Monday, March 06, 2006

Will New Zealand help in preventing the extinction of the great white shark?

Despite a summer of sightings the great white shark is on the brink of extinction and if the minister of conservation has his way they'll soon be protected in New Zealand waters.

But across the Tasman where they are already protected some claim it could be a fatal error.
Pete Cronshaw from 20/20 reports on a kiwi fisherman who for 40 terrifying minutes faced the gigantic jaws of a great white off a Northland beach.

"I thought I was gonna die, I thought I'm never going to see my wife and kids again, that's it, it's over," says Paul Morris.

When Morris first saw the shark his initial reaction was "wow, this thing is so magnificent".
However Morris was less impressed when the shark turned around and swam directly towards the side of his kayak.

"I's going to eat me."

Morris reached for a knife to cut his fishing line, but in his haste to jettison the catch he stabbed himself in the knee.

"I've got fresh blood on the boat, I'm bleeding in the water and there's this massive shark."

Morris, who describes the incident as "the scariest 40 minutes of my life", was a kilometre away from the safety of land. He says that as he slowly paddled for the shore the six metre shark stalked him the entire way in a harrowing game of cat and mouse.

"I bawled my eyes out the whole time and just out of sheer fear dropped my bowels and bladder and everything."

He escaped the jaws of the ocean's most terrifying killer but says life has never been the same.
"I went from being super confident and invincible... to this person that's constantly shaking and nightmares and cold sweats and stuttering."

Clinton Duffy, who is the keeper of New Zealand's shark attack records, says if the shark had decided to really have a go and attack, Morris would be lucky to survive.

Nothing in the ocean carries the same sinister menace as the great white. And that's part of the appeal for Duffy who reckons time's running out for researchers and that the evidence suggests the great white is fast headed towards extinction.

"We know very little about most sharks... a decade ago we knew almost nothing about great white sharks. I guess in some respects it's got [the movie] Jaws to thank."

But times change and conservationists, including minister Chris Carter, now believe it's the great white that needs protecting, not people.

"Yes they're dangerous, but they're also beautiful, they're also part of this world and we need to look after them," says Carter.

However in Port Lincoln, South Australia, where the great white's have enjoyed nearly a decade of protection, the beaches are deserted and a spate of recent attacks has got the locals calling for a cull.

A great white killed Dave Buckland's best friend's son in 2000 and his younger brother Paul in 2002 and he wants to see their numbers reduced.

"I think there's too many of them, they've been protected for too long."

Buckland has one of the most dangerous jobs in Port Lincoln - abalone diving. He stayed out of the water for six months after the attack on his brother and now uses a special shark proof cage when he's working.

He says great whites are an increasing threat.

"Last year we had the most sightings by abalone divers in one year, ever. And that's a pretty good indication to me that they're on the increase."

Buckland has a blunt warning for New Zealanders.

"The government will end up with blood on their hands if they start protecting them... when someone gets taken on a main beach or something and they do nothing about it... I'm sure the community will jump up and down like they have here in South Australia."

But the risk is minimal according to NZ's conservation minister.

"The chances of being attacked by a great white are less than being struck by lightning - we are talking about an infinitesimally small risk... there's more risk of walking out onto a busy road and being struck down by a car," says Carter.

But Port Lincoln cray fisherman Jake Heron knows three men who have been killed by sharks. And he isn't just mourning the loss of three mates. The keen surfer has also had a lucky escape of his own.

A great white attack last September left Heron with horrific wounds to his leg and arm and a hunger for pay-back.

"Everybody says you're entering their world... it's their domain. It's not their domain... it's our domain... who runs this planet?... they're fish."

Carter says while he would feel sympathy and sadness for the family over the loss of a loved one he doesn't think that is a sufficient argument to say "don't protect this species".

However, marine biologist Andrew Fox says that the threat of a shark attack in New Zealand waters is very real. Fox is based on the Neptune Islands in the Southern ocean, an area crawling with the great white's favourite food - New Zealand fur seals.

Despite this he will happily jump in the water - in a cage that is.

"You've got to get over that fear factor... it's just fear of the unknown. As long as you're staying inside the cage there's no danger. Amazingly a lot of people want to get out of the cage but we don't let them."

Fox is more at home around monster sharks now but says that every day they surprise him.
"We're still learning so much about them."

So what does the future hold for great whites in New Zealand's waters?

"I want young New Zealanders in future generations and older New Zealanders to be able to go out on a boat and see if they're lucky, because they are hard to see, a great white swimming in the ocean," says Carter.

But contrary to what the minister says, you don't have to go far to find one of these sharks - a three metre great white was hooked in the Manukau harbour just a couple hundred metres off the runway at Auckland international airport.

Duffy tagged and released the "Manukau monster" in the name of science. He claims they're not as dangerous as popular mythology makes them out to be but reiterates that they are one of the ocean's biggest mysteries.

Meanwhile Paul Morris is still trying to come to terms with his encounter with a great white. He'll bear the psychological scars for life but he holds no ill feeling towards the huge fish.

"I don't blame the shark for what it did... cos at the end of the day when we go out there, we're in their world."


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