The tiny Tasmanian town rocked by a fatal shark attack at the weekend has had a difficult decade

Picture: VirtualSteve/Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a tough week for Triabunna, the tiny fishing town on the east coast of Australia’s smallest state, Tasmania.

In fact, it’s been a tough decade or so.

Residents gathered yesterday for yet another funeral, the third in a week, all of which have been to farewell local legends.

Without any disrespect to the deceased, you can be sure as much of the sombre chat yesterday was about the death of another man, Damian Johnson.

Johnson also died near Triabunna, but he was from Kingston, another small town about 100km to the southwest. He was the incredibly unlucky victim of a shark attack.

There’s only been six shark-related deaths recorded in Tasmania since European settlement. The last one was 22 years ago, when 35-year-old mum of five Therese Cartwright was attacked by a great white while scuba-diving at a seal colony at Tenth Island, off the state’s north-east coast.

Johnson was diving with his daughter for scallops, which is in one way a sad irony. If one thing’s been good in Triabunna lately, it’s been the bumper year for the prized shellfish. Big numbers, good size. Johnson was one of many divers who’d headed into town from all parts of the state to get in on the action before the season winds up at the end of this week.

How things can change for a small community in the space of days.

“It’s like a ghost town,” says mayor Michael Kent.

“I drove around yesterday and there was not a soul in the marina where the fishing boats are, there was not a soul on the main street.”

Triabunna is the closest sizable population centre to Lachlan Island, where Johnson was taken by a large shark on Saturday. His daughter, noting he hadn’t come up from a dive for scallops, went back down only to see her father being attacked.

Johnson was hauled to the surface and a couple of nearby divers tried to keep him alive, but he died shortly after. In the 24 hours that followed, news broke that another couple of divers in the are had an encounter with a large great white.

One, Wade Cleary, was hit from behind but managed to scramble to the safety of his boat.

“It’s hard to describe how the emotions are at the minute,” he told the ABC after learning of Johnson’s fate.

“It just sort of cruised past to see what I was.

“I thought me mates were pulling me a bit hard and it seemed a bit strange that they might want to go home and then my air line went slack from where they (were) drifting, that’s when I got hit from behind and rolled and when I went under that’s when I actually seen the shark.”

“My heart goes out to the family, there’s no doubt about that…”

Triabunna has never relied more on fishing as it does these days. Its only other significant industry, woodchip, wrapped up in 2011 when Kathmandu founder Jan Cameron and Wotif millionaire Graeme Wood bought it, promising to phase out woodchip jobs over 4-5 years.

The mill was simply shut down and hasn’t opened since. Kent said it had a devastating impact on the town, with “broken families” now the norm. They’re accepted elsewhere as “FIFO families”, where one parent flies in, flies out to WA or Queensland for mining work to keep money coming in.

“That’s not what family life’s all about,” Kent says.

It’s own mayor, Kent’s predecessor Bertrand Cadart, put Triabunna on the map last year by saying in an interview that the town was “ugly” and home to “the most bogan of bogans”.

Now, about 1 in 10 of the town’s 1000-odd residents work on the boats. Its pretty marina helps it grab a chunk of the tourist trade on its way north to Freycinet and the Bay of Fires, south on their way to Maria Island and Port Arthur.

You can guarantee none of them knew about Lachlan Island, but most of them will be asking about whether it’s “safe” as the summer trade and exodus to the east coast increases.

There’s been the usual talk of culling sharks on social media and in the news, but you won’t get much support for it in town, Kent says.

“Most of them think it’s unnecessary. They’re in the shark space, we’re getting into their way of life and we have to have a full understanding of that.”

“I wouldn’t suggest a cull by any means.”

No shortage of sharks

There’s also been plenty of anguish over who’s “to blame”. Has the super trawler Geelong Star, which had been operating in Tasmanian waters since the start of April, knocked feed stocks around? Are the salmon ponds further south bringing predators in closer?

And should any earlier sightings of what might have been the killer been passed on as warnings to divers operating in the area?

Kent says none of it helps. Local fisherman will tell you there’s no shortage of sharks.

“One of the squid fisherman says the amount of sharks that chase the squid when they’re pulling them in is amazing. He says you wouldn’t want to fall over.”

With one isolated incident in more than 20 years, it’s just terrible luck.

“A guy had a brush with it before and the shark kept going, and here we have a different set of circumstances just a day later,” Kent says. “So is there one shark out there, is there two or three? Who knows?”

The people of Triabunna aren’t likely to stay alarmed. There’s a dozen or so crayfish and scallop boats operating out of the marina and they need to push on.

The town will take a short-term hit as the amateur season is likely to come to a premature end.

“One would assume the people that were going to come down over the next week won’t come so I don’t think there’ll be too many divers in the short, foreseeable future,” Kent says.

“We’ll do the mourning and have great sympathy for the man in Kingston and his family. Here in Tasmania, we’re really not known for this. It’s just mindblowing stuff really.”

“I suspect in another couple of weeks time, people by and large will move on as we do and as we have done in the past.”

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