Shark cull Western Australia: fight or flight?

By ANEETA BHOLE: Shark prevention techniques have been seen across Australia for years, but never in such a controversial manner. Has Western Australia gone too far, or is this the best chance we have when surviving attacks in the ocean?

Picture yourself; sitting in your house, enjoying a book and a cup of tea. Now imagine being dragged out and accused of being a nuisance to society.

You plead for your freedom but no words come out of your mouth.

Despite not knowing what you did, and with no ability to defend yourself, your life is taken from you in a blink of an eye.

The notion of entering a shark’s natural habitat and disrupting their regular behavioural patterns are among the concerns of the opposition, of the newly employed shark prevention technique, recently introduced in Western Australia (WA).

In early January, the implementation of a trial shark culling system was employed due to seven fatal shark attacks in WA over the last three years.

This policy has sparked uproar across the nation, due to the controversial techniques being employed in order to keep beach goers safe.

Seventy-two drum lines have been placed one kilometre off the eastern coastline, from Quinn’s to Warnbro in the Perth metropolitan area.

Shark species larger than three metres in length are being targeted and shot on site, once captured, specifically Great Whites, Bull sharks and Tiger Sharks.

Regardless of minimal scientific evidence correlating shark attacks and the need for severe shark prevention techniques the WA government continues to believe the policy will reduce fatal attacks in the area.

Concerns about the destruction of marine environments, and the depletion of untargeted shark species, are beginning to bring to light fears surrounding ecosystems across the Australian coastline.

But is the shark cull directly linked to the depletion of shark species and the destruction of marine environments? Or is it merely a human reaction of fight or flight?

In The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals Charles Darwin postulates that “the fight or flight reaction, is a heightened state of nervous arousal…a mechanism that aids survival.”

In a similar fashion, WA has begun a shark culling policy in order to decrease chances of fatal shark attacks in the eastern coastline.

The policy has been met with concerns from both community and environmental groups in regards to the ethical nature of the law.

Prominent environmental group Sea Shepherd, applied for judicial review of the process and the immediate removal of all drum lines across the coast.

Their beliefs that improper authorisation of the policy, coupled with no scientific backing to support the reduction of fatal shark attacks, has been a driving force behind their decisions to stop the continuation of the techniques.

Despite Sea Shepherd’s attempts, the group was unsuccessful in stopping the policy.

The catch and kill techniques being employed are creating an uproar across the nation and have begun showing threats to several other marine species and untargeted shark species, such as stingrays, turtles, grey nurse sharks and smaller shark species below the three metre cut off, leaving them to drown.

Due to the nature of this preventative technique, despite the WA government’s indication that they have people across the drum lines ready to free these creatures before harm comes to them, they are unable to do so in a majority of the cases.

In light of these concerns groups opposing the shark cull see the act as inhumane and believe the ocean is their home and we are merely guests.

Diver and manager of Coogee Pro Dive Centre in Sydney, Robert Degroot explains that, “we are in their territory, their home, we shouldn’t be trying to fight against them, we should be thinking of ways we can live with them.”

Shark preventative techniques, such as shark nets and tagging systems have been seen across Australia in both Queensland and New South Wales Coastlines.

Smaller sharks and animals are being caught up in shark prevention techniques nation wide, entangling themselves in nets or being hooked by drum lines and drowning before their release.

The unmonitored capture of untargeted species drowning and the point blank shooting of targeted shark species in WA have given indication that these techniques are harming marine environments and beginning the depletion of certain shark species.

Specifically a decline of bull and tiger sharks has been seen within WA waters, contributing to the decline in Apex predators and subsequently a change in marine environments.

PhD student at the University of New South Wales, Krystle Keller, has focused her studies surrounding the shark populations across Australia’s coastline.

Ms. Keller contributes to the understanding of shark behaviour and how we can understand the species rather than feel threatened by them.

Ms. Keller has given an insight into the environmental effects on marine environments and shark species, since the introduction of the policy.

With concerns surrounding the marine ecosystems Keller explains, “The main problem is that the apex predator, in this case the shark, control the mesopredators, the predators in the middle of the food chain.”

“If they are taken out of the equation these predators will increase in numbers, which in turn will disrupt their food chains and eventually we will be left with an ecosystem which will no longer be complex…making other species proliferate exponentially, destroying complete ecosystems.”

Ms. Keller believes shark prevention techniques employed nationally have been seen to work more effectively than those in WA.

“In Queensland the same sort of thing is being seen, they have shark nets as a preventative measure…even in Sydney we only have the shark nets being put up and that’s only certain times of the year.”

This technique has seen to be more effective, through the scientific analysis on shark behaviours allowing us to understand the animal, rather than kill them on site.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has received 23,000 submissions against the WA shark cull.

In the hopes for intervention 23 000 submissions of disapproval have been made by the public to the EPA.

EPA chairman, Paul Vogel says, “the proposal is of very limited duration and very, very small scale…our advice is that this proposal will not have significant impact on the environment.”

Many members of the scientific community disagree.

According to the Australian Shark Attack Files (ASAF), temperature related (temporal) conditions, water activities and feeding patterns have also been major influences on shark attacks.

Sixty-four incidents out of ninety-seven were attributed to these specific factors.

Ms Keller says temporal patterns are changing shark prevention techniques in NSW.

“Specifically the summer seasons when beaches are also being patrolled, but in seasons such as the whale season, these nets are taken down in order to maintain marine functioning.”

Evidence supporting both sides has Ms. Keller sympathetic to the introduction of the policy, regardless she believes that, “we are essentially going above nature and killing them [sharks] off ourselves, creating a by catch measure endangering other marine species and marine ecosystems…shark populations are seen to be decreasing whilst attack numbers remain the same.”

