Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Shark-hunt option unlikely

 •  Bethany bumped her dad from operating room
 •  Attack may influence school surf decision

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

When 15-year-old surfer Billy Weaver was attacked and killed by a shark off Lanikai in 1958, it sent shock waves across Hawai'i. The same reaction was felt Friday when 13-year-old surfing phenom Bethany Hamilton lost her left arm to a large tiger shark off Kaua'i.

Bethany Hamilton could have been the victim of mistaken identity. John Naughton of the National Marine Fisheries Service says the tiger shark may have mistaken Bethany, laying on her surfboard, for a turtle.

Photo courtesy Hamilton family

The Weaver attack prompted a major shark-control program to remove large predators from nearshore waters, and some surfers and other ocean users are wondering if the state should respond similarly now.

It's an issue that has been debated at length since the most recent fatal shark attack a dozen years ago. But a growing amount of scientific evidence has dissuaded officials from taking up the shark-hunt option, said Frances Oishi, head of the state Division of Aquatic Resources.

Oishi said the state's Shark Task Force is strongly opposed to any shark hunting, citing research that indicates such programs serve no purpose except to upset the ocean's ecological balance.

"The number of shark attacks has nothing to do with how many sharks are in the water and everything to do with how many people are in the water," said Kim Holland, University of Hawai'i shark researcher and Shark Task Force member.

He said on the East Coast, for example, shark populations have been decimated by fishing, yet the number of shark attacks have increased.

In Hawai'i, there are an average of three to four shark-human encounters a year. Last year was unusual in that there were eight such incidents, none fatal.

To get in touch with Bethany:

Contact Bethany Hamilton at bethanyhamilton@mac.com.

Send cards, messages or donations to Bethany Hamilton, in care of Hanalei Surf Company, P.O. Box 790, Hanalei, HI 96714.

Monetary donations payable to "Friends of Bethany Hamilton" can be dropped off at any branch of First Hawaiian Bank, or mailed to the bank's Lihu'e branch at 4423 Rice St., Lihu'e, HI 96766. Please make checks payable to "Friends of Bethany Hamilton".

Her brothers and friends have set up a Web site at www.bethanyhamilton.com, which contains photos, updates on her condition and more.

Holland has been conducting state-financed research on the movement and range of tiger sharks — the primary suspect in the Hamilton attack. It turns out tiger sharks do not stay within a localized territory. Rather, they roam many miles — as far as the length of the main island chain and probably farther.

If the state were to initiate a large-scale hunting program, Holland said, the tiger sharks removed from the population would simply be replaced by more tiger sharks.

John Naughton, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist and task force member, said previous efforts to remove large predatory sharks saw the proliferation of smaller ones, which harassed fishermen and their catches.

"It's an archaic way to manage the resource," Naughton said. "It's like the turn of the century, when they shot wolves. It doesn't make sense anymore."

The state has conducted large-scale shark control programs off and on since the late 1950s. There was even one under way at the time of the Weaver attack.

According to a University of Hawai'i report, the state spent $300,000 on control programs between 1959 and 1976, resulting in the taking of 4,668 sharks at an average cost of $182 per shark.

After Martha Morrell was fatally mauled by a tiger shark while swimming off Olowalu, Maui, in 1991, the state sanctioned a shark hunt and formed the Shark Task Force.

For a few years, the task force recommended limited hunting after each attack. But controversy erupted because some sharks are considered 'aumakua, or family gods, to some Native Hawaiians.

Today, even limited hunts have ceased because of new research and environmental and cultural concerns.

"We've gone 'round and 'round about it in our task force meetings," Naughton said. "It's a no-win situation. You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't."

At this point, he said, it's best just to encourage people to use common sense and caution. That means swimming or surfing with others, avoiding murky waters, staying out of the water at dawn, dusk and dark, and if you have open wounds or are bleeding.

As for Friday's attack, it's uncertain whether Hamilton did anything to attract a shark, Naughton said. The north and east coasts of Kaua'i are home to a large population of turtles, he said, and the turtle is an important part of the tiger shark's diet, so the attack on the girl as she lay on her surfboard could've been a case of mistaken identity.

Given the number of people surfing or swimming in Hawai'i on any given day, the chances of being attacked remain extremely small, he said.

Contact Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880 or thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com.