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Fear of Sydney sharks has no teeth

Posted: Wednesday, September 13, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia -- The truth about the dreaded S-word is that Australians eat far more sharks than sharks eat Australians.

And in regard to potential ''Jaws'' incidents among triathlon swimmers in the early spring chill of Sydney Harbor, forget about it.

''Not a chance,'' Giles Macleay said, chuckling, when asked about the odd Olympic bite. As the Sydney Aquarium shark expert and after five years of closely studying great whites in South Australia, he would know.

''Look,'' he said, ''with all those swimmers in the water, the officials' boats, all the spectator noise, you think any shark in his right mind would hang around anywhere close?''

Macleay was among those who tested special pods that divers will carry among triathlon competitors, just in case, emitting pulses to render the underwater vicinity user-unfriendly to large fish.

''It's a bit of a joke, really,'' he said. ''Mainly, it's just to make people feel better.''

Sharks are not necessarily funny in Australian waters. They kill an average of one person a year. But bees and lightning bolts each account for twice as many deaths, and crocodiles come pretty close.

In the Sydney area, Marisa Hathaway was the last to succumb to a shark back in 1963, and that was because she bled to death while waiting for a delayed ambulance.

Only five species of the world's 375 or so sorts of shark are considered dangerous to humans -- most far prefer fish -- and of those, only the bronze whaler frequents Sydney waters.

Those famous nets off the beaches are only pockets of mesh along a 120-mile strip. They catch resident sharks, which circle around in one area, but a passer-by can slip through the gaps for an easy lunch.

Experts say the danger is greater from white sharks off Mexico or other species in southern U.S. waters. A bull shark killed a swimmer off St. Pete Beach in Florida last month.

In Sydney, sharks are most visible as long strips of white fillet, marked ''flake,'' in any decent fish market.

''If you call it shark, people won't touch it,'' said Steve Khaouli, a broker at Sydney's huge Fish Market. ''As flake, it sells great.'' At $4 a pound, it is half the price of salmon, but twice as much as sea mullet.

''I love the stuff,'' exults Rob Griffith, a local gourmet who steams it in herbs, bakes it with lemon butter and fries it in batter or with sweet chili teriyaki sauce. ''It's tender, firm, tasty, boneless and not oily.''

Only smaller sharks are sold to be cut up into flake, mostly because fishers are not eager to wrestle to the death a half-ton monster on the rolling deck of a boat. But fishing nets still take a huge toll.

Authorities say 30,000 tons of grey nurse sharks are caught each year and thrown back, mostly to die. The grey nurse joined the worldwide endangered species list in 1999, along with the great white.

Altogether, marine researchers say, more than 100 million sharks are caught each year by crews from 125 countries, but only Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada have efficient controls.

Huge numbers are killed for their distinctive dorsal, the vital ingredient for Chinese shark's fin soup. Crews hack off the fins and toss the rest overboard.

''Game fishing is a particular problem down here,'' Macleay said. ''People just love to hang a big set of jaws on their wall.''

Macleay saw ''Jaws'' at the age of 8 and had nightmares like everyone else. Growing into his career as a marine specialist, however, he eventually shook off his early fears.

Now, he dives into the tanks to hand-deliver dinner to sharks in the impressive aquariums at Darling Harbor and nearby Manly.

''Actually, our seals are a lot more dangerous, with a bite like a dog or a bear,'' he said. ''But sharks suffer from misinformation. They look so mean, and there is nothing cuddly about them.''

There was the time Macleay needed eight stitches because a grey nurse in the aquarium decided his hand was part of the menu at feeding time. But he blames himself.

''That was like a carpenter banging his finger with a hammer,'' he said, with a shrug. ''Some days you're not on the ball, and he is.''

The aquarium sharks are fed three times a week so they don't snack on their neighbors. In the open ocean, a big shark can go for a week between one decent meal and another.

Researchers believe it is fairly safe to swim among great whites, Macleay said, although no one is hurrying to test out the theory in person.

In Australia, at least, people and sharks cohabit just fine. If an exaggerated threat might keep some visitors away, the attraction of it brings others.

And in any case, sharks, like crocs, are an Australian icon.

Inside the Sydney Aquarium, a large poster placates fears by pointing out how many more victims die in traffic accidents than in the ocean. As the visitors exit, however, they walk smack into the Shark Bite Cafe.



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