By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 14 January 2014
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
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
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/
**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.