By Pete Thomas
News item: Jana Lutteropp, the 20-year-old German tourist whose right arm was severed by a shark while she was snorkeling off Maui on Aug. 14, died Wednesday in a local hospital.
Lutteropp (pictured at right, via her blog) becomes the first person to die as a result of a shark bite in Hawaii since 2004, and only the second since 1992.
But there have been eight attacks in Hawaiian waters this year, the most recent involving a 16-year-old boy who was bitten Monday on both legs while surfing on the Big Island.
This is the second year in a row in which the number of Hawaii shark attacks is well above the yearly average of three or four (there were 10 in 2012). Understandably, this has generated concern.
Reaction: What's next? Hawaii is trying to prevent hysteria from settling in, as it did in the early 90s, when private citizens and the state reacted to a spate of tiger shark attacks by killing at least 50 tiger sharks–mostly on Oahu.
An important question now is whether Hawaii will conduct another culling effort, in a different era in which sharks are recognized as being vitally important to the marine ecosystem, and killing them is no longer politically correct.
But human safety is important, too.
The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources on Wednesday issued a statement expressing sadness of the passing of Jana Lutteropp, while adding: "As an island state, we are aware that we are all visitors in the natural environment that surrounds us, and that unfortunate incidents such as this one can occur. We are committed to furthering research efforts that will help guide effective management actions in the interest of safety."
The statement was issued a day after Hawaii announced plans to conduct a two-year study of tiger shark movements around Maui, where most of the attacks this year have occurred. Hawaii acknowledged that it doesn't know as much as it should about the movements of tiger sharks, which are large predators and presumed culprits in most of the serious attacks.
This seems similar to what Hawaii said after four confirmed attacks in 1992, one of them fatal, and a probable fifth attack on a bodyboarder who disappeared and was presumed dead. Then, the epicenter was Oahu.
The state killed fewer than 20 tiger sharks, but a grassroots effort, mostly on Oahu's North Shore, killed at least 30. The number might have been much higher.
The "Jaws" hysteria syndrome had fully set in.
"You have more and more people in the water and a huge shark population growing at geometric proportions," James Jones, a Honolulu surfer, told me back then. "We know there are more sharks, more people and more attacks--the facts are indisputable. As far as I'm concerned, to hell with the visitor industry. I don't think that all the sharks in the ocean are worth one human life."
The massive shark hunt seemed to have worked, or it was coincidental that the attacks abated. Nobody can say for sure. (Tiger sharks have a life span of about 25 years. They reach reproductive maturity at about 10 years and can produce between 40 and 80 pups.)
Hawaii hasn't said yet whether culling tiger sharks off Maui or elsewhere is being considered. Twenty or 30 years ago, that effort might already be underway.Some Hawaii residents might recall what happened in 1958. Billy Weaver, the 15-year-old son of a wealthy businessman, was floating on an air mattress off Lanikai, Oahu, when a shark bit off his leg in front of a horrified crowd.
When his body was recovered two hours later, a tiger shark estimated at 15 to 20 feet was seen nearby.
According to reports, Weaver's father offered a bounty of $100 for every tiger shark 10 feet or larger. Sharks could be seen hanging from gas station rafters.
The state effort alone was responsible for killing 697 sharks, only 87 of which were tigers. Smaller control efforts were made in 1967, 1968, 1972 and 1976.
In 1993, in the wake of the 1992 shark attacks and a scare that continued well into the following year, I traveled to Oahu and wrote a Page 1 story for the Los Angeles Times. It appeared under the headline, "Hawaii in the Jaws of a Dilemma."Whether that's the case again is debatable. This doesn't have that 'Jaws' feel yet. But if more blood is spilled anytime soon, the state probably will be pressured into issuing more than mere statements.