Story: Sharks and rays

Page 6. Shark attacks

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Shark attacks in New Zealand

New Zealand has a relatively high incidence of shark attacks. Record keepers differentiate between provoked and unprovoked attacks: sharks which have been speared or taken on a line will naturally defend themselves by attacking the person on the other end. Between 1852 and 2014 there were 44 recorded unprovoked attacks in New Zealand (compared with 39 in the whole of Europe since 1847). A third of New Zealand attacks occurred between Ōamaru and the Otago Peninsula, probably because sharks are attracted by the high numbers of seals, dolphins and pilot whales in that area.

Sharks to avoid

Great white sharks have been responsible for most of the 11 fatal attacks in New Zealand where the shark has been identified. Other species known to have caused fatalities are mako and bronze whalers. More than half of the victims were swimming, a quarter were snorkelling, and the remaining quarter were either surfing or standing in shallow water.

However, the chances of being killed by a shark in New Zealand are slight: since 1852 there has been one fatal attack every 13 years. You are far more likely to drown than be mauled by a shark.


After a spate of attacks off Dunedin beaches in the 1960s, patrol boats and planes have been used to warn swimmers and surfers. From 1969, nets were also laid at local beaches; the programme was still in effect in 2011 at St Clair, St Kilda and Brighton beaches. In the early to mid-1970s, about six great whites were netted each year. Since then most of the sharks caught have been harmless.

Opinion is divided as to the efficacy of the nets. Gary Barton, who was rammed by a great white shark off St Clair in 1968, said in 2004 that he believed the nets were still useful. However, Mike Barker of the University of Otago Marine Science Department argues that netting is not in keeping with international practices, which aim to conserve sharks. He considers the nets too small to be effective – they merely provide swimmers with the illusion of safety. Even so, popular opinion is in favour of the nets, even at the cost of $36,000 a year.

How to cite this page:

Gerard Hutching, 'Sharks and rays - Shark attacks', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

Story by Gerard Hutching, published 12 Jun 2006