By Wendy Osher
Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa said he believes most shark bites are accidental in nature, and does not personally like the idea of hunting sharks or setting up barrier fences off shore. In an exclusive interview, the mayor discussed options and mitigation measures in light of recent activity and reports.
“I think one of the major realities everyone needs to look at is sharks live in the water, and we have quite a few sharks in the Hawaiian waters. The vast majority do not harm people; and almost all the shark bites have been incidental bites where the shark’s been more curious than very aggressive,” said Mayor Arakawa.
The mayor said high surf stirring up sediment, murky water, and overfishing could all be factors in shark presence.
“So we’re going to have to be a little bit more careful, and what we really need to do is build up the fish population. We really need to start working on cleaning the ocean and making sure we’re not putting so much sediment and rubbish in the ocean–then, I think things will settle down.”
The mayor said there’s also been a lot of speculation that perhaps there are too many turtles now. “Sharks eat turtles; humans mimic turtles in a lot of ways–being on the boards and flapping in the water with their hands and feet–so I can see a mistake being made by a shark.”
So far this year, there have been eight confirmed incidents in Hawaiian waters, including four within the last month, state officials said. Of the eight shark bite incidents, DLNR officials say four were on Maui, three on the Big Island, and one was on Oʻahu.
Last year, there were a total of 10 confirmed shark incidents, the highest number ever recorded in a year, up from the average three to four incidents per year, according to state officials.
Mayor Arakawa, who claims to have enjoyed the ocean as a diver almost all of his life said he’s seen sharks in the water before. He said, “I don’t think we’re going to have a huge escalation (in shark bite incidents) unless we keep acting silly and depleting all of the natural resources and dirtying up the resources, where it makes it more difficult for the sharks to determine we’re there.”
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources will launch a shark study next month off Maui following the fatal attack of Jana Lutteropp, the 20-year-old German woman who died on Wednesday, Aug. 21 after her arm was severed in a shark attack incident at Maui’s Palauea Beach.
A $186,000, two-year study will focus on tiger shark movements around Maui, and compare their behavior to that of known movement patterns around the other main Hawaiian islands.
Other places have implemented mitigation measures that have included barrier fences or shark nets submerged around beaches where swimmers are present, to capture sharks and reduce mortality.
“Putting in barrier fences is not really going to solve much of the problem in my opinion,” said Mayor Arakawa. “I know in Australia they have some barrier areas for swimming areas, but even there they have shark bites and shark attacks–so, it doesn’t eliminate the problem.”
Another idea that has surfaced is shark hunting, which has been a controversial approach given the cultural sensitivity of the species as ʻaumakua. In some family traditions, deified ancestors are said to assume the shape of sharks, and in others are considered family or personal gods, according to references in the Hawaiian Dictionary and other texts.
“I personally don’t like the idea of hunting sharks, because we’ll end up with over-hunting, and the sharks serve a very definite purpose in the environment,” said Arakawa.
“Indeed, sharks have been over-hunted in the past, and it has created a real problem with getting rid of, for instance, whale carcasses. If you don’t have the scavengers in the ocean, you don’t have ways of getting rid of a lot of the waste in the ocean, so I don’t like the idea of over-hunting sharks.”
“If a shark tends to be very aggressive, and repetitive, I can see trying to hunt down a shark like that. The vast majority of sharks are reef sharks. They’re there all the time and they don’t cause anyone any harm,” he said.
The mayor said he believes shark bites are a random occurrence and pointed toward the larger number of people in the water saying, “Quite frankly for the number of people that we have in the water these days, the tourists that are in the water now–we have a lot more people in the water than we used to. So, proportionately, the shark attacks are much, much, less [likely] even than being hit by bolts of lightning.”
The mayor expressed sympathy and condolences following last week’s turn of events saying, “We’re very sorry that the woman died, very young at 20-years-old. It really is a tragic event. It’s just very unfortunate that she was bitten to the extent that she was.”
“We really do feel sorry for her and for her relatives… (and) extend our warmest condolences to them. It was not a pleasant thing, and she’s much too young,” he said.
Looking ahead, Arakawa said efforts will continue to provide resources and equipment for county services in beach areas.
“We’ll try and do our best, which is why we have lifeguards at most of the county beach areas where we think most people are going to be; and we do have a lot of equipment that we supply the lifeguards with to be able to identify things like sharks. Many times we do identify when there is a shark in the water and clear the beaches. We will continue with those types of practices, because we don’t want anyone bitten,” he said.