The great WA Shark debate

Known as the shark attack capital of the world the great shark debate is most certainly a hot topic at the moment in Western Australia. The issue has been bubbling away at the surface of social consciousness in WA for the past 5 or so years, however over the last few months the conversation has reached truly ear-splitting volumes. Across WA previously successful dive stores and academies are closing their doors as their businesses soften dramatically due to people turning away from this once popular pastime favouring the safety of the shore. The topic is spreading like wildfire through social media and almost everyone you speak to has their own opinion on the matter. This weekend just past thousands of people showed up at beaches all over Australia to rally against the apparent cull. So far, myself, I am still trying to step back from the current whitewash of information and navigate the murky waters to figure out exactly what the arguments are coming from both sides.

4000 protesters turned out to Cottesloe Beach to rally against the cull. Photo: Michael Wilson, The West Australian.

Quick Facts

– Sharks have been protected in Australia for the past 14 years by the  Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Under this act species of sharks that were considered to be “threatened” were protected. From the Australian Governments Department of the Environment’s website: “Under the EPBC Act, it is an offence to kill, injure, take, trade, keep, or move any member of a listed threatened species on Australian Government land or in Commonwealth waters without a permit.”

– The three species of sharks that are considered to be responsible for 86% of all shark attacks ending in human fatality are the white shark, the tiger shark and the bull shark.

–  In the past 2 years there have been a total of 6 fatal shark attacks off the West Australian coast. Across Australia as a whole the average number of unprovoked shark attacks has risen from an average of 6.5 attacks per year during the 1990’s to an average of 12.5 attacks per year for the last decade (2002-2012).

– The recent increase in shark activity has been attributed to the large jump the population of seals and migrating whales off the West Australian coastline. In particular dead whales floating at sea act as a huge beacon drawing in sharks from all over.

What is the Government Policy?

Premier Colin Barnett with one of the hooks used to catch sharks.
Photo: Aleisha Orr

The WA State government has implemented new tough measures when it comes to controlling and avoiding shark attacks off our coast. The primarily targeted sharks will be the species mentioned above, ie. great white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks. The system will be to place baited drum lines one kilometre from the shore of eight popular Perth and South-West beaches during a period of 4 months from January – April. The baited hooks attached to the lines are intended to attract sharks, with the lines and surrounding areas to be monitored daily by professional shark hunters given instructions to “catch and kill” any shark larger than 3 metres.

Reasons for the policy

The primary argument from the governments side is very clear, “human life must be paramount”. Secondly, whether it be surfing some of the best breaks in the world, swimming at pristine beaches, snorkelling or scuba diving off vibrant reefs it can’t be denied that the Western Australian lifestyle and our tourism industry relies heavily on water based activities. Owners of small businesses such as surf schools or dive shops feel that the implementation of this plan could revive a somewhat diminishing industry.

Reasons against the policy

Protestors believe that the discarding of the culled shark’s carcases out into the ocean will attract even more sharks making the drum lines entirely counterproductive . Secondly they feel deeply that the marine eco system will be threatened. The drum lines wont just target sharks, they will instead target and endanger all marine life.  Furthermore when species of sharks are killed the population of other creatures that sharks used to feed on will be uncontrolled. A study done in the United States saw that by culling a species of shark the cow nosed ray population was no longer kept under control and boomed significantly. The rays proceeded to devour and destroy a large percentage of the local scallop population to the point where the scallops were no longer sustainable. Scientist also believe that the presence alone of sharks and their inherent intimidation may assist to regulate the behaviour of other predators and ensure that they do not graze too heavily and damage habitats in areas where sharks are present.

What Next?

shark-tweetsThe suggested alternatives to the government’s proposed culls are to invest more money in research to monitor sharks as well as to expand the tag and track policy that is currently in place with some animals. Sharks are being tagged with electronic transmitters that post updates on Twitter with their current location whenever they near a public beach. As well as the sharks approximate location the tweets include the size and breed of the animal. The tweets are intended to allow the public and attending surf lifesaving duty officers time to vacate the beach until the shark has moved away.

While I do feel that measures must be taken to preserve human life and to restore our tourism industry I do not feel that the Barnett government’s policy is a fair or ethical solution. I believe that before such a drastic and possibly damaging decision is made, more time must be taken to consider the alternatives along with the consequences. You too can have a voice in the debate to save the sharks by signing the petition here: Save WA Sharks – Stop the Cull.

Fiona

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