Marine experts have warned more sharks will be swimming in estuaries at this time of year after a 16-year-old girl was killed in an attack in Perth’s Swan River.
The girl, identified as Stella Berry, was pulled from the water on Saturday afternoon with critical injuries, understood to have been to her legs, but despite the efforts of paramedics she died at the scene.
The headmaster of Perth’s Scotch College, Alec O’Connell, confirmed the death in a letter seen by Guardian Australia and sent to the school community.
“It is with deep regret and sadness that I write to inform you that the young woman whose life was tragically lost yesterday at North Fremantle was Stella Berry, daughter of Sophie Berry, one of our valued members of staff,” he wrote.
“I am sharing this communication with you today with the permission of the Berry family. I ask that you keep Sophie, Matt, and Mae in your prayers at this time of unimaginable sorrow and loss.”
O’Connell also confirmed that several male students at the school, who were friends of Stella, were with her at the time of the tragedy “and, in that context, were the first respondents”.
On Sunday the fisheries minister, Don Punch, said it was too early to confirm the type of shark behind the attack, but it “was likely” a bull shark.
“We do know that bull sharks, particularly, do enter estuaries and freshwater river systems, so it is likely that may be the case,” he told the ABC.
He said it was the first fatal shark attack in the Swan River in 100 years, with the last attack in 1923.
“There’s only been six recorded historical attacks in the river, and this would make it seven,” he said.
Although an investigation was still under way, the director of higher degree research biology at Macquarie University, Prof Culum Brown, said bull sharks use estuaries at this time of year to breed.
“This time of year the bull sharks are in the river more than normal, it’s the breeding period,” Brown said. “The females move into the river and the males chase them.”
Since the 1990s shark fatalities have decreased and in 2022 there was just one fatal shark attack across the country, according to The Australian Shark Incident Database, collated by Sydney’s Taronga Conservation Society.
“In terms of the number of fatalities, there are on average between zero and two for the whole of Australia each year,” Brown said. “It’s rare people get killed.”
Over social media people called for the Western Australia population of bull sharks to be culled, saying they were growing in number. But Brown said this was misinformation, often spread after a fatal shark attack.
“There’s actually a probability of extinction; their populations are declining,” Brown said.
“There will always be this call to kill the sharks and remove the risk of a shark attack, but in terms of risk you’d be better off not getting your car,” he said.
Brown said the number of shark incidents had risen, with advancements in technology, such as drones, meaning more Australians were likely to spot a shark.
“People now see sharks from drones so it gets reported; that’s mainly the reason why the number of incidents is going up,” he said.
“The number of bites has gone up a little bit, but that’s because of the fact many of us live in the cities, by the oceans and increasingly we’re in the ocean year-round now.”
Dr Vanessa Pirotta, a wildlife scientist at Macquarie University, said authorities would investigate to try to determine the type of shark that was behind the attack, but stressed these incidents were very rare.
“We don’t know what animal it was. It’s very rare in that area,” Pirotta said.
“This doesn’t bring comfort to the family, but what you need to know is that this is an area connected to an ocean, there’s a chance or possibility you might have marine animals up the waterway,” she said.
She said the safest thing people could do was swim at a patrolled beach, and check for updates or warnings with the relevant authorities.
“It’s summer, it’s hot, and people are still in holiday mode,” Pirotta said. “Swimming in a well-patrolled area is the safest. Surf lifesaving is doing a great job this year keeping us safe.
“Stick to areas where there is beach safety or at least a lot of eyes on the land and water.”