The science of shark control (and what it means for the Western Australia cull)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAProf Colin Simpfendorfer is the Director of the Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture at James Cook University. He has more than 25 years of experience in researching sharks, and has published extensively in the scientific literature on shark biology, ecology, fisheries and conservation. He is a graduate of James Cook University where he undertook both his undergraduate and postgraduate training. After completing his PhD he worked on shark fisheries at the Western Australian Fisheries Department before moving to Florida to work at the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory. He returned to JCU in 2007 to lead the Fishing and Fisheries Research Unit, where he has helped build a research group focused on improving our understanding of sharks and how best to conserve and manage their populations.

Call it a shark cull, shark control or bather protection, for decades governments have been trying to reduce the risk of humans being killed by sharks – by killing sharks. New South Wales, Queensland, KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), Hawaii, Dunedin (New Zealand), Hong Kong, Somalia (during the US military intervention) and now Western Australia have, or had, shark control programs to reduce the risk of human-shark interactions.

Western Australia’s new program has sparked huge controversy, with many calling for the government to stop and pursue alternatives.There have been a range of claims that there is no science to support shark control. Many of these have been based on the effects of removing large predatory sharks on ocean ecosystems or that there is no evidence that shark culls reduce the risk of attack.Both of these are valid scientific considerations and need to be taken into account. However, neither addresses whether there is some scientific basis to shark control programs.

So here I would like consider whether there is a scientific basis to shark control programs. To do this I’ll look first at the theory, and then if there is evidence to support it based on analysis of data from the programs in KwaZulu-Natal and Queensland.

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