I’m just going to come out and say something: this whole shark culling thing needs to come to an end, and quickly. I’m not going to say that anyone that agrees with it is wrong, or dumb, or cruel, but I will say that they’re misinformed. Culling sharks does NOT work. It only serves to make the people that assume that killing large, terrifying predators decreases attack rates feel better. Yes, shark attacks happen, although comparatively rarely. Yes, they’re horrible, and sad, and so fucking scary I hate even thinking about it. And no, I’ve never been attacked by a shark. I don’t know anyone who has.
I do know people that have been attacked by dogs. I’ve been attacked by dogs. And I love dogs. I carry a pocket full of dog treats around with me just in case I run into one, which makes me look like a weirdo. But I don’t want to kill dogs. I don’t want anyone to kill dogs. And they’re ACTUALLY “in our backyard,” not like in the figurative sense that everyone says about sharks. “They’re in our own backyard!” they say. No, they’re not. We’re in their kitchen, and we’re raiding their fridge and shitting on their floor.
When Western Australia’s government ran out those drum lines, it was an uneducated, misinformed decision made under that previously mentioned assumption. From an outsider’s perspective, here is how I see it. Let’s use a dog for an example, just because they’re cuter than sharks and easier to relate to.
Let’s say I have a neighbor with a few nasty dogs that get loose every now and then. I like to sit in my yard and listen to the coyotes in my canyon at night, and I don’t particularly want a nasty dog ruining the mood. I will not put out treats for those dogs in an effort to lure them in so I can kill them, because that would be stupid and cruel. I want them farther away, not closer. Yes, I still run the risk of the dogs getting into my yard, but – and I’m no statistician – hanging a steak off my tree will greatly increase that risk, and greatly increase the risk of other dogs showing up as well. There is no other animal that we’ve hunted to near extinction purely as a precautionary measure. That’s the stuff that war crimes are made of.
To get into the numbers, for those of you that don’t know, in January, 72 baited drum lines were placed along WA’s coastline in an effort to curb a supposed spike in shark attacks. According to a report released, in a three month trial period, 172 sharks were caught, with 50 large enough to be killed under the policy, which stated that tiger, bull and great whites larger than three meters would be killed and dragged out to sea.
Let’s think about that for a second. Although the dead sharks were dragged far out to sea, their bodies invariably attracted more sharks to the area. And here’s the real rub of the situation: in the last three years, seven fatalities were reported, most of which were attributed to great whites. No great white sharks were killed in the cull. The vast majority were tiger sharks, which, according to Sea Shepherd shark campaigner Natalie Banks, “haven’t been involved in shark fatalities for decades in Western Australia.” That’s not to say they’re not dangerous – tiger sharks are one of the four species of shark responsible for the vast majority of attacks on humans.
In order for the policy to come into effect, a few previously instated laws had to be fixed (read: broken). In 1999, a federal law was passed protecting biodiversity, which protected sharks. Greg Hunt, the national minister for the environment, decided it wasn’t necessary. Their intentions were good, however.
“The human toll from shark attacks in recent years has been too high,” Western Australia’s Fisheries Minister Ken Baston said in a statement released to the media. “While of course we will never know if any of the sharks caught would have harmed a person, this government will always place greatest value on human life,” he continued.
According to Natalie Banks, more than 70% of creatures caught on drum lines were either not big enough to be considered a threat or were other animals, like stingrays. And while stingrays killed Steve Irwin (you BASTARDS!) they are most definitely not a threat to humans.
During the Sea Shepard’s monitoring of the program (and to be fair, Sea Shepard is not exactly the most unbiased group of activists), they found that most of the sharks released alive sank to the sea floor in a state of shock called tonic immobility. And now that the trial period is over, because it went so well, the State Government is seeking federal approval to extend the shark policy for another three years.
So let’s have a look at these numbers, for science’s sake. According the Australian Shark Attack File, there have been 892 shark attacks in Australia since 1791, when they began keeping records. Impressive, considering I can’t keep my tax returns for more than a week. 217 of those have been fatal, or about 30%.
Recent Fatal Shark Attacks in Australia:
So, judging from those numbers, yes, there was a slight increase in fatal shark attacks in 2011 and 2012. But not a huge spike, by any means, and a decrease last year. In the last twelve years, sharks have killed 22 people. In the last three months, we’ve killed 50 with our protective measures, and no one can say for sure whether those killed were responsible for any of those attacks. If I’m attacked by a boston terrier, I’m not going to go out and kill every boston terrier I can find. I’m going to try and find the one that attacked me. I still wouldn’t kill it, but that’s just a personal thing.
Ok, so we’ve established that the spike in shark attacks was more of a small lump than a spike. Even that small lump can be explained by very reasonable, non-hippie/shark-lover/man-hater/granola-eating Birkenstock-wearing ways.
In what seems like a very obvious observation, research shows that shark bite incidents increase as the amount of time humans spend in the ocean increases.
So as the population expands, more people will be in the water. According to the World Population Statistics, In June of 2013, Australia’s resident population was estimated at around 23 million people. The population has increased by approximately 4 million since 2000, when it was recorded at 19.2 million. Births outnumber deaths by two to one, and there’s been a 14% increase in migration. And let’s be honest, here. Most people that move to Australia aren’t moving there for the middle, they’re moving for the edges.
In an article on CoastalWatch, Dr. Rory McAuley suggests this. “Not only is it [the population] getting larger, it’s getting more dispersed, so people are getting into the water over a greater area of the shark’s range. With this we are more likely to see an increase in shark sightings and attacks.”
While there has been a slight increase in shark attacks (which, if you look back far enough, isn’t such a strange thing), there was also an increase in shark sightings, leading to more public outcry for protection, which was one of the cull’s mitigating factors. But here’s the thing: if I’m looking for a dollar on the ground for one day a month, chances aren’t that good I’ll find anything. But if I’m looking every day, my chances of finding candy money skyrocket. Same goes if you’re searching for sharks. According to Surf Life Savers WA, 285 sharks were sighted in 2012/2013, compared to 247 sharks in 2011/2012. Time to start panicking, right? But when you look at how much they were searching, it turns out they found the same average number of sharks per hour. The number of sharks didn’t increase, the number of patrols did. In 2012/13, there were 751 hours of shark finding, and in 2011/12, there were 620. That’s about one shark every two and half hours, in both cases.
So does culling sharks decrease attacks on humans? That depends on who you ask. But if you look to other places that have implemented the tactic, which is generally a much better indicator of results than asking someone, it the answer is no. In Hawaii, between 1959 to 1976, over 4,500 sharks were killed and there was no decrease in shark bites.
And even if you look at Australia, the answer still appears to be no. The New South Wales government has been culling for over 60 years. They’re using shark nets in most places, which unbeknownst to most, snag large sharks and eventually drown them instead of creating a protective barrier around beaches. In fact, according to Shark Defense Australia, 40% of netted sharks are found on the beach side of the net. And get this: 17% of shark attacks in the state occurred at netted beaches, according to the Department of Primary Industries. That’s not a great number. Of course, one can always bring up the argument of how many attacks would have occurred without the nets, but then we’re getting into hypotheticals and we could go on forever.
So what the hell is going on here? Why the mass hysteria? It’s because shark attacks are one of the worst things that can happen to anyone. I don’t wish it on anyone, ever. I feel terrible for families of victims. I’m not defending sharks, here. What I’m doing is calling attention to the fact that we, as humans, have a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. But when we’re shooting something that our entire ecosystem depends on – apex predators play an integral role in the health of an ecosystem that we depend on for survival– it’s in our own best interest to ask the questions first.