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A Great White shark open its jaws. Five people were killed by the animal in the last 12 months in Australia (Reuters)

Australian authorities have launched a hunt and kill operation against great white sharks, following a sharp rise in deadly attacks against swimmers off the country's west coast.

Five people have been killed by great whites on Western Australian beaches in the last 12 months - almost as many as had been reported over the previous 100 years.

The last attack was reported in July, when a surfer was bitten in half near Wedge Island, north of Perth.

"We will always put the lives and safety of beachgoers ahead of the shark," Western Australian state Premier Colin Barnett said, announcing an Aus $6.85m ($7.12m) plan to keep white sharks off the state's shores.

White sharks can be up to six metres long (20 feet) and weigh up to two tonnes.

The plan allows pre-emptive hunts of the protected animals, if a specimen is spotted close to beachgoers. Previously, white shark killings were authorised only after an attack had been reported.

"This is, after all, a fish - let's keep it in perspective," Barnett said.

The plan is to also fund shark research and tagging and tracking programmes to better understand white shark mitigation strategies. A smartphone application for shark alerts is also to be launched.

Great White Shark
Researchers examine and dissect a Great White Shark. WA authorities launched a hunt and kill operation (reuters)

Dead Sheep overboard attract the big hunter?

Earlier this month, animal advocacy organisation Humane Society International (HSI) propounded a surprising reason for the upsurge in shark-related deaths - sheep.

The HSI accused cargo ships of throwing dead sheep overboard close to the coast, just outside the 12 nautical mile limit imposed by Australian law.

According to the Society, a sheep cargo was sailing western Australian waters in proximity of the coast each time a white sharks attack was reported last year.

"Every year, thousands of dead sheep are thrown overboard as ships depart Australian ports for the Middle East, either whole or minced, without care or consideration for the consequences of these actions," said HSI's Alexia Wellbelove.

"Anecdotal reports from fishermen suggest that sharks are able to recognise individual vessels, meaning these export vessels will result in a concentration of the shark population when the vessels are present as the sharks seek an 'easy' meal."

However the allegations of sheep-tossing were labelled as "nonsense" by shark expert Hugh Edwards.

"I don't think I've ever heard so much nonsense in my whole life. Sheep ships can have no influence whatever on the Great Whites," he told Perth's 6PR radio.

According to Edwards, the number of attacks has actually increased in line with the popularity of water sports and the increasing population of seals and whales in the area.

Western Australia Agriculture Minister Terry Redman also rejected HSI's claims.

"To suggest a link between fatal shark attacks along the Western Australian coast and our livestock export trade is preposterous, opportunistic and offensive," he told Fairfax Agricultural Media.

"Livestock ships leave our ports carrying healthy animals. If animal deaths occur, which is very rare, it's generally when the ship is well into its journey and thousands of kilometres from the WA coast."

Great white
Animal advocacy organization Humane Society International (HSI) related white sharks’ killing upsurge to live sheep exports (Wiki Commons)