Biteback | Shark Cull Shame
Killing sharks in a bid to protect bathers has a long and nasty history in Australia
Western Australia’s recent decision to start a shark cull along its coastline has caused outrage and protest throughout Australia and across the world. There have been seven shark attack fatalities over the last three years and Western Australia’s Premier Colin Barnett has said, ‘We’ve got to do something’. Yet there’s no evidence that such a policy will make the beaches any safer, but it will almost certainly have long-term impacts on the marine environment.
While Australia has been one of the leaders in shark conservation – great whites are protected in Australian waters and it’s illegal to catch, keep, buy, sell, possess or harm them – Australia also has a long history of killing sharks to ‘protect’ bathers. Both Queensland and New South Wales have been using nets and baited lines to remove sharks from bathing beaches for more than 20 years resulting in hundreds of dead sharks – see box on opposite page.
The new scheme in Western Australia is to kill great white, tiger and bull sharks larger than three metres long by leaving baited hooks attached to drum lines. Any shark found larger than three metres will be shot. Hawaii adopted a similar policy some years back and it made absolutely no difference to the long-term incidence of shark attacks.
The Premier has insisted that by using big hooks there will be no by-catch and only large sharks will be affected. Within hours of the hooks being set, a one-metre tiger shark was hooked. That shark was successfully released, however information has been coming in from observers that many smaller sharks are being found dead on the hooks. It has also been said that because of the length of time it takes to unhook and let them go, many of these sharks are just sinking to the bottom as they are released. Members of the Animal Rescue Team and West Australians for Shark Conservation have been visiting the drum lines at night and have reported that they are releasing distressed animals such as stingrays from almost every hook.
One of the problems with policies such as this is that they have far wider ramifications than the Western Australians appreciate. The Australian government is clearly in breach of its international obligations by allowing this cull to go ahead and certainly the United Nations has advised that Australia is breaking the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species. Knowledge of the migration patterns of species such as the great white shark are not well understood, but what is known is that these animals travel thousands of miles and certainly migrate between Australia and South Africa. The South African government has already raised concerns with the Australians about this cull. Ironically, the implementation of this policy has coincided with research from the IUCN that found the world’s 1,041 shark, skate and ray species are among the most threatened animals on the planet.
Some people are asking what all the fuss is about when both Queensland and New South Wales have a policy of using shark netting around popular beaches. It’s certainly true that shark nets are responsible for many shark deaths each year, along with many other marine animals. Last year 108 animals were caught in the nets in NSW, with 34 released alive, while the year before saw 158 animals trapped, with 58 surviving. Among those were humpback whales, turtles and rays. Sharks caught included tigers, duskies, bronze whalers, great whites, bulls, silkies and the highly endangered, but harmless, grey nurse shark.
The message Australia is sending out by killing sharks to protect beaches is a mixed one. Just a few weeks ago, a Sydney man was fined nearly 20,000 Australian dollars for killing a great white. He repeatedly rammed the juvenile shark with his boat, slashed it with the propeller and then, after it was towed to a boat ramp, starting bashing it around the head with a metal pole. It’s good to see that the law protecting great whites is being enforced, but it does sit at odds with allowing state officials to kill them.
While Australia chose to permit the random killing of sharks, other countries were taking a more considered view. Mexico recently announced a permanent ban on fishing for great whites. Even those caught as by-catch will now have to be released. This is part of Mexico’s plan to ban all shark and stingray fishing in response to the alarming drop in elasmobranch numbers in recent years.
And in the end, shark attacks – terrible as they are – have to be put into perspective. The number of people killed by sharks is minuscule when compared with road accidents or domestic violence. Not a single attack occurred during the daytime at any of the popular swimming beaches in Western Australia, yet hundreds of thousands of people were in the water every day. And while four people were killed by shark attack on these beaches, 46 people died there from drowning. Policies on the environment shouldn’t be adopted just so a politician can be seen to be ‘doing something’. He should follow scientific advice and spend the money on decent research. Those who use Western Australia’s beaches will be a lot safer for it.