“It is time to move beyond kill-based strategies”: Rethinking shark hazard management

Photo credit: Paul Jones, UOW

 

‘Catch and destroy’ has been the Western Australian Government’s most recent policy approach to reducing human-shark encounters. The 2014 controversial policy was implemented following five deadly shark bites along Western Australia’s (WA) coastline within a ten-month period. However, a new study by AUSCCER’s Dr Leah Gibbs (pictured) and Dr Andrew Warren has shown that the majority of ocean-users in WA oppose shark nets, drumlines and culling, and would rather see the state government fund research and education. Their study has recently been published in the journal Marine Policy.

The researchers interviewed a large cross section of ocean-users in WA – from surfers and surf life savers to fishers and divers – and found that killing sharks, is strongly opposed.

In particular, less than 16 per cent supported the use of baited drumlines – the method used between January-April 2014, as part of the state’s controversial ‘imminent threat policy’.  Less than one in ten (8 per cent) said the controversial shark policy gave them greater protection and confidence, and only 17 per cent thought it would reduce risk for ocean-users.

In contrast, the most strongly supported strategies for reducing shark hazards were research and education, and encouraging people to understand and accept risks associated with using the ocean.

The study also showed that more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of those surveyed had encountered a shark. People frequently encounter or see sharks without negative consequences.

“It is time to move beyond kill-based strategies,” study leader Dr Leah Gibbs said.

“Current policies are based on decades-old thinking that killing sharks will reduce the risk to humans. This is simply unfounded.”

“Our study showed that killing sharks does not make ocean-users feel safer, but rather, they believe that the ocean is the sharks’ habitat, and people should be encouraged to understand risks associated with entering marine environments and adapt their behaviour accordingly.”

Photo credit: Paul Jones, UOW

 

The study responses showed people are in favour of:

·  Improved public education about sharks (87 per cent of respondents)

·  Better strategies to encourage ocean-users to understand and accept the risks of ocean use (82 per cent)

·  Research and development of personal shark deterrents (67 per cent).

·  Improved signage and information at beaches about shark risk (61 per cent)

Dr Gibbs and her multidisciplinary team are now working on a UOW Global Challenges-funded project to evaluate shark nets in New South Wales, particularly looking at the Illawarra and Shoalhaven regions.

“I think there is a misconception among the general population about exactly what shark nets do. Many people think they are barriers that keep sharks away from popular swimming beaches. They aren’t barriers. They are nets specifically designed to catch and kill sharks.”

Dr Gibbs said policy makers are beginning to look to new shark hazard management strategies that do not harm marine life, and this should be encouraged. Examples of alternate strategies currently under trial include improved surveillance and warning systems, magnetic and electrical barriers, and personal electrical and chemical deterrents.

“These technologies are already in use or being trialled. If we can get them right, they really provide hope for effectively and ethically keeping people safe and protecting marine life.”

You can follow Leah on Twitter @LM_Gibbs and Andrew @AWsurf. Previous posts by Leah an Andrew on sharks include Shark Cull Begins, Ocean-Users and Sharks in Western Australia,  and Who’s Hunting Who? Misguided responses to shark attacks (via the Conversation)

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