Guest Blog From Western Australian Local Explains Something More Horrifying Than the Death Toll Caused by Shark Nets; the Real Reasons a Faulty System Persists.
Great White Sharks; awe inspiring, majestic, and magnificent and conversely they are deeply feared and misunderstood. I live in Perth, Western Australia and work for the conservation of this vulnerable animal, but it is a difficult job. We aren’t talking about a cute and snuggly bear cub that people relate to, we anthropomorphize cute animals with big brown eyes. You can’t do that with sharks, saving them is a tough sell, especially in Australia.
Here in Australia we have numerous species of sharks including the big 3; Bull, Tiger and of course White Sharks. I have lived in Perth for about 25 years and every year or two there is a shark related fatality. It is brandished in the media, and the government always does the same thing, going out on a ‘Rogue Shark Hunt’ making a sacrificial killing to appease the public that it is safe to go back into the water, then people forget about it.
It is important to the powers-that-be that people feel safe at the beach, Perth and the South West of the State rely heavily on the continued flood of tourists attracted to our white sandy beaches.
Nothing could have prepared WA for the tragedy that took place in WA over a 10 month period in 2011-2012 with 5 people dying from Shark Attacks. The attacks were seemingly random and unpredictable; 1 person died while diving at Rottnest Island, another died while surfing at Cottesloe Beach and 3 of the deaths occurred in WA’s South West on relatively remote beaches. The attacks covered the entire south west area of the state and Perth.
That is how Western Australia earned the infamous title of ‘Shark Attack Capital of the World’ and everybody had an opinion. Following the attacks, the media ensured that the danger of sharks in the water was emblazoned on our minds, a shark swimming past a beach was headlining news, it seemed as if you couldn’t pick up the newspaper, go online or flick the TV on without seeing sharks. According to Sentia Media, West Australian media outlets had produced almost 15,000 stories on sharks in the year ending 2012.
Australia has a history of shark attacks from Aboriginal times through to the first attempts at European settlement, especially in southern waters. Research into Great White Sharks has been headed up by Barry Bruce from the CSIRO for more than a decade. His research stipulates that Great Whites have 2 nursery areas in the Eastern States, 1 at Cove Inlet Victoria and another at Port Stephens in NSW. When they reach about 4 metres in length they generally head for the cool Southern Waters of Australia and a reasonable concentration of them are found off Port Lincoln South Australia where they have moved to dine on seals.
Once the White Shark has reached that size and is in the southern waters, naturally it doesn’t respect state lines and it can roam around South Australia and come up the Western Australian coast. Only around 300 individuals have been tagged, while our coastline does boast an array of acoustic monitors, those are only picking up movements of the small number of tagged White Sharks.
Following the fatalities that occurred, the WA Government was allocated a total of $13.65 million to reduce the risk of attacks along our coastline and ensure tourists that this past summer would be nothing like the one before it.
$2 million was allocated to kill sharks that could be considered dangerous, basically they are guilty until proven innocent; something that doesn’t work in nature. The legislation became what is known as the Imminent Threat Policy. Fisheries Minister Norman Moore told reporters in November 2012:
“Previously, the orders were used in response to an attack, but now proactive action will be taken if a large white shark presents imminent threat to people.”
Premier Colin Barnett and Minister of Fisheries Norman Moore were in charge of choosing the methods which would kill sharks, particularly White Sharks which have been protected since 1997. Barnett turned to existing shark control programs that have been in place in the eastern states for a long time.
In Sydney, New South Wales Shark nets were put in place in the 1930's and fear keeps them in place today. No politician will risk pulling these nets and then being blamed for an attack. Shark nets do not provide a consistent barrier to protect bathers, rather it minimizes the amount of large sharks that could reach the coast. Between 40 and 50 percent of sharks have been found on the Beach-Side of the nets and in 2008 there were 2 shark attacks that occurred on netted beaches.
The other problem with establishing shark nets on coast lines is the high rate of by-catch. In NSW between 1950 and 2008, 15,135 marine animals that weren’t sharks were caught and killed in nets, including turtles, whales, dolphins, rays, dugongs and also killed 377 of the now critically endangered and harmless grey nurse sharks.
Queensland also runs a shark control program and they use a mix of shark nets and hooked, baited drum lines so is their model worth adopting? Between 1975 and 2001, 11,899 great white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks were killed in nets and drum lines. Over the same period 53,098 other marine animals were killed. 505 sharks were caught between January and 20th November 2009. Less than half of those sharks caught were considered the dangerous or target species. Also killed were 16 dolphins, 6 whales, 1 dugong and 30 turtles.
