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  • The Western Australian shark cull

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 14 January 2014

    The Situation
    Twenty deaths have occurred in Western Australia due to sharks, over the last one hundred years (1). On one hand every life lost is a tragedy. On the other hand 20 deaths over 100 years, is nothing compared to other causes of death such as obesity, car accidents and even lightning. Each year, more people get killed by toasters worldwide than sharks. Nevertheless, the government decided action was needed to reduce the number of shark-related marine traumas and three years ago proposed a cull. This proposal was overturned in favour of investing $1.7 million into establishing four research projects at the Department of Fisheries in Western Australia to run from 2011-12 to 2015-16. The outline of these projects was to study shark ecology and behaviour, with the intended outcome of ‘improved capability to manage shark hazards’ (2). Sadly, a shark related marine trauma occurred at the end of 2013, which resulted in the death of a young father of two. Despite the rarity of such cases, and the yet to be completed research projects at the Department of Fisheries, the incident provoked a knee-jerk reaction* from the WA government in the guise of another proposal for a shark cull in Western Australia. In an official statement to the press, the WA government stated that the cull would comprise three major components (1):

    – Baited drum lines to be set at five metropolitan and three South-West locations

    – Commercial vessels to monitor and patrol these eight Marine Monitored Areas

    – Sharks deemed to be a threat to water users will be destroyed**

    The government reassured the public that ‘the new measures would improve public safety’ and would result in a ‘faster and more aggressive response’ to any incidences.

     

     

    Response to the Cull
    The proposed cull ignited an outcry that resonated around the world. Scientists, conservationists, shark experts, and the general public all joined forces to be part of the opposition.

    Baited drum lines can not target ‘problem species’, and subsequently will catch non-dangerous shark species as well as other animal groups such as turtles and dolphins (3). It is known from other examples of Shark Control Programmes that have been implemented in Queensland, New South Wales and KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa) that they do not, and can not offer an impenetrable barrier between the beach and the open ocean (4). The best a SCP can hope for is to reduce the numbers of dangerous species getting through. May I remind you at this point that the ‘numbers getting through’ have resulted in 20 fatalities in Western Australia since World War I.

     

     

    So What Do We Do?
    As the cull will not, and can not, guarantee the safety of water users, but will endanger harmless wildlife, negatively impact the ecosystem, and cost the lives of endangered species, it is unequivocally a misguided attempt to put a plaster over a cut and ignore the sharp object imbedded in it. A statement by The Shark Trust suggests ‘instead of engaging in ecologically damaging activities, that efforts are focused on improved mitigation measures including increased patrols, alerts and public awareness’ (5). This type of measure is widely accepted in the scientific community as the best course of action with the highest probability of making a positive difference. In Brazil, a Shark Control Programme was implemented that captures large sharks, transports them away to be released offshore with a radio tag for monitoring (6). The results of this programme have been a reduction in the incidences of shark related marine traumas, whilst avoiding damaging the ecosystem with indiscriminate killing of marine life (7).

     

    So those are the facts, whether you support the cull or not is up to you. However, as a shark expert myself, with a deeper understanding of the situation than can be outlined in a short blog, I encourage you to sign the petitions against this action, and do what you can to get others to do the same. As a closing remark, I’d point out that a similar shark cull took place in Hawaii in the 1950’s and the result was no significant decrease in the number of marine incidences involving sharks (8). If it isn’t going to work, why damage the environment unnecessarily?

     

    Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Curatorial Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology

     

    1. http://www.mediastatements.wa.gov.au/Pages/StatementDetails.aspx?StatId=8039&listName=StatementsBarnett
    2. http://www.fish.wa.gov.au/Education-and-Partnerships/Shark-Hazard/Shark%20research/Pages/default.aspx
    3. Conservation Council of Western Australia http://ccwa.org.au/
    4. McPhee, D.P. (2012) Likely Effectiveness of Netting or Other Capture Programs as a Shark Hazard Mitigation Strategy under Western Australian Conditions
    5. http://www.sharktrust.org
    6. Hazin, F. H. V. and Afonso, A. S. (2013) A green strategy for shark attack mitigation off Recife, Brazil. Animal Conservation
    7. In a letter to to the government of Western Australia by Dr Ryan Kempster, founder of Support Our Sharks http://www.supportoursharks.com/
    8. http://scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/handle/10125/2202

    *Personal opinion
    **Quantified as sharks of over 3 metres in total body length. These individuals will be automatically deemed to be a ‘danger to water users’ and are to be exterminated.

