Opinion – Western Australia Shark Cull

Image Last week the Western Australian government responded to a spate of seven fatal shark attacks in the state within the last three years. The policy has been controversial to say the least.

The response to the rise in attacks, announced over the past week, is a drum baiting program, targeting any sharks over 3m in length. The government is currently looking for a commercial fishing organisation that would be capable of monitoring, baiting and servicing the drum lines which will target sharks 1km offshore from Perth’s beaches.

The move has raised controversy for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was only a month ago, following the death of 35 year old Chris Boyd at the hands of a Great White Shark, that Premier Colin Barnett announced his opposition to a shark cull.

“If they’re surfing or diving on reefs, it is impossible to provide full protection for those people. It’s just a reality of life,” Mr Barnett said in the wake of Boyd’s death.

And he was right. Anyone who surfs or dives (I do both) knows the risks when they enter the water. Like the Premier said, it’s just a reality of life. That’s the beauty of the ocean, it’s one of nature’s final frontiers, the great unexplored, one of the last adventures a person can undertake on this health-and-safety obsessed planet.

Surfing used to be a test of mettle. I remember days in high school, waking up at the crack of dawn during Tasmanian winter storms, to get on a bike and ride to the local break. Once there, hands fully frozen and nose numb, you would get into a wetsuit still damp from the session night’s previous. Then you would wait for the sun to show, for the light to come so you could see the monsters of waves you could hear and feel before you could see in the morning’s darkness.

And I remember the reason I loved it was because of the danger. You wouldn’t find someone in the water telling you what to do or which rules were being broken. It was a way to break free. We would flirt with danger, all the while, deep down, knowing the ocean had to be respected.

Sharks were always part of that. Part of that adventure. One of the accepted risks. When you entered the water you were in the shark’s domain.

And although we were young and naive I believe we were right. Noah has been gracing the water for a lot longer than we have. What right do we have to bait and kill this beautiful but deadly predator because he mistook a few of us for his natural prey?

So besides the fact that a few sentimental surfers respect ‘the man in the grey suit’, why else should we oppose this legislation?

Well, firstly, the sharks that will be targeted by this program are endangered and protected. The tender for the contract that the government has released reveals that the organisation that wins the bid for the contract will be exempt from “various state legislation” that forbid the killing or catching of protected shark species.

The Great White Shark, probably the most feared of all shark species, is responsible for most unprovoked shark attacks on humans than any other species. Most scientists believe this is due to the Great White mistaking surfers or divers for seals, its main source of food. This is one of the sharks that the new drum nets will be targeting.

Marine biologist Phil Coulthard has been quick to outline the reasons the Great White needs to remain protected.

“These are an apex predator as well which are highly important for maintaining ocean health and the idea of killing animals indiscriminately for fear that they might bite someone is frankly quite ludicrous and 1960s in its thinking,” Coulthard said.

Unfortunately, Great White numbers are in decline, due mainly to commercial fishing . It is a species experts say we know practically nothing about. A study carried out in 2010 by Stanford University estimated their world-wide numbers to be less than 3500. That makes it more endangered than the tiger.

In 1999, the Australian Government declared the Great White to be vulnerable and placed it on the list of animals protected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999).

With all this information and knowledge of how critical Great White numbers are, I find it astonishing that the Western Australian government could even contemplate a kill order for any shark larger than three metres. Many experts have been quick to point out alternatives and flaws in the plan.

Marine biologist Phil Coulthard has said that the plan to bait sharks will only increase their presence closer to shore.

“Baiting will attract sharks, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.

“It’s a strange approach to want to potentially attract the animals to places where there’s lots of people… to catch an animal to avoid having the animal there in the first place,” he said.

In this modern age where we are continually told to find peaceful solutions to problems and use the tools at our disposal to solve our differences without bloodshed, I find it astounding that the Premier has decided on this course of action.

Shark biologist Ryan Kempster shares these feelings.

“Popular beaches and surf breaks can be protected just as effectively by simply moving sharks alive offshore instead of killing them and then dumping their bodies offshore, which is what the Government proposes to do,” Mr Kempster said.

Technology also exists that allows sharks to be tagged with a transmitter which will automatically fire off a warning when the shark enters a particular area. It appears the the Western Australian government has explored little or no options besides the cull order that has been handed down.

And while you may argue that those who have been attacked by sharks will probably not share my views, I believe it is to the contrary.

Sharon Burden, the mother of Kyle Burden who was killed by a shark at Bunker Bay in 2011, has called for a legal challenge to the WA government’s shark cull.

“I would like to see a legal challenge that requires the Barnett government to provide evidence to support their decision,” Burden wrote in a letter to The West Australian newspaper.

Navy clearance diver Paul de Gelder was attacked during a training dive in Sydney Harbour in 2008 and lost his right hand and right leg. After recovering from his injuries, he joined a United Nations shark conservation group.

“Regardless of what an animal does according to its base instincts of survival, it has its place in our world. We have an obligation to protect and maintain the natural balance of our delicate ecosystems,” de Gelder said.

It seems that no matter where you look, public opinion is, rightly so, against the government’s bid to hunt the shark out of existence on the western coast of Australia.

The Western Australian government has no right to target a species declared vulnerable world-wide. It has no right to contribute to the decline of a species most of the world is fighting to protect. And it has no right to rob the future generations of the diversity that exists on this planet.

And by the looks of public opinion, if Premier Barnett doesn’t look at alternative options, he’s going to have a hell of a fight on his hands.

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One thought on “Opinion – Western Australia Shark Cull

  1. Loving the blog mate.

    As you say, government responses should be based on evidence, and be appropriate and adapted to the harm they are trying to address. The Barnett government response seems to fail on a number of counts, which is particularly concerning when endangered species could be involved. The difficulty is the psychology. Shark attacks are exceptionally rare, given the number of hours people spend in the water each year. To take such a large scale response, with no documented prospects of reducing the incidents, seems foolish. Classic dog-whistle politics.

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