Let us kill great whites, says Western Australia as protected species claims its fifth victim

  • @kathymarksoz

Western Australia called on the federal government yesterday to lift a ban on the fishing of great white sharks following an unprecedented fifth death in its waters within less than a year.

Speaking after a 24 year old surfer, Ben Linden, was bitten in half by a "massive" shark on Saturday, the state's Fisheries Minister, Norman Moore, said the spate of fatal attacks was "cause for great alarm". He added that he was "open to any suggestions from anybody as to where we go to now, because we seriously have got a problem".

The killing of Mr Linden, who was paddling his board near remote Wedge Island, 100 miles north of Perth, has cemented the west coast's reputation as the world's deadliest shark attack zone. A hunt for the fish that killed him, believed to be up to 16 feet long, was called off yesterday afternoon. Ministers had ordered any shark of that size to be killed on sight.

A jet-skier who witnessed the attack and tried to retrieve Mr Linden's remains said the shark went for him. "By the time I got out there, half of him had been taken and the shark was circling," Matt Holmes, 22, told the Australian TV channel ABC. "There was blood everywhere. I reached to grab the body … but as I did that, the shark came back and nudged the jet-ski to try to knock me off."

After looping around, Mr Holmes returned to the scene. "I just thought about his family and if he had kids," he said. "I just wanted to get him to shore. [But] when I came back the second time, it took the rest of him." The shark - which other surfers had noticed over the previous four days and nicknamed "Brutus" because of its size - was last seen heading out to deeper waters.

Warning that the attacks were harming the state's tourism industry, Mr Moore said he would lobby Canberra to lift the ban on commercial and recreational fishing of great whites. Anecdotal evidence suggested that their numbers had recovered significantly since they became a protected species in Australia in the 1990s, he said, adding that the government would not sanction shark hunts or culls.

In Australia as a whole, an average of one person a year is killed by sharks. However, the spike in attacks is probably the result of human population growth and the increasing popularity of water sports in isolated locations, rather than a rise in shark numbers, according to Martin Garwood, a senior aquarist at the Sydney Aquarium.

The government's response to the latest attack was condemned by Janita Enevoldsen of the Wilderness Society, who said: "We need to really understand them [the sharks], and not resort to the Neanderthal reaction of a hunt and kill."

Mr Moore agreed that more research was needed to plot the sharks' migration and feeding habits. An acoustic tagging programme introduced by the WA government last year - the first of its kind in the world - has revealed that they sometimes linger for months off the west coast. "We have allocated some A$14m [£9.2m] … to get a better understanding of the great white sharks and the reasons why fatalities are occurring," the minister said. "I wonder if research might tell us that there are now much greater numbers of great whites than ever before."

Mr Linden's remains have not been found, despite police and volunteers scouring local beaches. His long-time girlfriend, Alana Noakes, wrote on his Facebook page that "surfing was his soul, his life, his culture and his passion".

Jaws Returns: The Death Toll

4 September 2011: Kyle Burden, 21, attacked while bodyboarding at Bunker Bay, south of Perth.

10 October: Bryn Martin, 64, disappears during daily swim at Cottesloe Beach, Perth. Only his swimming trunks were found.

22 October: US diver George Wainwright, 32, fatally mauled off Rottnest Island, near Perth.

31 March 2012: Peter Kurmann, 33, killed while diving near Busselton, in  south-west Western Australia.

15 July: Ben Linden, 24, is bitten in half while paddling his surfboard at Wedge Island, Perth.