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    10 Responses to “The Western Australian shark cull”

    • 1
      Russell wrote on 24 January 2014:

      I think your first sentence is getting close to intellectual dishonesty. The media statement you cite actually says:

      “We have had 20 fatal shark attacks in WA in the past 100 years – seven of them in the past three years”

      To quote half a sentence in order to avoid the point of it is not the way scholarship is done. The government has been spurred to action by so many RECENT deaths due to sharks and the result that, in a very hot, dry coastal community many, many people are now frightened to go to the beach, as they have done for generations.

    • 2
      Emma-Louise Nicholls wrote on 24 January 2014:

      I welcome your comment and appreciate your feedback. I can assure you that ‘intellectual dishonesty’ was not, and would never be my intention, nor was it to ‘cite half a sentence’ to change facts to support any particular specific point of view. I was not deliberately avoiding any points though clearly the spate of recent fatalities is a major point that should have been emphasised.

      I refer you to a more recent article regarding rhino hunting in which I conclude that it is the right thing to do, a demonstration that as a scientist I am not inclined to make emotive decisions, but to look at all the facts and make an informed decision. I regret that you feel I missed out a major point, and I agree that a recent increase is a reason for concern. However, that does not change any of the other facts, and I still do not support it.

      Looking at it from a less anthropocentric point of view- by taking out top predators from an ecosystem you are unbalancing the trophic structure. This would have knock on effects not only in Australia, but as many of the species that will be affected are migratory, it may well have knock on effects on ecosystems elsewhere.

      Further, sharks are currently one of the fastest declining vertebrate groups in the animal kingdom, primarily due to the finning industry. Perhaps people do not care about these species but the marine ecosystem does not just put food in the bellies of people worldwide, as well as provide income for countless coastal communities, it is also a major source of oxygen in our atmosphere. If it collapses, and it is already heading that way, you can see it could cause major issues!

      My heartfelt sympathies go out to everyone affected by the tragic losses of the last few years and I do not believe that nothing should be done. But I do believe that this is not the answer. Has anyone considered that baited drumlines will in fact attract predatory species? The drumlines will not create a continuous barrier after all.

    • 3
      Russell wrote on 27 January 2014:

      Thanks for your reply. If you google up the latest edition of a newspaper called The Subiaco Post you will see a photo of what Perth’s most popular beach looked like on a hot day before the recent shark attacks, and what it looks like now … deserted.

      This city has a beach culture – it’s not a small thing to suggest that we just regard the sea as the sharks’ territory. (And yes, I swim every morning of the year in the sea, have done all my life)

      On the one hand scientists say the shark populations haven’t been studied enough and the precautionary principle suggests we shouldn’t do anything do reduce their numbers.

      On the other hand we hear anecdotal evidence from boat owners that say they never swim off their boats anymore because there are so many sharks about.

      There used to be a whaling station on our coast and when it was closed down the whale population was almost nothing – about 600?? But since whaling stopped the population of whales swimming up and down the coast has exploded to something like 30,000. Sharks eat whales and follow them up and down the coast, so it seems likely that with a big increase in this food supply for the sharks their numbers are increasing, and that’s why I’m not bothered if sharks near beaches are killed.

      There was an article on the website The Conversation last week about a scheme in Brazil where they use hooks to catch sharks but then tow them out to see and release them – about 70% of the sharks survive and swim off to not threaten swimmers. That maybe is a scheme we should try here.

    • 4
      Emma-Louise Nicholls wrote on 27 January 2014:

      Heya

      I agree with you, the shark control programme that has been implemented in Brazil, which I referred to in my blog, does seem to be an effective method of controlling numbers and I think it would have a much better result in WA than the cull. I know that other people have suggested that to avoid sharks you should avoid the water, but I don’t feel this is a realistic suggestion, and a Shark Control Programme is clearly needed instead. A SCP that has been proven to work, such as that in Brazil, seems to be a much better way forward than one (i.e. the cull) that has been previously shown not to work (Hawaii, Mexico). That seems to me, an illogical move!

