By Philip Dorling
Most Australians don't fear shark attacks, feel safe in the sea and don't support killing sharks to make beaches safer.
According to a new poll by UMR research, 83 per cent of Australians haven't changed how often they swim, surf or take part in other recreational activities in the ocean because of the risk of shark attack.
UMR found that 78 per cent of 500 adults interviewed feel safe from shark attacks when going into the ocean, 82 per cent don't think that sharks should be killed and say people enter the water at their own risk.
Nine per cent of those interviewed say they have cut back their beach going activities "a little bit", while 5 per cent say they have reduced their time in the water "by a lot".
However, there is significant support for using nets or meshing to protect beaches from sharks, with 25 per cent of people saying all beaches should be protected, while 60 per cent favour protecting "some beaches".
But only 15 per cent favour hunting down and killing sharks to make beaches safer.
Anxiety about shark attacks appears to be slightly higher among people who live in major cities than those who live in regional Australia, and may be significantly higher among West Australians, 22 per cent of whom say they had reduced their beach activities, although this figure is based on a comparatively smaller number of interviews in that state.
The West Australian government last week began a controversial culling program that has drawn angry reactions from conservationists.
A spokesman for the West Australian government confirmed that a commercial fisherman had caught and shot the first shark under the program at the weekend, a three-metre tiger shark found one kilometre off Old Dunsborough in the state's south-west.
The government's program of using hooked lines attached to floating drums to cull sharks follows the deaths of seven people in shark attacks in West Australian waters over the past three years.
The culling program has gone ahead after federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt granted Western Australia an exemption under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act allowing the state to hunt sharks.
The exemption allows it to hunt great white sharks, which are flagged as "vulnerable" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species and are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Recent research by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts has indicated that great whites may live for more than 70 years – more than twice as long as scientists had thought was the maximum age for the species. Animals that live for a long time, grow slowly, and reproduce later in life are much more sensitive to pressures such as hunting and fishing and environmental changes.
The federal Environment Department says that, despite a general scarcity of data on the great white's population, there appears to be "an overall, long-term decline in abundance of white sharks in Australian and international waters".
West Australian Premier Colin Barnett said on Monday the bait-and-kill policy puts people first.
"When you have sharks that are three, four, five metres long of known aggressive varieties, swimming in the water very close to beachgoers, that is an imminent danger.
"I get no pleasure out of seeing sharks killed but I have an overriding responsibility to protect the people of Western Australia."