Australia Day began badly for sharks. The day before, Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett rolled out the lines of large baited hooks along parts of the WA coast that he’s been promising as part of the state’s Shark Mitigation Strategy. Within 24 hours the first shark was caught and killed. A 3m long tiger shark. The lines of hooks – known as baited drumlines – are anchored 1km off the shore. Their purpose is to kill sharks deemed to pose a threat to people.
Public response has been vocal. Cottesloe and other WA beaches have seen large protests. A National Day of Action is planned for this coming Saturday, 1st February. Social media (such as Twitter’s #nosharkcull & #noWAsharkcull) has been running hot. A poll published this week finds 83% of respondents oppose the cull. Various national and international celebrities are lending their names to the cause, including Ricky Gervais, Richard Branson, and Stephen Fry. Local writer Tim Winton has written passionately about the issue. People are sharing lists of things more likely to cause death; some plainly factual (e.g. cars), and some perhaps apocryphal (e.g. falling pianos, dropbears). A large number of people are outraged at Premier Barnett’s decision.
I love everything about Australia. The people, the attitude & especially the wildlife. Please protect your sharks. They were there first
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) January 27, 2014
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) January 21, 2014
The scientific community is also speaking out about the ecological and environmental effects of removing large marine predators; particularly species recognised internationally as threatened or vulnerable, such as White Sharks (Carcharadon carcharias). Interestingly, new research published this month shows that White Sharks live much, much longer than previously thought, with significant implications for breeding rates and therefore conservation of a listed threatened species.
But Colin Barnett will have nothing of these arguments. He speaks of his ‘responsibility to protect Western Australians’, and asserts that the shark killed on Monday posed an ‘imminent threat’ to beachgoers.
But what exactly is he protecting Western Australians from? The cull strategy is based on no scientific evidence and no environmental assessment. Shark culls elsewhere (such as in Hawai’i) have led to no reduction in injury or fatality. And claims that shark-related human fatalities are on the increase are unfounded. In contrast, there is plenty of evidence of the negative ecological and environmental effects of removing large predators, and including marine species.
Given these points, the assertion that this shark cull is based on a priority to ‘protect people’ is misleading. There is no reliable evidence that the risk of human injury or fatality is increasing, nor that culling sharks will reduce the incidence. Barnett’s actions are political. They point to the highly political character of the environment, and to some of the problems associated with poorly-informed policy.
An immediate task here is to cast light on the lack of evidence supporting this approach. A longer term project is to devise ways of reducing risk to people without killing others – especially internationally recognised vulnerable predators. In our ongoing work we are surveying and interviewing ocean-users in Western Australia to better understand how the people most likely to encounter sharks negotiate their use of the ocean, and how they think these spaces should be managed. We’re finding broad views, but a clear majority of respondents strongly oppose culling, favouring instead strategies that involve education and encouraging people understand the risks associated with ocean-use.
Perhaps there are two good things coming out of this series of events. First, it has mobilised the community on an environmental issue – something we haven’t seen on such a large scale in Australia in some time. And second, it is slowly highlighting the use of related strategies in other states. Baited drumlines have been in place in Queensland since the 1960s, and shark nets are in use in QLD and NSW (the kind that catch and kill sharks and other animals that attempt to pass them, not the sort that simply exclude sharks from popular swimming areas). In 2012 alone, QLD baited drumlines captured 753 sharks, and NSW nets killed 108 sharks, only 15 of which were of potentially ‘dangerous’ species. We hope that events in WA, and the deaths of marine life happening as we type, might prompt Australians to re-evaluate the use of these culling techniques across the country.