Ms. Keller has explored shark prevention techniques across Australia and has discovered there is no evidence to show that this policy [shark culling] is effective in reducing numbers of great white, “the controversy in the scientific community is that this policy is beginning to affect different species of sharks which are unintentionally being targeted.”

Opposition to the policy takes solace in historical evidence, which supports reasons behind stopping the new law.

In a program initiated between 1959 and 1976, Hawaii killed more than 4500 shark species in an attempts to control shark attacks.

With a major effect on marine ecosystems and no evidence of reduced shark attacks the culling was halted.

Regardless of evidence, support for the policy by government officials continues with the belief that shark attacks have increased, resulting in a need for action.

According to the ASAF, recorded incidence of shark attacks began, early as settlement, with diary entries indicating certain seasons to which attacks were higher or more frequent.

Over a period of 218 years, the ASAF have recorded that there has been a 16% increase in shark attacks between 1900 – 1999, with a further increase of 25% during the following decade.

Alongside the increase in the number of shark attacks, there was a 35% increase of human population in coastal regions across Australian shores.

Patterns of attacks are directly linked to human activity in the water such as surfing, swimming, SCUBA/hookah and other water based activities. Below is an example of the frequency of activities conducted by shark-attack victims when attacked.

graph 1

On average, 87 people drown at Australian beaches, with only 1.1 fatalities per year from shark attack over the past two decades.

Controversies surrounding the new catch and kill laws have been overshadowing the introduction of more suitable techniques, which have also been employed alongside the new cull policy by the WA Department of Fisheries.

A $22 million Shark Hazard Mitigation Program will continue to inform beach goers and help build on research into more ethical techniques of shark prevention, alongside a tagging system in order to track and monitor shark behaviours as seen in Queensland and New South Wales.

Ninety of the one hundred and seventy-two sharks caught, as part of the new program, were tagged and released in order to further understand the creatures.

Supporters also believe that due to the recent increase in fatal shark attacks, education directed at beach goers is another way in which to increase knowledge of the species and hopefully further increase safety in the water.

PhD scholar and Lecturer on Public Policy at the University of Sydney Christopher Neff, focuses his talents on politics surrounding shark attacks.

Mr. Neff believes that, following the tragic loss of life in horrific circumstances can often blur the lines of reality when approaching such a contentious topic.

The best way in which to allow beach goers to remain safe is to work along side the marine creatures rather than against them, with the introduction of educational programs.

Mr. Neff believes that there are three examples of steps governments should and can take in regards to helping people avoid shark attacks:

  1. Education: “Looking at the ocean as the wild, (which it is) means making an informed choice about the risks we are taking based on our behaviour.”
  2. State and Local Safety Plans: “identify water-user groups based on what they do, in what season they do it and how far out they go from shore. Individual strategies for surfers, snorkelers and scuba divers could be organized through community meetings and planning.”
  3. Assume the beach is not safe: “ Use a ‘Three What’s’ approach, based on a review of beach safety literature. These include: 1.) What’s the weather; 2.) What are the time/conditions; and 3.) What’s my behaviour.

Mr. Neff believes that if these three techniques could be employed the introduction of other preventative techniques would not be needed.

With separate techniques employed the need for such a controversial policy would not be an issue in WA and could still employ techniques in order to maintain safety on the beach.

The decision remains a priority until other techniques are ensured to provide the safety of human lives as seen by the WA government.

Naturaliste Marine Discovery Centre (NMDC) WA representative Naomi Greenham says, “the decision to implement the drum lines was made solely by the department of the Premier and Cabinet…on the basis that human lives are more important than sharks.”

In a media release provided by the WA Premier’s office, support for the NMDC’s statement is revealed by Premier Colin Barnett as he responds by saying, “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.”

At the seminar for The Great Shark Debate held by Sealife Conservation fund on April 2014, problem identification in regards to shark attacks was discussed.

The result of a survey surrounding the issue of fatal shark attacks, 56% of people see sharks as the predominant threat, rather than the lack of education surrounding the subject.

With only 6 – 8% of people blaming shark protection laws, overfishing/abalone fishing (attracting sharks to shallow areas), seal and whale migration (attracting sharks to shallow areas), entering the water at all, public ignorance and weather/time of day as a result of shark fatalities.

Although sharks are the cause of the problem, ethical prevention techniques as mentioned earlier, could contribute to a lower number of shark attacks on beach goers who are more educated about the ocean and its inhabitants.

A further 41% of people believe that the solution to this problem is killing the creatures.

Shark problems

Australian Problem identification of Shark Attacks


shark solution

Australian Shark Attack Solutions


Christopher Neff, explained in a TED Talks Seminar that educating the public is the only way to ensure the protection of both shark species and human beings in the water.

Reassessing our relationship with our beaches and the marine environments will further address the prevention of shark attacks nationally.

When researching the policy of shark prevention in Australia, results of the decrease in shark populations have dangerous consequences for marine ecosystems.

Through the research above if the new catch and kill laws are not stopped a decrease in the Apex predator and the destruction of marine environments will mimic those seen in Hawaii.

The results of these prevention techniques have also had an effect on other marine species outside of the targeted species list, which will eventually break down the complex ecosystems, we see around Australian coastlines.

If not dealt with appropriately or in a timely fashion these effects will become more than a problem under the ocean and extend to above the ocean by effecting food chains that rely on the complex structure of the ocean.

Despite controversy around the policy, the prevention of shark attacks has introduced our communities to the urgency of shark attacks and given us a chance to understand and create better techniques in order to prevent the harm of either species.

The WA Government has retained the Shark Cull policy, but educational outreach programs are being explored in hopes for a symbiotic relationship between humanity and creatures in the ocean.

Thumbnail Image: Courtesy of Perry Shirley

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