Australian wildlife officials are hunting for a great white shark that killed an 18-year-old surfer near Adelaide on Thursday. How common is the practice of killing sharks believed responsible for fatal attacks?
Not very, in large part because it's incredibly difficult to find the guilty party. Sharks can swim over 40 miles a day and often bolt from the scene of an attack soon after the incident. "The high mobility of individual sharks … indicates that fishing for a 'culprit' after an attack is unlikely to be effective," concluded members of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology's Shark Research Group in a 1999 paper. Heeding that advice, wildlife officials around the world rarely send fishermen on search-and-destroy missions after a fatal strike.
There also seems to be little scientific basis for hunting down a particular shark. Despite what you might have seen in Jaws, there is no such thing as a "rogue shark" that develops a taste for human flesh. In fact, a shark that attacks a human is unlikely to do so again—we are by no means their preferred prey.
Would-be avengers also face legal barriers, especially when a great white shark is the suspect. In Australia, South Africa, and California, three of the epicenters of the great white's activity, the infamous species is protected by law. Before an individual can be hunted, wildlife authorities must grant special permission—as occurred in the current case. Even then, the odds of locating the appropriate shark are slim. When the Australian government granted permission for a shark hunt in 2000, after a similarly lethal attack, fishermen came up empty despite weeks of effort.
Less restraint was shown in bygone days, when shark attacks sometimes inspired mass waves of indiscriminate killing. In 1916, for example, when several attacks occurred around New Jersey's Matawan Creek, locals peppered the waterway with dynamite and gunfire, killing untold thousands of fish. (A "Matawan Man-eater" whose belly contained human flesh was eventually killed, though many historians now theorize that attacks were the work of multiple sharks.) And in the late 1950s, after a Hawaiian surfer was killed by a tiger shark, the state launched an eradication program that ended up destroying thousands of sharks. No one knows, however, whether the true killer was among the victims.