Shark Bite Pic Looks Bad -- but What's the Danger?

"Nightline" goes to Australia, where shark found with huge bite taken out of it.

Queensland, Australia, Dec. 7, 2009 — -- Some of the most shark-infested waters in the world lie off Australia's Gold Coast. Here, the government feels compelled to set up giant shark nets unsettlingly close to popular beaches.

"They'll go right into the beach at times," said Richard Exten, a district officer for the Australian state of Queensland.

A discovery in the area in October made news around the world. A dead great white shark was fished out of the water with a huge, hideously clean bite taken out of it. Experts measured the wounds and concluded they were inflicted by the jaws of another, much bigger, great white, one that was possibly fifteen feet long.

Exten said the bite meant there is a much larger shark out there.

"We believe that because where there's small sharks there's always big sharks," he said.

The great white in particular is capable of preying on members of its own species, Exten said. Not to mention, in rare cases, humans. He said the shark was a danger to bathers.

"Most definitely," he said. "In their mind, it's food."

The existence of a so-called "monster shark" made headlines, but it didn't seem to scare the locals. The beaches are still crowded, even in areas where swimming is off limits. Surfers are totally undaunted.

"I'd rather die doing something that I love than live in fear," one told ABC News.

While the huge shark lurking off the coast may not be causing panic, it is causing controversy.

The debate turns on the use of shark nets. They're only used in two countries: Australia and South Africa.

The problem is that while the nets deter sharks, they also snag dolphins, sea turtles, manatees and humpback whales.

"There's really an incredible toll on marine life," said Darren Kindsleysides, a local conservationist. "And our question for the government is: 'Is it really worth a program that's costly in financial terms and costly in terms of marine life, is it really worth it? Are the benefits really there?' As I say, they're yet to be proven."

Exten said safety concerns outweighed environmental concerns.

"We place the lives of our swimmers first and foremost," he said. "And while we have such attractive beaches, we're gonna protect the people who use them and swim there."

'Fear Is Unfounded'

But conservationists point out that sharks, despite their fierce reputation, are almost always harmless.

Statistics show that you have a greater chance of getting struck by lightning or winning the lottery than getting bitten by a shark.

Which is why shark defenders say that shark nets are unnecessary -- as is the fear people might have about this so-called monster shark.

Professor Vic Peddemors, an Australian shark biologist, acknowledged the picture of the wounded shark showed an impressive bite but said people shouldn't be frightened.

"If you then equate the fear factor with reality, you realize that the fear is unfounded," said Peddemors. "The chances of being bitten either in Australia or elsewhere in the world are miniscule."

Shark attacks get disproportionate attention, Peddemors said.

"I think that's a primordial fear that we have as humans to being eaten by another animal," he said. I think it goes way back into the Stone Age era. And it's still deeply built into our psyche, this fear of being eaten."

True, the great white has the perfect set of jaws to cut you. However, almost every other type of shark does not have teeth designed to eat large chunks of flesh. And anyway they're usually too scared of us to attack.

Swimming with the Sharks

To demonstrate, we were invited to dive into a tank filled with sharks.

We approached a large tank where, feet away, was an enormous, toothy shark wearing a blankly menacing look on its face. It's a good thing abject terror can't register on your face when you're wearing goggles.

It's also good that these gray nurse sharks don't eat humans. They pretty much ignored us.

Shark experts wish that more people would learn the lesson (although not necessarily by jumping in a shark tank). Sharks, they say, get a bad rap. And they don't hesitate to blame ... the movie "Jaws."

After "Jaws" came out in 1975, it not only provoked widespread public fear and loathing of sharks but also dried up research funding to better understand these animals. All of which created an environment where sharks are now being hunted nearly out of existence.

"We think sharks should be the new whale," said Kindsleysides. "Globally there's only 10 percent of the sharks left that we had 50 years ago. Where have they gone? Well, we've eaten them."

'They're Beautiful'

Shark fin soup is a delicacy in Asia, and in some parts of the United States. A staggering 100 million sharks are caught every year to meet the demand. That's 270,000 sharks a day.

They're killed in a barbaric practice called "finning," in which fishermen drag sharks onto a boat, cut off their fins and then throw them back in the water to die.

Even as shark populations drop all over there world, there is not much of a public outcry. It's hard to build a constituency for an animal with a motto like: "Sharks: they 'usually' won't kill you."

"If we want a healthy ecosystem," said Peddemors, "we have to maintain a balance, and sharks are critically important to that."

Sharks can live up to 100 years, and they usually only have a few pups during that time. So if they're heavily fished, populations can plunge fast -- and take a long time to recover.

If the predator at the top of the food chain disappears, it can mess up the rest of the fish population, which the world needs for food.

Sharks, Peddemors said, have shown admirable evolutionary endurance.

"If you think about it," said Peddemors, "they're pretty much in the form as what they are now for millions of years, long before we started walking the earth. So they've evolved into the perfect predator. They slipstream beautifully though the water."

An apex predator that survived since the age of the dinosaurs, sharks may not survive the age of humans. For all the bad publicity they get, the truth is that sharks should be more afraid of us than we are of them.