These plans, which will include the instalment of baited drumlines off the Western Australia coast and the establishment of two monitored areas near popular swimming beaches, come as a reaction to six deadly attacks in the state in the last two years. Any shark measuring over three metres in length spotted within these two monitored areas will be targeted by commercial fishermen expressly hired for the purpose of killing them. In the event of an attack, boats will be immediately deployed to hunt down and kill the specific shark believed responsible, despite the questionable practicalities of doing so.
Western Australia’s Fisheries Minister, Troy Buswell, claims that the project is “a targeted, hazard mitigation strategy”, the goal of which is to “attempt to remove the shark hazard from where they represent the greatest danger to the public”. Local tourism operators and members of the surf community have also spoken out in favour of the new legislation, claiming that the threat of shark attacks along Western Australia’s coastline is causing thousands of dollars of damage to the state’s tourist industry. Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett is clearly a believer that the preservation of the ocean as a human playground is a higher priority than the protection of several environmentally important and vulnerable shark species, saying that “sharks, where they stay around popular swimming or surfing areas, should be destroyed”.
However, not everyone is a fan of the impending cull; the new laws have caused argument and anger throughout the state, and outrage in the wider conservation community. Many members from water user groups in the affected areas have demonstrated their opposition to the cull, stating that the risk of shark attack is one that they are willing to accept- and that those who are not should simply stay out of the ocean. The recent announcement is particularly controversial because the measures specifically target great whites, a species which up until now has enjoyed legal protection in Australian waters due to its vulnerable status. A dangerous precedent is therefore being set, showing that protective legislation has little value if it can be reneged upon at any time.
The mass killing of large sharks in Western Australia waters is not only morally reprehensible, but is likely to have serious ramifications for the future of targeted species and the health of the marine environment as a whole. The three shark species most commonly associated with attacks on humans (and therefore the three most likely to be targeted) are the great white, the tiger and the bull shark. The latter two species are classified as Near-Threatened on the IUCN Red List, while the great white is listed as being vulnerable to extinction. Great whites have a long life expectancy, take a long time to reach sexual maturity and have a low rate of reproduction, meaning that the culling of large individuals who may not yet have had a chance to mate will have an effect so drastic upon their population numbers that experts fear they may not be able to recover from it. As the ocean’s apex predators, all sharks play a vital role in maintaining the health of the ocean ecosystem- without them, the balance of the marine food-chain will be critically disrupted. The consequences of such disruption could be far-reaching, affecting commercial fishing stocks and in turn, the state revenue that the cull is supposed to be protecting.
Despite the obvious issues with depleting the numbers of large sharks in Australian waters, the success of the cull in making the oceans safe for recreational water users depends on exactly that. To date, the government has released no criteria or methodology by which the programme’s success will be measured, i.e. they have not stated how they will show how the number of sharks killed relates to shark attack statistics. One thing is for sure however- since the majority of targeted species are migratory rather than resident, the cull will only be effective if it systematically and continuously removes new sharks as they arrive in the area, putting an unacceptable strain on already vulnerable populations.
Even if this is achieved, it is doubtful how successful the new legislation would really be in achieving bather safety, a fact that previous culls elsewhere only serve to emphasise. A shark mitigation programme in Hawaii in the 1960s saw the massacre of over 4,500 sharks, but even such large-scale destruction failed to result in any measurable decrease in shark related incidents. Conversely, the new control plans could result in increased numbers of large sharks in inshore waters- in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, where drumlines are also used, studies have shown that the carcasses left on the hooks actually serve to attract more sharks to the area.
The government’s willingness to support and enable the cull seems to have little basis in science- rather, it is an archaic and reactionary measure that was actively advised against in a report presented to the government last year by Daryl McPhee, a fisheries researcher at Bond University. He stated that “due to the environmental impacts of shark control activities, it is not recommended that either shark nets or drumlines be introduced into Western Australia”. Research on the impacts of the monitored areas and the drumlines will be made almost impossible by the fact that no estimates have been made as to the number of sharks to be killed; neither will there be independent observers onboard the killing boats to ensure that criteria are adhered to or species and sizes recorded.
The new initiatives will be funded by taxpayer money, with $2 million being allocated for the tracking, catching and destroying of sharks in the relevant areas alone. Perhaps this money would be better spent enabling further research to be done on all shark species in Western Australian waters- only research can provide the answers that could equip water users with the information necessary to effectively reduce the possibility of attack. The rise in attacks in Western Australia in the past two years is likely to be a result of human population growth rather than evidence of increasingly aggressive sharks; even now, the statistics for causes of death by almost anything else far outweigh those for death by shark attack. After all, wherever you are in the world, you are more likely to be killed by either lightning, dogs, aeroplanes, coconuts, falling out of bed or rollercoasters than you are by a shark.
Colin Barnett was recently quoted reminding people that sharks “are after, all, a fish- let’s keep this in perspective”. I think that is good advice- let’s keep in perspective the easily avoidable and practically negligible threat that sharks pose to humans, versus the real damage that this cull will inevitably wreak not only on these magnificent animals, but on the health of our ocean for generations to come.