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Surge in shark attacks causes alarm in Hawaii

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MAKENA STATE PARK, Hawaii — After a record year of attacks across the Hawaii archipelago, sharks were not far from Colin Dececco's mind as the sun went down on the long white strip of sand here on a recent Sunday evening.

He and his daughter had had a close encounter with a reef shark while swimming around the rocky cove at the north end of Makena's Big Beach that morning. Now, watching a spear fisherman haul in his catch as they strolled by the same spot at sunset, they heard a splash at the edge of his net.

It was an 8-foot tiger shark, one of the most aggressive shark species in Hawaii's waters and the likely culprit for many of the 14 attacks in 2013, eight of which occurred around Maui, near Makena's beaches and elsewhere. Releasing his net, the fisherman took off running down the shoreline, shouting for swimmers to get out of the water.

PHOTOS: Sharks too close for comfort

"By then everyone was kind of running," Dececco said in an interview moments after he and his daughter had scrambled up the rocky cliff above the cove for a better view. "Tiger sharks — you don't play with them."

In a state where tourism drives the economy, the uptick in shark encounters has alarmed visitors and business owners alike. Both 2013 fatalities — a German snorkeler and a Washington state kayak fisherman — occurred in the waters near Makena State Park. But there are no permanent warning signs here on a coastline that boasts luxury hotels including the Four Seasons Resort Maui and the Waldorf Astoria's Grand Wailea.

For years, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources has posted signs and closed the beach immediately after an attack until noon the next day, if officials on helicopter and jet ski patrols believe the shark has left the vicinity. And for now, they see no need to change that policy.

"There is no pattern. There are spikes; there are lulls," said William Aila Jr., the department's chairman. But shortly after the German tourist died in August, the state agency announced a two-year, $186,000 study by University of Hawaii researchers to determine whether tiger sharks spend more time in areas used for ocean recreation around Maui than the other islands.

So far, the increases in attacks in 2012 and 2013 — which followed three years in which there were just three shark attacks annually — do not appear to have affected tourism. More than 2.1 million people visited Maui last year, figures that Terryl Vencl, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau, said she had not seen since before the recession.

"I think people realize it is still a rare occurrence," Vencl said in an email.

There is no question, however, that many swimmers and snorkelers are adjusting their routines based on the location of encounters. No pattern has emerged linking the likelihood of an attack with the distance from shore: The kayak fisherman was 900 yards off Makena; the German snorkeler was 50 yards offshore. But a number of tourists said in interviews that they were not swimming out as far.

"I went in waist-deep, that was it," said Karen O'Brien, a 49-year-old tourist from Toronto. Last year, O'Brien snorkeled off Molokini, a small island off the southwest coast of Maui. But after reading that the kayak fisherman was attacked near Molokini, she said, "I wasn't interested."

Island native Lorraine Alesna, who has long fished at Makena Landing — a popular launching spot for kayakers and snorkelers — shook her head at the jet skiers, kite surfers and other tourists who zoomed into the waves without paying attention to pupping season for sharks (the winter months), or common-sense tips like avoiding turbid water that attracts them.

"People that come from the mainland have no respect for anything, neither the ocean nor the land," Alesna said. "We grew up knowing, by the elders, what we can and cannot do in certain times of the year."

Like many longtime residents and fishermen here, Alesna offers myriad theories for the rise in shark attacks. She questions whether the tsunami in Japan increased the level of radiation in the water, driving sharks closer to shore. (State officials say radiation levels are normal.) She argues that the recovery of the population of Hawaiian green sea turtles — protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1978 — is luring sharks closer to the beach, and she says it's time for officials to allow hunting the turtles again.

But Carl Meyer, a marine biologist leading the University of Hawaii study, said there was no evidence to support that theory, or many of the others he had heard. Turtles, for example, are just one part of the broad diet favored by tiger sharks, which are known as the "garbage cans" of the ocean. He also dismisses the frequently cited notion that there are more tiger sharks in the water and that they are hungrier than in past years.

One known fact, Meyer said, is that there are more kayak fisherman, kite surfers and paddle boarders than a few decades ago — and the study will look at whether tiger sharks are more prevalent in areas of Maui where those sports are most popular.

A website where people can track the movements of the sharks tagged by Meyer and his team has fascinated many tourists and other ocean visitors. Both the state and the university hope it will generate curiosity about sharks, rather than fear, in the midst of renewed debate over whether there should be a shark culling program, which would face fierce resistance among native Hawaiians who consider sharks to be a sacred protector.

The fact that there are very few shark attacks relative to how many millions of people are in the water is something of a credo here — from waiters to dive guides, locals are quick to point out that visitors are more likely to die in their cars on the way to the beach.

Minutes after the recent sighting of the 8-foot tiger shark off Big Beach, bolder swimmers were back in the water there and at adjacent Little Beach, a nude sunbathing spot where hundreds of people gather on Sunday nights for a drum circle.

Tadd Laton, a 20-year-old waiter who moved to Maui from San Jose, watched the night swimmers from the cliff overlooking the Little Beach drum circle. After the attacks, locals wouldn't be in those waves at night, Laton said, and he now follows that rule too.

Still, he says he refuses to be cowed. "Life could end at any moment," Laton said. "If I die from a shark attack, that would be a cool way to die." But, he added, "if I see one, I'm going to head right back to shore."

maeve.reston@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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