Shark Culling: Spilling the Blood of Predators
This is an especially pertinent issue for me right now, because in Western Australia, the government is considering implementing a shark culling program.
Sharks are common in our waters, but fatal attacks are pretty rare—approximately 15 per year. In the last two years, WA has experienced six fatal attacks and has now decided that the best way to combat it is by killing off sharks. The government proposes two methods: firstly, setting out “drum lines” (baited hooks attached to drums) a kilometre off the shore of busy beaches, and secondly, paying professional fisherman to hunt down sharks that are over three metres in length in designated “kill zones”.
There are already a couple of similar programs on Australia’s eastern coast that use baited hooks and nets, but this proposal is extra controversial because it’s targeting Great Whites—a threatened and legally protected species.
There’s no guarantee that the program will work at all as predicted. Sure, sharks will die, but because they’re so mobile, it’s unlikely that those punished will be the ones who perpetrated the attacks, and it’s unlikely to reduce the attacks. Hawaii implemented a similar program in the 1960s and 70s, but even though it was an expensive endeavour and killed 4,668 sharks, the program failed to create any kind of significant decrease in attack.
It’s our first instinct to feel safe and protected while swimming, and I know that many people have experienced both direct and indirect trauma from such attacks, but it’s bordering on selfish to just think about ourselves—there are wider implications.
Sharks are apex predators, so they have naturally low population numbers and a low rate of reproduction. They’re pretty vulnerable to population collapse, so culling them is definitely going to have an unpredictable but very real effect on the marine ecosystem as a whole. Food chains can fall apart if one link is broken. It’s not only the sharks that we’re harming.
There’s been a lot of backlash from the community over the past month, and over 100 scientists across Australia have penned an open letter to the WA government basically saying: we need to acknowledge that culling vulnerable species at an alarming rate is not the best option available. Other, non-lethal methods could work better, like relocating sharks (which is currently being successfully trialled in Recife, Brazil), and investing in research, tagging and monitoring. This would help us better understand shark numbers and behaviours, and thus come up with evidence-based methods to manage risk.
Some sharks have already been tagged and when they get close to certain beaches, they actually send automatic warning tweets on the Surf Life Saving Western Australia’s twitter—so there are a lot of ways to construct safety measures in this case.
But what’s been happening in Western Australia is just a small fraction of a much bigger problem of shark catching and killing—and not just for reasons of safety or revenge. Sharks are wanted for their meat, cartilage, liver oil, and especially their fins—sometimes the fins are just hacked off live sharks, and the creatures are left to die.
Overfishing is actually threatening to push some shark species to total extinction. It’s estimated that around 100 million sharks are killed every year, but researchers don’t have sufficient data to be accurate—the actual number could actually be between around 63 million and 273 million. This infographic represents the quantities pretty well. Their low reproductive rates mean it’s hard for populations to bounce back.
Sharks aren’t exactly perfect poster children, so it’s hard to get them the recognition and support they need, but if their populations are depleted, then the effect is going to be felt all the way down the food chain.
Sign the petition here, and keep updated on the WA situation here.
I find this such an absurd and childish idea: indiscriminately killing anything potentially large enough to harm humans whether or not they have done, or are likely to do in the future.