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Western Australia’s sharks need your help!

Great White Shark. Image courtesy animals.NationalGeographic.com

Last week, I wrote about three current shark conservation issues, including a proposed shark cull in Western Australia. Barbara Wueringer was able to deliver her letter to Western Australian government officials on Friday, and thanks to your help, it was signed by more than 100 scientists and conservationists from all over the world.

Yesterday, however, another swimmer was killed by a shark in Western Australian waters. George Thomas Wainwright, 32, was a native of Texas who had been working on a boat in Australia. This attack, which is the third in the last two months, has resulted in renewed calls for a “shark cull”. The proposed plan would involve both an attempt to kill the specific shark responsible for killing Mr. Wainwright and a more general killing of all the sharks in the area. It is believed that the shark that killed Mr. Wainwright was a great white shark, also known as a  “white pointer” in Australia.

Noting that “globally,  there has been a reported decline of between 60-95% in Great White Shark numbers in the last 50 years”, these animals are listed as a Threatened species under Australian law (the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act). One of the key components of the Australian government’s recovery plan for great white sharks (found here) is to “reduce the impact of shark control activities on white sharks”.

The Recovery Plan also notes that the state of Western Australia has an exemption:

“Western Australia has considered the issue of shark control and recently adopted the Shark Response Plan which is detailed in the Shark Hazard Report Western Australia 2001….The Response Plan provides that in the event of a shark attacking, or attempting to attack, a person, fisheries officers would, upon verification of the identity of the animal, immediately attempt to kill the shark. To be able to kill a great white in the interests of public safety, the Minister for Fisheries has issued a Standing Order, which authorises Western Australian Police and Department of Fisheries officers, in the event of an attack, or attempted attack, to immediately kill the shark responsible for the attack. The Response Plan also outlines the process for capturing and destroying a shark using a firearm by a Western Australian Police Service Officer, or where this is not possible, by a Department of Fisheries officer. The exemption to kill sharks only applies in Western Australian State waters (that is in an area up to three nautical miles off shore). There is no such exemption in Commonwealth waters.” (emphasis mine)

In other words, if relevant government officials believe that they have identified the exact individual shark that killed or injured a human, then authorized government officials are allowed to kill that shark.

Since these animals don’t often spend time in one area (often traveling tens of kilometers in a day) and forensic technology can only identify the offending shark by size and species, this law doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. The odds of people finding and positively identifying the exact individual shark responsible for an attack are essentially zero. A notable exception occurred last December in Egypt when the attacking shark (including a unique mark on it’s fin) was photographed clearly, but that isn’t the case here.

Kevin Morgan, the Mayor of Western Australia’s town of Cottlesloe explains his views on this policy in an interview:

“I’ve got no qualms that the perpetrator being eliminated if that’s what is necessary…No doubt expert input there is useful…the key there is to identify the particular animal or the particular fish and that is no doubt the difficult part of it…If there was a particular shark that’s already been involved in a fatality and can be identified and is still in the area…I have no qualms about that…Yes, I believe we take our risks when we enter the shark’s natural environment… but no doubt if that risk is being heightened by a particular animal being involved in a fatality and a risk of that occurring again, well than that is one risk that we can reduce through that shark’s elimination..Albeit I understand that people do not want to see that occurring wily nilly so to speak.”

This policy is based on the long-discredited “Rogue Shark” theory, which posits that while most sharks leave people alone, every once in a while a specific individual will develop a taste for human, and as long as we remove those individuals from the system, people will be safe. Obviously this is not  supported by any kind of scientific data (again, with the notable exception of the Egyptian shark attacks last December, when the photographed attacker may have been responsible for more than one attack).

The other part of the Western Australian government’s plan is a large-scale shark cull, which is not currently a part of Western Australian or national law. Colin Barnett, the premier of Western Australia, recently stated that:

“he would consider allowing commercial fishermen to increase their catches of shark along the WA coastline in a bid to reduce numbers… and a mass cull… He said  ‘Culling could be considered if those sharks are staying around popular beach areas.'”

This part of the plan is much more concerning.  Coastal Western Australia is home to many species of sharks. Several of these species are endangered or threatened. Few of these species pose any threat whatsoever to humans. Many serve critically important roles in the marine ecosystem. Almost all would be killed under this new proposed rule (shark fishing gear is indiscriminate).

Any human death or injury is a tragedy, but we must remember that the odds of being killed by a shark are still incredibly low. Killing so many sharks indiscriminately could result in an ecological catastrophe. Worst of all, it won’t result in making the beaches any safer for humans- sharks like the great white migrate across the oceans regularly, so killing the great whites that happen to be near Western Australia will harm their threatened populations without making Western Australian waters free of great whites for long.

There are a variety of ways to keep swimmers safe from sharks without killing a threatened species or large numbers of animals that pose no threats to us whatsoever. These include (but are not limited to) aerial patrols and educational efforts.

Ryan Kempster of Support Our Sharks has created a petition, which will be delivered to the premier of Western Australia on Tuesday morning (their time, which will be late Monday night Eastern standard time), asking the government to avoid shark culls as a solution to this problem. I encourage you to sign this petition before Monday evening, and to help spread the word about it. As of this writing, the petition has just over 2,000 signatures. I’d like to exceed 3,000, their stated goal, by Monday afternoon Eastern standard time. To sign the petition, please click here.

Please note that commenting on this post about this issue is not the same thing as actually signing the petition, though you are encouraged to let me know if you signed the petition as a result of reading this blog post.