The shark attack myth: Why are we culling sharks to extinction?
It is difficult to comprehend with all we understand about sharks, including their declining numbers, the integral part they play in the ecosystem and the minimal threat they pose to humans, the barbaric and archaic concept of killing off these majestic animals is taking place.
By Olivia Shiels
A protester writes a clear message
Source: Sydney Morning Herald
Australia, the world is watching as we have let yet another senseless policy pass through our government. Shark culling is Western Australia’s answer to the recent shark attacks that have taken place across the state.
For reasons defying logic, Environmental Minister Greg Hunt approved Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett’s request for a shark cull, exempting it from the national environmental laws in the “interest of protecting public safety”.
Despite numerous protests across the nation, including a turn out of over 4000 people at Perth’s Cottlesloe Beach, home of the states’ Premier, the witch hunt for sharks has gone ahead. This includes targeting the Great white, a species listed under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of threatened species and protected under Australian law.
The first kill took place on Australia Day, when a female tiger shark was pulled from a drum line off the coast of Dunsborough, then shot in the head and discarded at sea.
Sharks vital for marine health
The environmental impact of shark culling could be devastating. Overfishing and culling has resulted in the number of sharks dropping by 90 percent in the last 30 years. As an apex predator, sharks are vital for keeping ecological environments in balance. When the number of large sharks drops, rays and fish species dramatically increase.
These species then feed on smaller, commercially valuable fish, resulting in a huge economic and ecological impact.
In a country like Australia, where we are lucky enough to live side by side with a plethora of unique animals and benefit from this through our thriving eco-tourism, it is shameful we have turned our backs on sharks.
Aside from costing the Australian Government $6.35 million, research has shown the shark cull to be an ineffective method of reducing shark attacks.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) is strongly against the decision made by the Government. AMCS Fisheries Campaigner Pamela Allen said there is no evidence to suggest shark culling will reduce shark bites.
Ms Allen told marineconservation.org, “We call on the WA Government to repeal these measures and start listening to the experts”.
Drumline program unsuccessful
Drumlines have been set at several metropolitan beach sites as well as popular surf sites across Western Australia.
According to the fisheries department of Western Australia, 66 sharks have been caught in total since the culling began in January, 63 of which were tiger sharks, two were mako and one black tip shark.
Earlier this year, the lines failed to catch a four meter shark spotted 100 meters off North Leighton Beach near Fremantle.
The Opposition Leader Mark McGowan told ABC news online the failure to catch the shark demonstrates the waste of resources for the State Government’s “catch and kill” policy.
McGowan suggested a more effective means was through education, tagging and informing the public on any dangers.
There is little evidence to prove the success of the drum lining method and sharks cannot be restricted from access to swimming areas.
WA Premier Colin Barnett with a hook used on drum lines
Source: Perth Now
Shark cull debate worldwide
The shark cull debate has been raised in other countries with high shark populations such as Cape Town in South Africa and Hawaii in the United States.
A shark cull that took place in Hawaii over 15 years resulted in no significant reduction in shark bites.
In South Africa, a shark cull was considered after a spate of fatal attacks off the coast of Cape Town. However, after debating the issue they instead created a “Shark Spotter” program. The program involved public education and awareness, research into sharks and first-aid trained spotters on the beaches.
The Shark Spotters website states their objective is to “make a meaningful contribution to white shark conservation, contribute to the community’s well-being and set a precedent in how people and sharks can co-exist”.
The South African Government have expressed concerns about the “catch and kill” policy in Western Australia, warning that the cull could have a negative impact on migration of shark species, particularly the Great White which has been known to swim between Australia and South Africa.
The shark attack myth
Prior to the publication of “Shark Attack” in 1958 by Sydney shark researcher Dr. Victor Coppleson, shark bites were described as “shark accidents”. Just like a drowning or a boating accident, a “shark accident” was a tragic beach related event that occurred without warning.
The simple change in language altered how the public thought about sharks and gave way to fear and misunderstanding. The blockbuster film Jaws further propelled this terror and supported Coppleson’s “rogue shark” theory.
Coppleson had set out to disprove the theory of American researchers that sharks do not bite north of the Caribbean. He published this book with the unique theory that sharks hunt humans.
Today Coppleson’s theory is largely thought to be untrue amongst shark experts. They believe it is more likely that shark attacks occur because of mistaken identity, when the animal confuses humans with prey.
Sharing their space
The ocean is not a hotel swimming pool and most Australian’s understand that when they chose to swim in the ocean they share the space with sea life, including sharks.
Most accept that the chance of crossing paths with a shark when they enter the water is minimal. Furthermore, the risk of being bitten does not warrant killing an endangered species. It is estimated over 80 per cent of Australians are not in favor of the shark culling. So why is this policy still occurring?
There is far greater risk of being killed in a car accident, drowning or even a falling coconut than a shark attack.
The increase in shark attacks off the coast of Western Australia is likely due to a combination of growing human population and a boom in humpback whale and seal numbers attracting sharks to the area.
While a great white is yet to be killed in the shark cull, they remain a target for the Government’s policy. It is estimated only 1,000 to 2,000 great whites live in the waters off Western Australia.
The drum lines coincide with migration paths of many sharks, including the great white. Killing just a small number of these endangered species could have a drastic impact on their future.
Education and awareness key to reducing attacks
Shark attacks are terrible, freak accidents but shark culling is not the answer.
More education on how to reduce the risks of encountering a shark will help humans live harmoniously along side with these frequently misunderstood animals.
To see the endangered great white shark slaughtered is an extreme and unnecessary reaction of the Government driven by fear.
Australia, we can do better than this.