The Australian Grey Nurse shark persecution is an incredibly sad but classic tale of mistaken identity. Big and fierce looking, with a set of prominent sharp teeth, the Grey Nurse (Carcharias taurus) moves through the water in a slow but determined manner that creates a physically intimidating presence guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of the uninitiated observer.
My first such encounter was about 15 years ago at Flat Rock near Stradbroke Island in Moreton Bay, Queensland. I was diving the shark gutters on the northeast side of Flat Rock, where Grey Nurse Sharks are known to gather from June to October each year. Although thoroughly briefed on what to expect and do prior to entering the water, I have to admit I was more than just a little concerned when I saw the first shark heading in my direction.
We had been told not to obstruct the shark’s path in anyway and just stay calm while they swim past and sure enough the big female, almost 3m long, did exactly that – completely ignoring me!
Since that first encounter I have been fortunate to spend a fair amount of time underwater with Australian Grey Nurse Sharks, and been so close that I could tell whether they had halitosis, but I can honestly say that I have never once felt threatened or in any real danger.
So why is it that in just 40 years the Grey Nurse has gone from one of the most common sharks in Australia, to an endangered species, when it is not a dangerous shark?
Australian Grey Nurse Shark Persecution – Mistaken Identity…
The early 1960’s were a time of increasing prosperity for the “Lucky Country” and our urban population turned increasingly to the sea for sport & entertainment.
Surfing, spearfishing and game fishing became increasingly popular, and the macho image of these water sports suited the times well.
Marine science was also in it’s infancy, with very little was known about the inhabitants of our coastal waters.
Sharks were generally considered to be very dangerous creatures and large sharks like the Grey Nurse, were automatically assumed to be man-eaters.
Just as newspapers today automatically assign a shark attack to the Great White, back in the 1960’s the Grey Nurse was the “usual suspect”.
Catching one of these supposed man-eaters was considered a heroic act & one guaranteed to draw a big crowd back on the beach when the dead shark was hoisted up for all to see.
Although predominantly solitary in nature, Grey Nurse sharks congregate at certain times of the year as part of their mating patterns. Those colonies added to the confusion because they were perceived as “shark infested” locations – particularly if they were anywhere near public beaches, such as with the one at Magic Point near Maroubra, just round the headland from Bondi Beach in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
Aggregating in such a predictable way meant that the Grey Nurse, compared to other large sharks, was relatively easy to catch or spear and the sentiment of the times was the only good shark, was a dead one…
The 1960’s was really not a good time to be an Australian Grey Nurse Shark as later in that decade saw the introduction of the explosive underwater powerhead, which tilted the odds well away from the Grey Nurse and in favor of the many spearfishermen using them, resulting in hundreds of sharks being killed.
The impact of this widespread slaughter was two-fold and initially it decimated the Grey Nurse population on the east coast of Australia.
But in the longer term it had a compounding effect because it takes between six to eight years for a juvenile Grey Nurse shark to reach sexual maturity, and once they start breeding the birth rate is a maximum of two pups every second year – meaning that the population grows very slowly even when things are normal.
Grey Nurse sharks reach a maximum size of around 3.5 meters and are believed to live for about 25 years, hence the widespread killing of so many mature, and therefore sexually active, sharks in the 60’s & 70’s meant that it doomed those that survived the carnage to potential extinction unless dramatic changes occurred.
It seems sadly ironic that what we now know as a quite docile shark could be hunted to the verge of extinction in such a way.