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Surge in shark attacks alarms Hawaii visitors, business owners

By Maeve Reston

Los Angeles Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 12:35 p.m. HST, Jan 17, 2014


MAKENA STATE PARK » After a record year of attacks across the Hawaii archipelago, sharks were not far from Colin Dececco's mind as the sun went down on the long white strip of sand here on a recent Sunday evening.

He and his daughter had had a close encounter with a reef shark while swimming around the rocky cove at the north end of Makena's Big Beach that morning. Now, watching a spear fisherman haul in his catch as they strolled by the same spot at sunset, they heard a splash at the edge of his net.

It was an 8-foot tiger shark, one of the most aggressive shark species in Hawaii's waters and the likely culprit for many of the 14 attacks in 2013, eight of which occurred around Maui, near Makena's beaches and elsewhere. Releasing his net, the fisherman took off running down the shoreline, shouting for swimmers to get out of the water.

"By then everyone was kind of running," Dececco said in an interview moments after he and his daughter had scrambled up the rocky cliff above the cove for a better view. "Tiger sharks -- you don't play with them."

In a state where tourism drives the economy, the uptick in shark encounters has alarmed visitors and business owners alike. Both 2013 fatalities -- a German snorkeler and a Washington state kayak fisherman -- occurred in the waters near Makena State Park. But there are no permanent warning signs here on a coastline that boasts luxury hotels including the Four Seasons Resort Maui and the Waldorf Astoria's Grand Wailea.

For years, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources has posted signs and closed the beach immediately after an attack until noon the next day, if officials on helicopter and jet ski patrols believe the shark has left the vicinity. And for now, they see no need to change that policy.

"There is no pattern. There are spikes; there are lulls," said William Aila Jr., the department's chairman. But shortly after the German tourist died in August, the state agency announced a two-year, $186,000 study by University of Hawaii researchers to determine whether tiger sharks spend more time in areas used for ocean recreation around Maui than the other islands.

So far, the increases in attacks in 2012 and 2013 -- which followed three years in which there were just three shark attacks annually -- do not appear to have affected tourism. More than 2.1 million people visited Maui last year, figures that Terryl Vencl, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau, said she had not seen since before the recession.

"I think people realize it is still a rare occurrence," Vencl said in an email.

There is no question, however, that many swimmers and snorkelers are adjusting their routines based on the location of encounters. No pattern has emerged linking the likelihood of an attack with the distance from shore: The kayak fisherman was 900 yards off Makena; the German snorkeler was 50 yards offshore. But a number of tourists said in interviews that they were not swimming out as far.

"I went in waist-deep, that was it," said Karen O'Brien, a 49-year-old tourist from Toronto. Last year, O'Brien snorkeled off Molokini, a small island off the southwest coast of Maui. But after reading that the kayak fisherman was attacked near Molokini, she said, "I wasn't interested."

Island native Lorraine Alesna, who has long fished at Makena Landing -- a popular launching spot for kayakers and snorkelers -- shook her head at the jet skiers, kite surfers and other tourists who zoomed into the waves without paying attention to pupping season for sharks (the winter months), or common-sense tips like avoiding turbid water that attracts them.

"People that come from the mainland have no respect for anything, neither the ocean nor the land," Alesna said. "We grew up knowing, by the elders, what we can and cannot do in certain times of the year."

Like many longtime residents and fishermen here, Alesna offers myriad theories for the rise in shark attacks. She questions whether the tsunami in Japan increased the level of radiation in the water, driving sharks closer to shore. (State officials say radiation levels are normal.) She argues that the recovery of the population of Hawaiian green sea turtles -- protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1978 -- is luring sharks closer to the beach, and she says it's time for officials to allow hunting the turtles again.

But Carl Meyer, a marine biologist leading the University of Hawaii study, said there was no evidence to support that theory, or many of the others he had heard. Turtles, for example, are just one part of the broad diet favored by tiger sharks, which are known as the "garbage cans" of the ocean. He also dismisses the frequently cited notion that there are more tiger sharks in the water and that they are hungrier than in past years.

One known fact, Meyer said, is that there are more kayak fisherman, kite surfers and paddle boarders than a few decades ago -- and the study will look at whether tiger sharks are more prevalent in areas of Maui where those sports are most popular.

A website where people can track the movements of the sharks tagged by Meyer and his team has fascinated many tourists and other ocean visitors. Both the state and the university hope it will generate curiosity about sharks, rather than fear, in the midst of renewed debate over whether there should be a shark culling program, which would face fierce resistance among native Hawaiians who consider sharks to be a sacred protector.

