Tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) are one of three species listed as either threatened or near threatened and potentially threatening to humans. They are targeted by the Shark Meshing (Bather Protection) Program, NSW, Australia, and other shark hazard management programs around the world. Photo credit: Albert Kok.

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‘Shark attack’ is a significant problem for people and the environment. Each year a small number of people are bitten by sharks. At the same time, sharks are under increasing pressures from human activities. How we manage shark-related risk varies around the world. But killing sharks is common. This has important consequences for individual species and for environments. Threatened species are especially vulnerable. Management techniques that seek to keep beach-goers safe by killing sharks have recently come under criticism. Questions asked include: What are the environmental impacts of killing sharks? Does killing sharks make people safer? Is killing sharks consistent with contemporary values? Human safety and shark conservation are often considered separately, leading to highly polarised debate. Similarly, most research has focused on either safety or conservation. In this project we bring together social and biophysical sciences expertise to inform decision-making. We analyse the world’s longest-running lethal program, the Shark Meshing (Bather Protection) Program, in New South Wales, Australia. We aim to: (i) identify the diverse factors that influence outcomes of the program; (ii) assess the negative effects of the program for sharks and other marine life; and (iii) assess the program’s effectiveness for reducing risk of shark bite. We find three things: (i) many social and environmental factors contribute to outcomes; (ii) overall shark numbers and numbers of key species targeted by the program (white shark, tiger shark and bull shark) have declined since its introduction eighty years ago; and (iii) numbers of shark bites have declined since the program was introduced. Two further points warrant attention. First, key social factors influencing shark bite are often over-looked; specifically, changing beach culture, advances in beach-patrol, and emergency response. Second, the proportion of shark bites resulting in death has decreased significantly in recent decades. Beach patrol and emergency response contribute to human safety without negative consequences for marine life. As such, they offer a focus for future management and research.