweet, then there is no danger — and that simply is not a reasonable interpretation," Holland says, pointing out that the reverse is also true. "Just because there's a shark nearby doesn't mean to say that there's any danger. In Hawaii, tiger sharks are all around our coastlines all the time, and yet we have very, very few attacks."
In Western Australia, the local government recently proposed a plan to bait and kill sharks that swim near beaches.
Holland says most shark biologists would agree that's not a good plan, partly because of what researchers have learned using acoustic transmitters. Scientists tracking white sharks, for example, found that the species can travel great distances, going from Western Australia to South Africa in some cases.
"Because we know that they are so mobile, we're not sure that killing any of them will have any effect on safety," Holland says, pointing out that great white sharks don't set up shop along the same coastlines for long. He says the number of these sharks is on the rise — but there aren't that many to begin with.
"The other side of the coin is that it's a horrible thing to see when people get killed, so there's often public outcry for government agencies to do something."