The fact that are very few shark attacks relative to how many millions of people are in the water is something of a credo here -- from waiters to dive guides, locals are quick to point out that visitors are more likely to die in their cars on the way to the beach.

Minutes after the recent sighting of the 8-foot tiger shark off Big Beach, bolder swimmers were back in the water there and at adjacent Little Beach, a nude sunbathing spot where hundreds of people gather on Sunday nights for a drum circle.

Tadd Laton, a 20-year-old waiter who moved to Maui from San Jose, Calif., watched the night swimmers from the cliff overlooking the Little Beach drum circle. After the attacks, locals wouldn't be in those waves at night, Laton said, and he now follows that rule too.

Still, he says he refuses to be cowed. "Life could end at any moment," Laton said. "If I die from a shark attack, that would be a cool way to die." But, he added, "if I see one, I'm going to head right back to shore."







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Jerry_D wrote:
Blame Fukushima, I'm telling ya! Radiation in the ocean currents killing off food stock, so predators must migrate elsewhere to hunt, and they end up in Hawaii. I'd be more worried if/when the shark attacks STOP occurring, because that would mean the predators have migrated away once the radiation after-effects have reached Hawaiian waters.
on January 17,2014 | 10:07AM
eoe wrote:
How to break it to you? You are a MO RON.
on January 17,2014 | 10:57AM
GONEGOLFIN wrote:
Actually, I believe it is spelled "MOR AN"
on January 17,2014 | 06:01PM
Jerry_D wrote:
Scientists just say there is no evidence to support the radiation theory. They do NOT say the theory is nullified. You, eoe, are the closed-minded ignoramous.
on January 18,2014 | 08:09AM
dlum003 wrote:
Thank you for that riveting scientific assessment. And here I was wasting my time listening to marine biologists until you showed up with your brilliance.
on January 18,2014 | 07:31AM
Jerry_D wrote:
You, like eoe, are also a closed-minded ignoramous. Scientists do not discredit the theory....they just state there is no evidence (yet) to support it. Yet, it's well known that, if attacked by orcas, white sharks migrate from California to Hawaii. What's to stop them from doing the same if there is other danger in the water, such as radiation?
on January 18,2014 | 08:12AM
loquaciousone wrote:
It's not the shark's fault. Humans ought to lose weight and stop looking like turtles.
on January 17,2014 | 10:24AM
GONEGOLFIN wrote:
Where have you been swimming?
on January 17,2014 | 06:01PM
waverider808 wrote:
my theory is this: since the stopping of finning sharks as a practice and convincing all restaurants around the world to quit eating shark fin soup, there are hundreds of thousands more sharks hunting the seas. since we have not stopped overfishing the oceans, there is less food all around for the predators so they will seek food elsewhere and hunt in places they didn't before, thus more shark attacks. I only see more attacks in the coming years. when we enter the ocean for whatever reason, we step into the food chain.
on January 17,2014 | 12:46PM
eoe wrote:
Ixne.
on January 17,2014 | 02:40PM
Jerry_D wrote:
eoe, you're such a MO RON that all you can do is make LAME comments. How's about demonstrating some higher order intelligence with your comments? Not capable, I presume.
on January 18,2014 | 08:14AM
Ronin006 wrote:
The surge in shark attacks is easy to explain. The state’s ban on shark fin soup and the ban on the importation of shark fins have resulted in fewer sharks being killed and a rapid increase in the shark population. They have got to eat something. A visitor to Hawaii is as good a meal as a monk seal.
on January 17,2014 | 06:46PM
rrslaton wrote:
HELLO, reality! This is not "breaking news" or "More News" (either from the link or the title), this is TWO days old news from the L.A. Times. It's either not news or it's a story about a story (shark attacks), but this "article" is neither. Simply republishing something is a sad commentary on the abysmal state of "news" at the StarAdvertiser.
on January 17,2014 | 09:36PM
bumba wrote:
"If I die from a shark attack, that would be a cool way to die." I D I O T caucazoid.
on January 18,2014 | 03:44AM
dlum003 wrote:
If any culling takes place, it should be visitors and business owners, not sharks. They don't own the ocean. Swim in a pool if you're scared, you can kill any sharks that show up in there.
on January 18,2014 | 07:29AM
Pathfinder wrote:
"But there are no permanent warning signs here on a coastline that boasts luxury hotels including the Four Seasons Resort Maui and the Waldorf Astoria's Grand Wailea." Should the sign say, "Guess what folks….. Sharks live in the Ocean"?! It's a fact- they live there and always have!
on January 18,2014 | 07:38AM
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