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Will Killing Sharks Finally Stop Hawai‘i’s Epidemic of Attacks?

Shark attacks spiked 56 percent over the past four years. Folks on O‘ahu and the Neighbor Islands are nervously asking why. HONOLULU dives deep to find out what’s going on, and what’s different, this time around.


(page 3 of 5)

So, what’s going on? Why are there so many attacks? Why was the shark so persistent? 


Surfer Rick Gruzinski’s 1992 close call.
Photo: warren bolster, courtesy of jim borg, tigers of the sea: hawai‘i’s deadly sharks

There are three types of answers: the scientific, the anecdotal and the Native Hawaiian. Each has its place in the discussion. It turns out that being the nation’s No. 2 in shark attacks (72 versus 323 for Florida from 2001–2014) spurs government funding and has made Hawai‘i a world leader in shark research. Over the past 30 years, teams at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island in Kāne‘ohe Bay have tagged almost 1,000 sharks, including 14 O‘ahu tiger sharks electronically bugged in 2014. (Tiger sharks are believed to cause most severe bites and almost all fatalities; great white sharks may have caused fatalities, but are rare visitors; Galapagos, sandbar, reef, mako and hammerhead sharks are biters who are not linked to any Hawai‘i fatalities.)


HONOLULU contacted two leading researchers who partner together, Kim Holland of the Hawai‘i Institute and Carl Meyer of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Holland played a key role in responding to the other shark attack spike, from 1991-–1994, when the Islands reeled from 25 attacks, six of them fatal. The duo agreed to take HONOLULU’s questions (Read here for a longer interview). 


We also spoke with a longtime researcher with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, Charles Littnan, whose specialty, monk seals, takes him into shark territory in the Papahānaumokuākea Northwest Marine National Monument and other places. And, in addition to fishermen, divers, surfers and many others, we talked with kupuna Leighton Tseu. He is a master mariner and cultural practitioner, who once shared a ship’s foc’sle with Littnan on a voyage to French Frigate Shoals in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, where Tseu represented the Native Hawaiian perspective and helped mediate the contentious issue of culling manō (shark).  



To scientists Holland and Meyer, the story can be told in one graph: “The annual number of shark bites in Hawai‘i has increased over time in concert with increases in the human population of the Hawaiian Islands.” It’s that simple: Population growth, from 600,000 at statehood in 1959 to today’s 1.4 million, plus tourism, means more ankles in the water to bite. 


Sandbar shark at sunset.
Photo: Julian Oliphant 


“Over time,” say Holland and Meyer, “we are also inventing new types of ocean recreation, many of which take us further offshore into shark habitat than was previously the case.” Take kayak fishing, an idea that upends the famous line by Jaws’ shark-catching Martin Brody: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Kayak fishermen go smaller, trading security for excitement. Search YouTube and watch a shark erupt out of the ocean to take Isaac Brumaghim’s catch. His viral video spawned a reality show this year, Pacific Warriors, which will undoubtedly put even more fishermen into kayaks. The show went on because of, not despite, a fatal attack on a kayak fisherman (not a cast member) off Maui in 2013. 


The scientific answer is simple and straightforward. But it seems to satisfy just about no one. On the anecdotal side, many surfers, fishermen, divers and ocean enthusiasts have noticed more sharks around, hunting closer inshore than people remembered, and acting more aggressively around people—even wind- and kite-surfers have reported attacks. Many of these same recreational enthusiasts blame the shark’s diet, amid other factors, listed below with a side of scientific opinion:


Shark-dive encounter observing a tiger.
Photo: Juan Oliphant 


• Too many turtles—since becoming a protected species in 1975, green turtles have gone from nearly extinct to a population estimated at 61,000. (“No one knows for sure … and some known facts potentially confound this speculative relationship,” say Holland/Meyer.) 


