More than 100 shark scientists, including me, oppose the cull in Western Australia

Image via Terry Goss, Wikimedia Commons

Image via Terry Goss, Wikimedia Commons

Following the tragic fatal bite of surfer Chris Boyd, the government of Western Australia has again proposed a misinformed policy that would harm populations of threatened animals without making surfers or swimmers safer. By targeting any large shark that swims within a specific area, including endangered species and species not considered a safety risk to humans, this policy is essentially a cull. The family of one of the victims of a fatal shark bite opposes the cull, as do scientific experts,  local surfers and thousands of concerned environmentalists around the world.

Dr. Ryan Kempster, shark biologist and founder of Support Our Sharks, provided a brief statement on this issue:

There is no denying that each and every shark fatality is a tragedy and our sympathy is, of course, with the family and friends of the victims. However, based on statistical data, the number of shark related fatalities is negligible when you consider the vast and increasing number of swimmers entering our coastal waters every year.

So often the argument in favour of a cull comes down to the emotional question of who is more important: a human or a shark. Rather, we need to ask the question, will culling sharks actually reduce the risk of an attack?

The answer is likely to be no. In fact, when shark culling was carried out in Hawaii, between 1959 and 1976, over 4,500 sharks were killed and yet there was no significant decrease in the number of shark bites recorded. We need to invest in more research to better understand the movement patterns of sharks and learn more about the cues that entice sharks to bite people in the first place so that we can avoid these situations in the future.

Dr. Kempster also drafted an open letter to the government of Western Australia. This letter, which has been co-signed by more than 100 shark scientists from all over the world (including me), is reproduced below. It highlights why a shark cull is ineffective at reducing shark bites and why culls harm threatened species, in addition to proposing alternative suggestions. Additionally, shark biologist Dr. Barbara Wueringer started an online petition, which currently has over 34,000 signatures.

I urge the government of Western Australia to enact the alternative policies proposed by Dr. Kempster and other experts. Culls do nothing to help make people safer, and they can do great harm to populations of threatened (and legally protected) species.

Open letter reads:

WA Premier, Colin Barnett
WA Opposition Leader, Mark McGowan
WA Minister for Fisheries, Ken Baston
WA Minister for Environment, Albert Jacob
Dear Premier Barnett, Mr. McGowan, Minister Baston and Minister Jacob,
Re: Proposal to use drum lines for shark population control and targeting of sharks entering protected beach zones
The scientific community acknowledges that the Western Australian (WA) shark situation is a highly emotive issue, in which there has been a great deal of personal suffering. We also recognise that the effects of shark bite fatalities extend beyond the individuals and their families, and impact on the wider community.

However, as scientists and professionals who work with sharks on a regular basis, we are sending this letter because we are deeply opposed to elements of the new shark mitigation policy announced by the WA State Government. While we acknowledge the need to restore public confidence and provide safe swimming areas for the community, we do not support the proposed use of lethal shark population control measures such as drum lines or targeted fishing of sharks.

As a preventative measure, the proposed solutions go significantly beyond that employed in other areas of the world. For example, whilst drum lines and gill nets are used on the east coast of Australia, there is no additional targeted fishing of large sharks in these areas. In addition, a WA Government funded report into shark control measures found that “due to the environmental impacts of shark control activities, it is not recommended that either shark nets or drum-lines be introduced into Western Australia”

Moreover, in response to a fatal shark bite, the identification of even the species of shark responsible is notoriously difficult and it is unlikely that a targeted fishing effort following the event will catch the individual shark responsible.
Shark control programs do not have to be lethal to be effective. For example, a new approach to shark control 
recently trialled in Recife, Brazil, involves capturing, transporting and releasing large sharks offshore, whilst providing an opportunity to tag and monitor the individuals caught. This approach has been extremely effective in reducing the incidence of shark bites in protected areas but without the indiscriminate killing of sharks and other marine life. Importantly, such programs should be coordinated by Government fisheries departments rather than contractors, ensuring a higher level of transparency and accountability as well as a greater opportunity for gathering scientific data on shark abundance and species composition.
We encourage you to adopt fisheries-managed, non-lethal shark control measures (personal and area-based), that will not only reduce the risk of a negative shark encounter, but will also bolster research opportunities for the tagging and monitoring of sharks in WA. Equally as important, we encourage you to further improve education and communication of knowledge (existing and that obtained through further essential research) to the community about ways to avoid negative encounters with sharks.
In this regard, we applaud the Government on the elements of the policy that seek to enhance public education and awareness of sharks and the small risk they pose to human safety.
We take a calculated risk whenever we enter the ocean, but the risk is quite small when compared to other daily activities. Rip currents, for example, are the cause of an average of 21 confirmed human fatalities per year in Australia, compared to 1 for sharks.
There will always be a low residual risk associated with entering the ocean; however, with better education and increased investment in monitoring and research, we can make an objective judgement as to whether or not we accept these risks.
We thank you for taking the time to consider our thoughts on this policy.

December 23, 2013 • 9:45 am