      I understand your reasoning in culling a population of animals that is increasing beyond capacity and it is of course a method used effectively around the world for a variety of animal species. However, I don’t think that it is that simple a situation in WA. The global population of sharks is decreasing, very rapidly. In WA they are increasing- perhaps because of the increase in whales that you mentioned, perhaps also because of the huge decrease in fish populations elsewhere (caused by over fishing worldwide), eitherway sharks are having to look elsewhere for food. The result of this is that they are congregating in areas, rather than spreading out as normal. This was also seen in the last few years in the Red Sea (though there were additional factors in that story!) This ‘congregating’ manifests itself as an apparent increase in sharks, but it is just a congregation of ‘what’s left’ as it were. Which is another reason, beyond a cull’s proven lack of effect (Hawaii), that I agree with you that Brazil’s example is a better one to follow. It seems it would be better for both protection of swimmers *and* the marine ecosystem, upon which we all rely.

      Now how to make the government listen to us?!

    • 5
      Russell wrote on 28 January 2014:

      How to make the government listen?

      Well, the first thing is not to mis-characterise the situation (“Twenty deaths have occurred in Western Australia due to sharks, over the last one hundred years” & “May I remind you at this point that the ‘numbers getting through’ have resulted in 20 fatalities in Western Australia since World War I.”) because the government will just think you don’t understand their position and have no options to offer them.

      While groups like the surfers’ association was calling for action, they were opposed by conservationists saying that the sea was the sharks’ territory, not ours, or that we aren’t on their menu, just in the way, or that driving is riskier than swimming etc etc. None of that helps the government. Offering an option like the Brazilian one hopefully allows a large majority to agree on the least bad option – the government will follow.

      (Just to add that I’ve never voted for the party currently in government – in Australia we have a much more effective Greens Party than you have in the UK, and I’ve voted for them, in every election, since they were formed).

    • 6
      Emma-Louise Nicholls wrote on 28 January 2014:

      Yes indeed! But I don’t believe they didn’t know of this option before. I know the results of the SCP in Brazil, for example, was published in the journal ‘Animal Conservation’ late last year. Things don’t have to get to that stage to be known about by people who *surely* did their homework before deciding on a plan of action?!

      On a side note, I have conceded previously that I should have been clearer in the wording of my article. But it is unfair to say I have misquoted and mischaracterised information as the part to which you keep referring is followed in the article by the point that the cull was proposed three years ago. That was before the recent increase which has induced the current cull. I don’t want to start an argument as it serves no benefit but I feel it is unfair to misquote the article in order to criticise it as you continue to do.

    • 7
      Russell wrote on 29 January 2014:

      I repeated my claim that your post included a mis-representation in response to your question on how to influence the government – because that’s how not to do it, it simply puts you in the opposition camp. Being an opposition can work if you can garner enough support, but it’s probably the long way to go about change.

      Presumably the government policy is based on advice from the Fisheries Department, and I assume the Department knew about the Brazilian experiment. But, and I’ve been following the issue, I haven’t seen any of the government’s critics directly raise the Brazilian option with the Minister or Premier, so that we could get a response on it from the government.

      Meanwhile, the government has set up a new website for your enjoyment: http://sharksmart.com.au/

    • 8
      Ben Fitzpatrick wrote on 2 February 2014:

      The drum-lining policy is costing potentially millions of dollars, whilst simultaneously jeopardizing a groundbreaking taxpayer funded research program on white sharks. It is attracting sharks to our most popular beaches and placing swimmers at risk, in an attempt to catch and kill the tiny proportion of individual animals greater then 3 m of a highly protected, threatened and poorly understood species, that may potentially but highly unlikely pose a risk to humans. Drum-lining indiscriminately catches and inhumanely treats far more non-target species and undersized target sharks then target animals and runs the risk of impacting the very ecosystem that is the lifeblood of Western Australia’s lifestyle, livelihood and appeal. In so many ways this policy is wrong.

    • 9
      Emma-Louise Nicholls wrote on 3 February 2014:

      Agreed Ben.

      And now it seems, individuals LESS than the 3 metre total body length bench mark are no longer safe either:
      http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/31/western-australian-shark-cull?CMP=twt_gu

    • 10
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