Just seven days after Chris Boyd was the victim of a fatal shark attack in Western Australia, 19-year-old Zac Young was killed by a shark while surfing near Coffs Harbor, about 300 miles north of Sydney. After the attack on Boyd, which was the fourth fatal shark attack to occur in Western Australia in the past 18 months, calls for shark culling resounded throughout the region. With Young’s death occurring such a short time after Boyd’s (albeit several thousand miles away), talks of a regulated cull are becoming more prominent among those who feel something needs to be done to manage shark numbers in Australian waters.
Among those who voiced support of a cull following Boyd’s death was WA Premier Colin Barnett. “I don’t know if it’s a cull as such – and maybe that means different things to different people – but I certainly acknowledge that the public is demanding that sharks, where they stay around popular swimming or surfing areas, should be destroyed,” he told The Guardian. “I’m in that camp.” This political side-stepping of the ‘cull’ label shouldn’t come as surprise, given the sharp divide in the debate over shark culling.
While supporters of a cull say that killing large sharks is a reasonable response to the recent attacks, those against culling say more needs to be done to develop sustainable shark attack mitigation strategies, which include beach closures, helicopter patrols, and tagging and tracking operations. According to shark expert Hugh Edwards, the rarity and brutality of shark attacks, combined with the general public’s existing fear of sharks, lead many to adopt knee-jerk reactions like culling as viable solutions. “Attacks are comparatively rare, so they get a great deal of publicity when they occur,” he said in a debate on ABC. “We need to know a lot more, scientifically, about great white sharks. It makes no sense to catch sharks that are quite innocent of the crime – and when I say crime, that’s a crime in our eyes. In fact we’re the intruders in the ocean and the sharks have got a perfect right to be there.”
That same sentiment seems to be shared by a majority of surfers around the globe who understand that when we go surfing, we enter a world in which we are no longer at the top of the food chain. Accepting that risk and the consequences associated with it are part of being a surfer. What’s more, the effectiveness of shark culling remains in doubt. Between 1959 and 1976, 4,668 sharks were killed off the coast of Hawaii in an attempt to alleviate public fears and reduce shark attacks. After 17 years of state-funded culling campaigns, however, the results showed that “shark control programs do not appear to have had measurable effects on the rate of shark attacks in Hawaiian waters.” In Australia, where shark nets have been the primary culling technique for years, we see the same lack of effectiveness. A 2009 study conducted by the New South Wales government revealed that “the annual rate of attack was the same both before and after meshing commenced.” Unfortunately, the shark nets have been effective at capturing and killing a high percentage of ‘non-target’ and endangered marine species.
Shark culling, it would seem, is a response that is emotionally charged rather than a logic-based by those whose fears are not quelled by beach closures and helicopter patrols alone. Inevitably, when a geographic region experiences multiple fatal run-ins with sharks in a short period of time, talk of culling becomes louder and more frequent. The fact remains, however, that marine biologists and shark experts still don’t fully understand the consequences of removing an apex predator from a complex ecosystem. Until they do, surfers need to accept the fact that the ocean belongs to the sharks – not us.