Shark Culling Not The Answer

The government recently announced a new package of funding for ‘shark mitigation strategies’, aimed at reducing the incidence of shark attacks on our beaches.  After five fatalities in only one year the WA government is under immense pressure to be seen to be doing something…  But the announcement that $2mil of the $6.85mil package is to spent on tracking and potentially destroying sharks if they come too close to swimmers has many people up in arms.

Great White Shark. Source: Courier-Mail

White Pointers and Western Australia

The Great White Shark (white pointer) is listed as vulnerable to extinction in the IUCN’s Red List of threatened and endangered species (i.e. it is endangered).  It is protected in Australian waters under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act and internationally under the Convention for the Trade of Endangered Species (CITES).

Not much is known about their populations, but if this apex predator is lost from the ecosystem, there could be significant and far-reaching consequences for the oceans and our fisheries.

Of what we do know, these animals make transoceanic migrations, and global populations appear to be linked.  Therefore culling them could, in fact, become an international issue.

In WA, certain times of the year may be more dangerous than others.  Oceanic events attract large sharks to feed near shore, for example when snapper are spawning in Cockburn Sound.  Educating the public and providing beach patrols could reduce the risk of incidents.

And whilst the past year may have seen more large sharks off WA’s coast, sharks are in reality facing a global crisis.  Illegal and unregulated fishing driven by the demand for shark fin soup in Asia has reduced shark populations by 90%.  There is yet no evidence to determine if populations of large sharks are recovering in WA or if there have just been more visiting the West Coast than in previous years.

The $4mil funding for applied research and tagging programs is very welcome.  We need to understand these animals more in order to deter future incidents.  Money allocated to surf-lifesavers to increase beach safety, and $150,000 for community awareness programs is also really positive.

We need education and research.  Public safety and shark conservation working together.

Culling: Necessary or Knee-Jerk?

The current legislation (Section 7[2] of the Fish Resource management Act 1994) allows the Department of Fisheries to kill sharks after a fatality, if they can properly identify the individual involved.  To date, they have never acted on this legislation.  Now the Department of Fisheries will have the option of killing sharks before an incident.

The proposed culling would take place if a human life was in danger.  The authorities are still trying to work out how this would be determined.  But how could they prove that a specific shark would in fact cause an incident?

Killing an animal in its natural environment – especially a protected species – pre-emptively is unscientific, unnecessary and a knee-jerk reaction.  ‘Guilty until proven innocent’ is killing without a purpose.  No shark that has been spotted by authorities has ever been implicated in a later attack.

$2mil allocated to track, catch and destroy sharks is an overreaction.  It is a ‘cosmetic’ reaction, an appeasement tactic, based on emotion rather than science.  Sharks are already killed in their millions every year due to overfishing and shark-finning.  Hawaii once culled 4,668 sharks (including 554 tiger sharks) between 1959-1976, but no significant decrease in the rate of shark bites was detected.

In comparison, aerial patrols have been shown to work, along with taking personal responsibility for your own safety.  Four out of the last five fatalities were people diving, surfing or body boarding – further from shore than most swimmers would go.

There may also be the problem of increased risk with this new policy, if ocean lovers choose not to report a sighting of a large shark for fear of it being killed.  On the other hand, the policy may perpetuate the fear that all large sharks are potential killers, when in fact we don’t know this.

Education and research will help reduce fear of swimming, not culls.

Shark Nets

Port Jackson Shark caught in a net in NSW. Source: HSIA proposed method of protection in my local area is to introduce shark nets on swimming beaches.  These have been around on the East Coast for around 70 years… but shark nets are cruel, indiscriminate and they also don’t work.

Shark nets give the public a false sense of safety, but in reality sharks are free to swim around the nets, often getting caught as they leave the shallow “protected” areas again. They are indiscriminate and catch any and all marine life that come in to contact with them, including dolphins, turtles, whales, manta rays, dugongs and other sharks.  Nets which have caught other marine animals may even act as floating bait for sharks.  (Drumlines set to capture and kill sharks have also been suggested, and would do the same thing).

And nets have even been known to catch people: in 2007 a teenage boy drowned when he got caught in a shark net off NSW.

In a Department of Primary Industries report in 2009, focussing on NSW, shark bite incidents from 1937-2008 showed that of the 38 shark attacks recorded in the state, 24 of them (63%) took place at netted beaches, with 14 injuries.  There was only one fatality at a netted beach (1951).  However, survival rates for shark bites are now up to 80%, due to better on-scene treatment and antibiotics, and a 63% failure rate of attack prevention isn’t encouraging.

In addition, a report commissioned by the WA Department of Fisheries (August 2012) actually said: “Due to the environmental impacts of shark control activities, it is not recommended that either shark nets or drum-lines be introduced into Western Australia”.  Someone didn’t read the report, it seems.

Education and surveillance are the best prevention against shark attacks until better repellent devices are developed.

So What Now?

Shark nets, drumlines and culling are environmentally hazardous, cruel and indiscriminate means which are not necessary if money was instead invested in non-lethal methods and increased understanding of these animals.  The government is wasting time and money on something which the WA public is overwhelmingly against, for the sake of appeasing a loud voiced minority.

I am not a shark expert, but as a marine biologist I campaign for conservation of our oceans, so that we can have a sustainable future.  The removal of a keystone species could have far-reaching consequences for our ecosystem and fisheries, and methods designed to indiscriminately kill any marine animal could also be devastating for our local populations, as well as our fisheries and tourism industry.

Some people have said that overfishing has led to sharks coming closer in to shore to find food, others say that ocean currents affect their movement patterns, but until we understand more about the real – and likely multiple – reasons behind the recent spate of shark attacks we need to invest in education, surveillance and research.  Culling is not the answer.

Please sign a petition (there is a list here) against shark culling and destructive shark nets in WA.

– Some of these comments appeared in my local newspaper on 5th October –

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