At this very moment, there is a tiger shark lurking in the waters off Western Australia about 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) off the coast from Swanbourne Beach in greater Perth. Nobody in the ocean has actually seen the shark and it certainly hasn’t attacked anyone just yet, but we know it’s out there. How? It sent out a tweet.
Fisheries advise: tagged Tiger shark detected at Swanbourne receiver at 06:53:00 AM on 31-Dec-2013
â€” Surf Life Saving WA (@SLSWA) December 30, 2013
Some 338 tiger sharks, whaler sharks and great whites are now armed with radio transmitters embedded in their stomachs, which beam out coordinates to Western Australia’s Shark Monitoring Network. The network then passes this information along to Surf Life Saving Western Australia, which generates an automatic tweet that beams details out to the shark-fearing public.
SLSWA also tweets reports of visual sightings to its nearly 20,000 followers. On Monday, for instance, a Westpac Lifesaver Helicopter sighted a 2.5-meter (8.2-foot) tiger shark tracking toward shore just 150 meters (500-feet) off Meelup Beach about 250 kilometers (160 miles) south of Perth. The lifeguards tweeted out the information and closed the beach.
If this sounds a bit like a scene out of “Jaws,” a quick glance at SLSWA’s Twitter feed reveals that such shark sightings are anything but an anomaly.
A photo of the 5m shark off Brighton Beach this morning. This photo is taken from the Westpac Lifesaver Helicopter. pic.twitter.com/Hre7JnNEzz
â€” Surf Life Saving WA (@SLSWA) December 29, 2013
In fact, Western Australia has more unprovoked shark attacks than anywhere else in the world. The latest fatality occurred in November when surfer Chris Boyd, 35, was killed in Gracetown. He was the sixth person to die in the region in just two years’ time.
To combat the problem, the state government allocated more than $20 million over four years for shark hazard mitigation strategies. It set baited drum lines to catch large sharks one kilometer from the shore, established shark management zones and developed a “tool kit” for communities to mitigate the risk of shark attack at beaches.
The Shark Monitoring Network is the latest, most high-tech and least controversial initiative of them all. Project Manager Mark Kleeman said the network now has 19 satellite-linked monitors off the coast of greater Perth (the vast state’s only densely populated area) and four others down the coast to Albany’s King George Sound. More monitors are expected in the coming months along the southwest coast.
“These new monitors at these popular beaches will allow beach users to know if a tagged shark is near the beach with near real-time alerts,” Kleeman said.
The plan is as much about saving humans as it is about saving sharks. “Along with the satellite-linked monitors, there are approximately 320 seabed monitors located throughout Western Australia that also monitor tagged sharks, and each time that data is physically retrieved it will help establish a much broader snapshot for understanding shark behavior and movement,” Kleeman added.
The battery life of the internal tags is up to 10 years, allowing scientists to gather “unprecedented” data on the still-mysterious fish.
While conservationists have lauded the new initiative, it comes just after Western Australia enacted a controversial scheme allowing professional fishermen to kill sharks larger than 3 meters (10 feet) found in certain zones used by surfers and beachgoers.
“The concept of ‘let’s go out and kill them’ is an archaic approach to a shark attack problem, and its opportunities for success are generally slim to none,” George Burgess, director of the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File, said of Western Australia’s method in a report earlier this year. “It’s mostly a feel-good revenge -- like an ‘eye for an eye’ approach.”
Humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks annually, while sharks killed just seven people in 2012. Many activists hope expanding programs like the tweeting sharks of Western Australia can help stave off both unnecessary culls and fatal encounters.