Wearable technology could save swimmers, surfers from shark attacks

ADELAIDE, Australia — A total of 57 unprovoked shark attacks were confirmed in 2020, 10 of which proved to be fatal. Australia, which is home to 180 species of shark, has the highest number of fatal attacks in the world – especially off the west coast, where they have dramatically increased over the past four decades. New wearable technology developed by Australian scientists could now help reduce those numbers significantly. 

While shark attacks are very rare, they have a severe impact on the victim and their family, with a third of survivors experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being bitten. Researchers also point out that while the chances of being eaten by a shark are slim, more and more people are staying out of the water.

According to a recent study, this new state of the art technology could save hundreds of swimmers and surfers from shark attacks. The technology emits signals, which interferes with sharks’ ability to detect electrical fields and prevents them from targeting people in the water. Scientists say these electrical deterrents could save lives as well as millions of dollars in tourism revenue.

“Electronic deterrents are capable of reducing the likelihood of a bite by about 60%, potentially saving hundreds of lives over the next 50 years. Avoiding death, injury, and trauma from shark bites over the next half-century would be a realistic outcome if people use these personal electronic deterrents whenever they’re in the water, and as long as the technology is operating at capacity,” explains study lead author Corey Bradshaw, of Flinders University in South Australia, in a statement.

Researchers analyzed the number of per capita shark bites in Australia from 1900 to 2020. Using models, they were able to determine the number of attacks that could have been prevented if people had been equipped with electronic deterrents.

They found that around 60% of the 985 shark attacks recorded over the past 120 years could have been avoided. They were then able to predict how many more people would be bitten by 2066, when Australia’s population is expected to reach 49 million. Results show that wearing personal electronic deterrents could save the lives of 1,062 Australians over the next half a century.

The impact of shark attacks extends far beyond the victim and their immediate family however.

“This is especially so when you consider the additional costs associated with the loss of recreational, commercial, and tourism revenue in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars following clusters of shark-bite events,” says Bradshaw. The Australian government is well aware of this and has pumped millions of dollars into protecting people from these apex predators.

“Given that governments are applying multiple approaches to mitigate shark bites such as drones, SMART drumlines, and acoustic monitoring, our simulations suggest electronic deterrents could make a valuable contribution to overall mitigation, and help ease community fears. For example, the New South Wales Government recently invested $16 million to mitigate shark bites in part due to lost revenue from businesses benefitting from water users and tourism,” adds Professor Bradshaw.

The study assumes shark populations around Australia will remain the same and that they will continue to take the odd bite. Also, for electrical deterrents to work, people must understand how effective they are at reducing the risk of being attacked, and, therefore, spend time in the water.

“Although several studies have demonstrated that electronic deterrents can reduce the probability of shark bites, device efficacy varies among manufacturers and even between products of the same manufacturer. When testing these products scientifically, we need a large number of interactions to assess efficacy confidently. As a result, we often need to use bait or berley to attract sharks, which likely motivates sharks to bite more than in situations when sharks encounter a swimmer or surfer,” says co-author, associate professor Charlie Huveneers.

This means electronic deterrents could actually save more lives than the researchers anticipate. “Therefore, the ability of electric deterrents to reduce shark bite risk might be greater than the 60% decrease we observed in our studies, further increasing the number of lives saved,” adds Huveneers.

The findings are published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.