Shark Culling is a Terrible Idea by Trent Burton

Sea Shambles Advent Calendar - Day 23

December 23rd

Growing up in Western Australia, you are told that everything is going to kill you.

Redback spiders, taipans, blue ring octopuses, refugees, great white sharks. Sure, all those things can kill you, but the likelihood of any of them actually doing so is remarkably slim, and the idea that they might is generally ignorant, or in at least one case, ignorant with wild lashing of racism .

Western Australia in particular has a special relationship with the beach. The picture above is one I took last time I was back there with the Cosmic Shambles Live tour in 2017. The beach is one of the main attractions of the state for both tourists and residents alike and, to be fair, if you like beaches, you’d be hard pressed to find better. The problem is that beaches are, traditionally, right on the ocean. And the ocean, traditionally, has sharks in it. Less than there used to be sadly, but they’re still out there, swimming about, doing shark things. Which is their right. Thing is, a lot of West Aussies see using the beach without getting eaten by sharks as their right. Or so they tell me. I spent as much time as possible in of doors. That West Australian sun can really glare off of the pages of the book you’re trying to read.

Fatal shark attacks are very uncommon. Absurdly uncommon. There were just ten reported deaths by shark attack in the entire 20th century in WA. But then, between 2010 and 2013, there were seven, which, given the number of people who swim at the beach, and surf around WA, is still a very, very low percentage. But people (by which I mean idiots) seemed to think it was some sort of epidemic. As if the sharks had had an underwater board meeting and were set to invade. They were headed here in droves. Going over there, from other oceans. Foreign oceans, no doubt. And surely, none of them came in through the right channels and had come to take away all the jobs from good, honest, hard working Australian sharks probably. Or worst of all, they’d be one of them dole bludger sharks you read about in the papers. Sorry, this is Western Australia we’re talking about. Paper. Singular.

For some reason, the government felt they couldn’t be seen to be doing nothing. Sure, there wasn’t really a problem in the first place, but to be seen to be doing nothing to solve a non-existent problem was not an option. Now, the West Australian government does not have a stellar track record at making intelligent or humane decisions so, true to form, in 2014 they implemented a shark cull, focusing on tiger sharks, bull sharks and great white sharks, a species currently listed as vulnerable by the ICUN . If you weren’t aware of this government sanctioned policy already you are now probably flabbergasted such a thing is real and less than a decade old. Well, strap in.

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Essentially the plan, put forward by the then state premier, Colin Barnett and Fisheries Minister Troy Busswell (a politician so revolting he wouldn’t even pass as a character on The Thick of It, a man who, amongst other things once sniffed the chair of his secretary and then writhed about in mock sexual pleasure while in office), was to use large drum lines so sharks could be baited and hooked away from the shore and subsequently shot and killed (or released if undersized). Killing a great white was illegal, due to its protected nature under national environmental laws, but worry not, Australia’s Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt gave the state a temporary exemption so they could blast away.

Pic: Terry Goss CC

You are reading this right.

Despite an intense public backlash and pressure from multiple environmental groups, the programme went ahead at an estimated cost of $20 million. Hundreds of sharks were captured and dozens were killed along with other marine creatures such as stingrays.  Many undersized sharks also ended up caught in the drum lines and simply drowned, rather than being killed as a direct part of the plan. The government would claim it was not a cull but rather “targeted, localised, hazard mitigation strategy”.

I would argue that’s bollocks. 

At this point it’s worth noting that this shark culling scheme is not limited to WA either. Drum lines and nets are still in use around Australia. Figures report than between 1950 and 2008, 352 tiger sharks and 577 great whites have been killed as a result of this in New South Wales alone, along with over 10 000 other marine animals.

This probably doesn’t need explaining, but there are a great many reasons why a shark cull, particularly the ones in WA that focused on great whites, are a terrible idea. Never mind the basic ethics of shooting a creature going about its business in its own backyard, but there’s no good evidence to suggest it actually dramatically reduces the incidents of shark attacks. In the first three years the policy was in place, four people were killed by great whites in WA. There is even  a suggestion that drum lines attract more sharks further inland.

Furthermore, this sort of practice has been reported to have a negative effect on tourism. The policy was put in place to show people how safe it was to come to swim in WA but apparently the appeal of a beautiful beach is overshadowed by a killing field just over the horizon. Meanwhile every tacky souvenir shop continued to sell ‘DANGER: SHARK’ signs. Something about cake and eating it.

Sharks are an incredibly important part of the marine ecosystem and such a cull is environmentally irresponsible beyond belief. They are at the apex of the food chain and serve as a key indicator in the health and wellbeing of the ocean they inhabit. They have incredibly complex behaviour and a fascinating social structure. Shark numbers have decreased dramatically across Australia since ‘shark control’ methods have been in place.

There’s an old Billy Connolly joke about how if you get eaten by a shark in the ocean, that’s terrible, but also, stiff. If one bites your leg off walking down the high street you have every right to be well annoyed. There are inherent risks in all activities. I ride a  motorcycle but I’m aware of the dangers that come with that. Should I crash I wouldn’t demand all motorcycles be banned. The same goes for skydiving, cycling, getting a bus, existing in the world and, yes, swimming and surfing in the open ocean.

As bushfires currently rage across Australia, the government is not racing to implement climate change policies to counter it. They’ve just fucked off to Hawaii.

Now, I must stress, this is in no way to underplay the tragic event of the loss of human life. Far from it. But as far as knee jerk reactions go in a desperate attempt to appear to be ‘doing something’, shark culls are right up there. Previous survivors of shark attacks have said it was a stupid idea. Even some family members of those who lost their lives have been anti these revenge killings. There’s a strong argument that this is all these culls were, a blood lust and little else.

WA now uses new SMART (Shark-Management-Alert-in-Real-Time) drum lines enabling rangers to head to the line within 90 minutes of an animal being captured. Shark culling still occurs today throughout other parts of Australia, South Africa and Réunion and debate still rages on about it’s effectiveness, necessity and ethics.

One of the main topics of discussion is that much of this is in fact a philosophical argument, rather than an environmental one. Is it okay to kill an apex predator so as to make a playground for humans more safe? I’d argue no, it’s not.

I’d argue the only Great White Shark we could do with less of is Greg Norman.

See what lies behind all the windows of the Sea Shambles Advent here.

Sea Shambles is a one night only live extravaganza celebrating the oceans. Hosted by Robin Ince and Helen Czerski with Steve Backshall, British Sea Power, Josie Long, Lemn Sissay and more it’s a night of science, comedy, music, lasers and more in which we’ll be turning the Royal Albert Hall into an underwater playground the likes of which you’ve never seen! May 17 2020. Tickets start at just £10! Book here.

Trent Burton is the lead producer of The Cosmic Shambles Network. He initially spent a couple of years studying evolutionary biology at university in Australia before moving into media production focusing on science based entertainment. He relocated to the UK in 2005 and has been making mad things with his company Trunkman Productions and co-producers Melinda Burton and Robin Ince ever since.

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The Cosmic Shambles Network relies on your support on pledges via Patreon so we can continue to provide great, new, exciting content without the need for third party ads or paywalls.
For as little as $1 a month you can support what we do and get some great rewards for doing so as well. Click the Patreon logo to pledge or find out more.