7 Jan 2022

Shark activity explained with Dr Riley Elliott

From Summer Times, 11:38 am on 7 January 2022

A shark expert has a message for those using the Bowentown Harbour – respect great whites in the area and stay away from two hot spots there.

Incredible footage of a fisherman hooking a great white shark as it jumped out of the water in Kaipara Harbour and a great white jumping and knocking a small fishing boat in Bowentown, near Waihī beach highlighted the fact there have been more sightings than usual this summer.

A great white shark, South Australia.

Photo: Gérard Soury / Biosphoto

Shark researcher Dr Riley Elliott agreed he'd definitely heard of more sightings. He told Jesse Mulligan Bowentown Harbour seemed to be a perfect breeding habitat for great whites and increased numbers there were a reflection of the success of conservation efforts.

“That happens to be one of our summer hot spots. That’s not novel because the Kaipara has been a hot spot for nursery great whites for decades, but it doesn’t get quite the same impact for human interaction.”

Great white sightings have been reported in several northern areas, he says.

“I have heard of more great whites this summer than I have any other. And it’s not just Bowentown, I heard of two yesterday up at Mercury Island, we’ve seen ones up in Omaha, I’ve heard of a multitude down The Mount way, of varying sizes and I take each with a grain of salt, because it is hard to distinguish species when it comes to sharks.

“But it does seem like there’s a persistence and more of a prevalence of juvenile great whites around our northern beaches. But, look what do we expect, number one it’s the ocean and number two, there’s more toys around partly because of the lockdowns and number three, we’ve conserved this animal and that is the outcome intended, to repopulate this species.

Around this time last year, Kaelah Marlow, 19, from Hamilton, was killed by shark at Waihī Beach near Bowentown, on 8 January.

Elliot says the circumstances of the attack were unique.

“I did the coroner’s report on that so I can tell you it was definitely a 2.8m great white shark that caused that and the circumstance that led to that is novel and unique and reflective of how many variables have to be put together to cause an averse reaction with a shark.

“That was the fact that it was a storm day, there weren’t many people in the water, there were some people fishing well offshore of the flags, she got caught in a rip and ended up 500m offshore, which is a long way.

“She was panicking and drowning and just before the life guards get there a shark unfortunately bit the back of her leg and she bled out before she could get help.”

One major point of frustration for Elliot is that he couldn’t carry out research in the area since the attack, which he says would be instrumental in keeping sharks and humans alike safe. The Department of Conservation has still not given him permission to do so, after he applied for a special permit a year ago.

“That is the tragedy of the DOC permit process taking well over a year now, to enable research to occur there, because without research how you enable information, how you empower locals and people who visit the area to make their own decisions on risk-taking and I just hope this permit comes through.

“I’ve been able to do zero research in that area. I applied before the fatality to see what was evolving in this area regarding great whites and people and that permit process is supposed to take 20 working days. So far. it’s been a year and I have another 40 days for iwi consultation now and then hopefully progress, because the great white is an endangered species, it’s protected by the Animal Welfare Act and you can’t touch it, disturb it or research it at all without a permit from DOC.

“So as one of a handful of shark researchers in the world who specialises in exactly answering this question, and it’s in my backyard 50km down the coast, and I’ve been sitting on my hands for a year waiting for this, it’s really disempowering, not only for myself but for the people in that area.

“Most importantly I feel because two great whites have been killed in a totally preventable manner, because we weren’t there to highlight for them that this is an area of importance for them and we shouldn’t be setting barbaric set nets right in that hotspot.”

Research involves tagging the sharks to track their movements, he says. It would bring invaluable information so that locals in the area could make informed choices about where they used the water.

“With that you get a good understanding of where these sharks are foraging, resting, travelling, transiting and you can overlap that with our recreation and with that you can tell people, ‘look, there’s hotspots right here, if you want to go sea biscuiting there fine, but that is the risk. You’ve been told’.”

Another aspect of the research would involve genetic sampling to see if the sharks are all uniquely related, or are we dealing with a multitude of animals that have migrated there.

He doesn’t think people should simply stay out of the water in those areas generally, only those areas with the highest risk.

The shark expert has held a community information event in Bowentown and the response was one of fascination among locals, he says.

He went down to Bowentown and got a feel of where people swam and how they used the water, and where.

From those exercises he became aware of a number of risk areas.

“At the end of the day, it’s just like your dog. If you start overlapping where you feed it, where your kids play, you are putting the dog in a precarious position. It may defend its bowl at one stage,” he says.

“Basically, the association of people and sharks right now in that area, is largely related to fisherman who put berley out to catch fish and the sharks have learned to it’s far easier to catch fish on a line than catch one themselves.

“So, in the channels where the guys are fishing, do not overlap if you’re swimming in that area and the most high-risk spot I would say, is the water ski lanes inside Matakana Island, because that is also in the channel with good food sources there for the sharks. People fish, but it’s also ironically the water ski lanes with kids being towed around on sea biscuits.”

As a recreational user of the ocean, Elliot says he got into shark research because he was afraid of them and didn’t understand the animals. Now he has a better understanding he appreciates how well-behaved they are around people in the water.

“I think these sharks really behave themselves, given that if you’re at the beach you’ve seen how many human bodies on toys and sea biscuits, fishing boats and berley, and fish hooks thrown at these animals and we only really had those two encounters. It’s pretty reflective that the fact that these animals just do what they do, what they’ve learned to do for 500 million years, that is to hunt prey and leave us alone for the majority of the time.”

He says the boisterous behaviour observed in other places like Kaipara and Coromandel this summer is induced by human activity.

Knocking of boats and chewing on engine props are inquisitiveness, and sharks aren’t attempting to sink boats or get at humans.

“These events do not reflect a malicious or aggressive animal. We don’t see these sharks 99 percent of the other times because they’re doing what sharks do and to be frank, I’m sitting right here in Tairua Harbour in Pauanui looking out and there’s a million boats out there and jet skis and I can tell you there won’t be a single shark out there, because could you imagine the noise that creates compared to their natural habitat. So, they most often move out.”

He said it was useful to look at the contrast between incidents of shark encounters and the tragic water safety incidents involving deaths from drownings to appreciate context.

“We create much more dangerous scenarios for ourselves than what sharks pose for us, yet we give sharks this really unfair reputation and really some people poorly or maliciously react to them and they just don’t deserve it.”