Over the last 7 weeks WA has faced three, undoubtedly frightening, fatal shark attacks. It’s always sad when you hear of the untimely death of a person, and my compassion goes out to the families and friends involved in these attacks.
I was not surprised by the tone of the news reports that followed these attacks, however, I was floored by the way in which the WA government ‘chose’ to react. For those who don’t know, Colin Barnett - the WA Premier, together with the Fisheries Minister - Norman Moore authorised a catch-and-kill order on Great White Sharks. Yep, you heard right, for the first time the government has issued that should a shark pose a threat to humans, it will be destroyed.
The Great White shark is a vulnerable species and is protected in the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and state waters under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Internationally, the Australian Government has listed the Great White Shark on Appendix II of CITES which aims to prevent illegal trade in Great White Shark products (teeth, jaws and fins). Further to this, our Government also listed the Great White Shark on Appendices I and II of the CMS, which provides a framework for the coordination of measures adopted by the states to improve the conservation of this species.
So why, with so much effort to protect a species, does our Government publically authorise, organise and fund a catch-and-kill exhibition?
The answer that stands out the most is politics. Christopher Neff, who is a graduate student from the Uni of Sydney, is studying the politics of shark attacks and he says that “there is a habit among politicians of making shark attacks a political exercise for showing that they’re taking action... shark hunts are an example of a political exercise, not a public safety exercise.” I agree with Christopher and would go even further to say that, in my opinion, a decision such as this can only be based on emotions, and is not backed by evidence.
Since the latest 3 deaths and the call for a shark cull there have been a couple of reoccurring questions that people have asked me;
1) Do shark culls work?
In terms of reducing numbers, then yes, obviously they do, as evident with almost 75% depletion of species in only 15 years primarily due to finning. But why the heck would you want them too?! The diversity of life, the habitats and coastal environments are the way we see them today.. because of Sharks. Sharks directly and indirectly control the natural equilibrium of all life forms below them, which for a Great White is virtually everything (besides the all-mighty Orca).
In terms of reducing attacks, then no, there is no evidence to say that shark culls have an effect. A shark-culling program conducted in Hawaii between 1959 and 1976 included prolonged, state-wide fishing that killed nearly 5000 sharks (500 of which were Tiger sharks). This cull resulted in a non-significant effect on the rate of attacks on humans in Hawaii.
Furthermore, Great Whites are a migratory species. Culling individuals within an area will not change the effects of attacks within that area as these Sharks continue to move on.
As mentioned before, the Great White is under a Recovery Plan and until numbers of this species recuperate to a level that will see them designated as ‘recovered’, a cull cannot be executed. The fact that our Government, that backs this plan, is throwing the “C” word around screams a desperate attempt to seem as though they are doing something.
2) An increase in Shark attacks means an increase in Shark numbers, right?
Nope, it sure doesn’t. Although an increase in Shark numbers is possible, it is unlikely and not proven. Some years we will have more attacks, some years we will have less. With the advancement in wetsuit technology means people are spending longer periods in the water and at greater numbers. In years and times with migrating whales, abundance of seals, and an increase in prey we are heightening our chance of an interaction with Sharks. Further to this, 85% of Australians live on the coast and with millions of people entering the ocean every day it is a testament to Sharks sensory structures that attacks are as rare as they are. And despite recent events, Shark attacks are still so rare in comparison to the amount of time we spend in the water.
3) What’s the alternative?
This seems to be the million dollar question.
It is completely normal to fear Sharks, and majority of us do. Even keen divers and surfers have that quick “O.M.G” moment when you see a shadow in your peripheral vision.
The laws that protect sharks, and Great Whites in particular, claim to be ‘strict’, however, major loopholes and inadequate enforcement continue to see the decline of Great White Sharks.
Colin Barnett is considering further alternatives – some good, some not so much;
- “Greater patrols” = good
- “Aerial surveillance” = good
- “Netting beaches” = indiscrimate, costly and overall ineffective
- “Boosting the number of sharks commercial fishermen are allowed to catch” = contradictive
I believe the answer lies in spending time and money on educating the public, signage being placed at the entry to beaches outlining the “high-risk” conditions etc, and emphasis placed on research such as tagging to track shark movements and their presence near receivers.
In my opinion...
What message does killing an endangered species send? Is the Premiere hoping to teach all sharks a lesson?.. perhaps by killing one, the others will learn? With all our Marine Protected Areas and protective status for the species that need it, I am proud to be Australian. However, I think the Governments need to stand by the laws they make and look at protecting the public in the means of education and research. With the knowledge of the 21st century at our fingertips we can no longer rely on ignorance and just what we see on TV. If knowledge is power, then it’s time to start living with these animals instead of on-top of them.