Reasons For All The Shark Attacks

Nineteen-year-old Kiowa Gatewood examines bite marks on his surfboard as he lies in his hospital bed after surgery to his left leg at Queen's Medical Center July 30. Gatewood was attacked by a 9- to 12-foot tiger shark while surfing at White Plains Beach approximately 20 yards from shore. Jamm Aquino / ‘Honolulu Star-Advertiser’ photo

Nineteen-year-old Kiowa Gatewood examines bite marks on his surfboard as he lies in his hospital bed after surgery to his left leg at Queen’s Medical Center July 30. Gatewood was attacked by a 9- to 12-foot tiger shark while surfing at White Plains Beach approximately 20 yards from shore. Jamm Aquino / ‘Honolulu Star-Advertiser’ photo

State officials say they’re puzzled by the dramatic uptick in shark attacks on humans in Hawaii waters. After averaging about four such attacks per year over the past 20 years, there have been 13 attacks this year. Of those, eight were in waters off Maui, two of them fatal.

Having reported on sharks in Hawaii for more than two decades, I do not believe 2013 is just a statistical anomaly, and have a theory to explain the increase. It’s pretty simple:

There are more sharks and – more significantly – more big sharks.

Thus, there’s more competition for food at a time the numbers of reef fish have been diminished.

I wanted to run my idea past John Naughton, now retired from National Marine Fisheries but still a goto guy on sharks for many of us in the scribbling trade.

A bit of background: It was from John that I learned about the work of professor Albert Tester at UH-Manoa. As John told me for a March 1993 Mid-Week cover story, a fear frenzy erupted after a fatal attack on Billy Weaver, 15, as he was surfing with friends near the Mokuluas off Lanikai Dec. 13, 1958, 55 years ago this week. Prof. Tester provides details in an academic paper, including that the killer tiger shark was estimated at 15 to 25 feet (Google “Billy Weaver shark attack” and it’s the first thing to pop up). The next day, 15 large sharks were spotted from the air in Kailua Bay. A shark hunt was launched immediately by government agents and concerned citizens, some with rifles. A line with shark hooks was set in the bay, and three tigers and two sand sharks were caught between Dec. 15 and 17.

Tester writes that fishermen and skin divers (surfing and paddling not yet having grown into the hugely popular sports they are today) had anecdotally reported there was a growing “abundance” of sharks in Hawaii waters over the previous 10 years, with a correlation in increased attacks. This can be largely attributed to a cessation of shark fishing following the passage in 1941 of a state law requiring the labeling of Japanese-style fishcake ingredients and a subsequent decrease in longline fishing during World War II (longliners going for ahi hook the occasional shark, and since ’41 are supposed to cut them free).

Weaver was the scion of the Spencecliff restaurant chain, and a public outcry for a shark hunt arose – radio station KPOA offered a whopping $100 for any shark 15 feet long or more. The Billy Weaver Shark Control Program started April 1, 1959. Using three 24-hook longlines, 595 sharks were caught in nearshore waters during the rest of 1959, 71 of them tigers.

Later, Prof. Tester ran a shark research program that lasted from 1967 to ’69. Young John Naughton participated as a UH marine science grad student. As John explained for that Mid-Week cover story, the only way to do shark research in those pre-GPS tracking days was to kill a shark, slice it open and see what’s inside. A total of 534 sharks were killed, 138 of them large tigers, cutting the shark population by an estimated 60 percent.

“We whacked the tiger population down to practically nothing,” John said.

(He added it was his observation as a scuba diver that with the number of large tigers dramatically reduced, smaller species such as hammerheads and reef sharks proliferated.)

But now as we near 2014, the tigers are back, their population rebounding to at least pre-Billy Weaver numbers, perhaps higher.

A sand shark cruises in waters off Niihau | Terry Lilley photo

A sand shark cruises in waters off Niihau | Terry Lilley photo

Or so goes my theory. “Well, that is the theory now (among marine scientists),” John said when we spoke last Thursday. “The population has come back – it’s very healthy for all shark species. Take that in combination with significantly more tourists in the water and local people doing more ocean activities than were done in the past, and you have more sharks and more people out there mingling with them.

“The mystery is, why Maui? You’d think it would be spread more evenly throughout the state. The theory is that between the islands of Maui, Kahoolawe, Lanai and Molokai is a perfect shark breadbasket.”

(But it’s not just Maui. Terry Lilley, a serious amateur ocean researcher on Kauai’s North Shore who focuses on reef health, and whose photo of a sand shark accompanies this column, says: “I have been buzzed by 18-foot hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, aggressive sandbar sharks and tiger sharks in the last year while spearfishing or kayak fishing. Just ask the dive shop owners. The increase in spearfishing has more than tripled in the past few years. It has become very popular, and sharks know it. They are learning to follow spear fishermen and kayak fishermen to get a free meal. I have had many fish taken by these sharks right off the end of my spear, including an attempt on Thanksgiving Day. I do not spearfish at Tunnels any longer because one 10-foot female Galapagos follows me around like a puppy dog waiting for me to spear a fish, and then she steals it. If my arm is in the way I would get bit!” For more of Terry’s photos and work, go to

John defends the Tester “research and control” hunts as “very valuable because we really didn’t know much about sharks in Hawaii and learned a lot – we found out we had more shark species in Hawaii than we knew about, we learned that sea turtles are very important for tigers, and we found human remains so we knew they were dangerous.

“But that said, I would never recommend large culling programs again. That’s just a waste, and shark populations are being decimated worldwide because fishermen cut off the fin, then dump the shark back in the water. If a shark is caught, all of it should be used.”

We’ve been down this boat ramp before. After a spate of fatal attacks in late 1991 and 1992, Gov. John Waihee appointed a Shark Task Force. Amid protests by animal-rights proponents and native Hawaiians, who consider the shark an aumakua (personal deity), a limited shark hunt took place, removing at least 10 tigers longer than 10 feet, while private fishermen killed at least 22.

(I’m sensitive to the aumakua argument as Mano is the aumakua of my Hawaiian children’s family, and I hope the haole dad gets some protective consideration in the ocean. But as I’ve heard for years, not every shark is your aumakua. And it was part of traditional practice to remove troublesome sharks – Hawaiians of old would heat a breadfruit until it was super hot, cover it in a calabash, paddle out in a canoe and feed the hot breadfruit to the shark, and the heat would kill the shark from inside. We would do well to heed native wisdom, including this proverb: The shark bites when the wiliwili tree blossoms.)

Swimmers, surfers, snorkelers, a diver and now a fishing kayaker have been among those attacked this year, both locals and visitors. Clearly it’s a serious personal/public safety issue that has potentially huge economic repercussions for our visitor industry and all it supports.

On a personal level, I want my grandchildren to be raised with a love and respect for the sea, just as my keiki o ka aina were. When does fear of sharks start keeping us out of the water, and visitors away?

So it may be time for another task force, or to make commercial fishing for sharks legal.

All I know for sure is that with more sharks and more people in the water, Hawaii has not seen its last attack or our last death by shark. This is the new normal.

Note to my old softball teammate, Gov. Neil Abercrombie:

It’s your move, pal.