• Too many monk seals and whales, also protected. (With the exception of great whites, “sharks are very cautious of attacking prey that is large; a tiger going up against a 1,000-pound monk seal is a dangerous interaction for the shark,” says Littnan; a one-ton, 12-foot baby humpback is as big as any tiger shark.) 


• Too many fishing regulations—limiting catches attracts sharks to bountiful fish stocks. (“There have been no major changes in the fishing pressure on Hawai‘i’s coastal areas in recent years and so the amount of food available to sharks has probably remained more or less stable,” say Holland/Meyer.) 


• Too few regulations and weak enforcement—conversely, some argue that overfishing sends ravenous sharks inshore in search of food. (See above.) 


• Too many pregnant females—pregnant tiger sharks are undoubtedly drawn to pup in Maui’s warm shallow coastal plain and are commonly assumed to be ravenous and even desperate eaters. (“We see more shark bites during the fall pupping season for tiger sharks. However … it is important to remember that shark bites occur in all months of the year, and not all shark bites are caused by pregnant female tiger sharks.”)


Photo: juan oliphant

The fact is, each of these suppositions ignores the way a tiger hunts: “constantly yo-yo diving between the surface and the seabed,” down as deep as 1,800 feet, while ranging sometimes for hundreds and even thousands of miles. Being surface swimmers and divers, we focus on the things we see where we play—turtles and inshore fishes, seals and baby whales—whereas the prey tigers hunt runs deeper and wider than we’d ever go. During the 1959–70s period of culling, of all large tiger shark stomachs examined—over 10 feet, the length at which they lose their timidity and might consider bigger prey—42 percent contained sharks and rays, 40 percent fishes, 35 percent crabs and lobsters, and 25 percent birds. Only 15 percent contained turtles.  


Another popular hypothesis assumes tigers mistake surfers or bodyboarders for seals. Littnan explains this is an imported theory born out of great white shark encounters with seals in cold-water sites including Northern California’s infamous Red Triangle and South Africa’s False Bay, both places where surfers wear full-body, usually black, wetsuits. In Hawai‘i, such wetsuits are rare. But, also, tigers don’t have an appetite for seals. “Compared to the 470,000 pinnipeds in California, in the main Hawaiian Islands we only have a population of 200,” Littnan says. “Sharks like consistency in a food source. Seals in Hawai‘i aren’t sending a strong enough signal. It’s a blip on their radar. I’ve seen seals and tigers swim right past each other.”


“To me, it’s not the menu, it’s the desecration,” says Leighton Tseu, a career master mariner with Matson and a cultural practitioner whose voyages as an emissary have taken him to Satawal, where he lived with future Hōkūle‘a navigator Mau Piailug, to the farthest north of the Hawaiian Islands, Nihoa. Like many Native Hawaiians, he’s incensed at the carnival atmosphere of the Weaver and 1991–’94 cullings, scenes straight out of Jaws, with sharks strung up on the dock for gawking tourists. 


In old Hawai‘i, things were different when it came to manō. European sailors wrote of seeing Native Hawaiians swimming with large sharks with seeming impunity, batting their noses when they got too close. There were accounts of swimmers riding large tiger sharks after feeding them the mildly narcotic ‘awa root. There were shark gods. Certain families considered sharks to be their ancestral spirits, or ‘aumakua. Kupuna Tseu, now 68, recalls being instructed by his kūpuna in the lineage of the 42 shark families in Hawaiian genealogy.


“If you study the history of Pearl Harbor, that was the house of manō. Two important manō that lived there, they protected the whole area and people used to see them.” But then the Navy came in and constructed a drydock. “They built it on the house,” says Tseu. “Since that time, we’ve seen the destruction of Pearl Harbor; we cannot eat anything; the oysters and clams are pilau; mangroves are all gone; crabs not as plentiful. All that’s because of the destruction of the house. Anytime you disturb manō, he’ll disappear, but he’ll change his thinking. Now he’s more aggressive. They’re getting bigger and bigger as they come in to shore, and they’re not afraid.”

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