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:
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”