So the evidence is in, the studies completed. Shark nets are indiscriminate and do not provide a proper barrier and drum lines have the same problem, on top of the fact that baiting drum lines attracts sharks, it doesn’t repel them. The studies done for The Department of Fisheries all made the same clear statement; Western Australia’s coastline should not be netted or subject to drum lining in order to protect the marine eco-system. Premier Barnett and Mr Moore made their decision, in the face of all the evidence, they chose Drum Lining as their solution.
It didn’t take long for them to test out their drum lining solution, when it was alleged that a white shark was ‘behaving menacingly’ (whatever that means) in WA’s south west near Dunsborough, The Department of Fisheries issued a kill order and contracted a local vessel called ‘The North Islander’ to set up drum lines and kill the shark… which didn’t happen, 2 tiger sharks were caught and released but the ‘menacing’ great white never showed up.
The public were outraged at this fiasco which took place in this tourist hot-spot. Citizens were demanding to know how much the useless effort cost and surfers complained that the drum liners had endangered the beach for days.
As more and more images of people swimming with sharks appear on the web, many speculate that disaster is only a matter of time away. Along with this disaster is the potential crackdown of all shark diving operations in order to “protect us from ourselves.” But is that what should really happen?
Yes, the media would have a field day. The term “shark attack” still sells papers like nothing else, so if a diver should happen to be killed by the same animal he/she was an advocate for; I imagine the irony would leave the press drooling.
Actually this sort of disaster already occurred once in Bahamian waters when a bull shark bit a recreational shark diver who did not survive the incident. Perhaps there are other similar incidents that I’m unaware of, but I haven’t heard about them. It seems unlikely that the media wouldn’t have run such a story for a month straight so I feel fairly confident that no more incidences have occurred, but to be safe, let’s go ahead and tack on a couple more. Three bites, total, in decades of diving with sharks globally, an industry whose latest estimates claim to have brought in 3 million dollars worldwide.
By contrast let’s look at how many people die during recreational diving from equipment malfunction, drowning, jellyfish stings, etc. and we’ll see that these numbers dwarf the incidents in which something has gone awry while swimming with animals DESIGNED TO KILL. Think about that for a minute. The perfect predator, equipped in every way to dispatch from existence at a moment’s notice, yet we get away with swimming with them all the time. That’s not a credit to us, that’s a credit to the shark. It’s almost baffling how tolerant these animals are of our presence, which makes them that much more intriguing. We forgive each other all the time for mistakes, mistakes we make often, but when we intentionally and repeatedly go into the domain of an animal legendary for its killing ability we can’t find it in ourselves to forgive it for a handful of mistakes. How many people reading right now have ever tasted something you regretted? Heck, how many of you have even bitten another person in anger? Now imagine being hunted and condemned for such a mistake.
Anyway, my point is that I love sharks and I love being around them. I enjoy watching them and watching them watch me back. It is humbling and fascinating, and weird as it may be, being in the wild with these magnificent animals makes me happy. First dove with Caribbean reef sharks, then snorkeled in Shark Alley, followed by a season filming at the Farallon Islands where I would leave the cage from time to time, followed finally by hanging out of open faced cages in Guadalupe. I’ll go ahead and say that the Shark Alley move was pretty dumb and I probably wouldn’t do that again. However, I have every intention of swimming / diving with sharks as often as I can. Whether a cage dive operator is taking me to a remote location or whether I wander into the ocean solo from a beach, I welcome a shark encounter. The ecotourism operator isn’t responsible for my decision and the shark isn’t responsible either. I am responsible. I made the decision to take the risk. Contrary to how many people approach the planet, it is NOT OUR RIGHT to be wherever we want whenever we want without accepting the possibility of encountering another predator. Furthermore, if such an encounter occurs we should not retaliate by killing every animal of that species in the area. If we decide to swim, surf, kayak, or paddle-board in the ocean, we are essentially deciding that the experience of that recreation is worth the risk of being “investigated” by a larger predator than ourselves. And why is it so tragic anyway if one of us perishes? There are 7 some billion people left to fill the void, whereas 90% of all pelagic species of shark are now threatened or near threatened with extinction.
Until we fund a full time fleet of ships and planes patrolling areas known to be congregation sites of white sharks, I think ecotourism operators serve a very important role in providing a watchful eye against poachers. Also to the credit of ecotourism, I have yet to hear anyone, I mean ANYONE, who has seen a shark in the wild for the first time not be blown away with admiration while losing all previous misconceptions about the animal. That’s powerful!
Thanks for reading!
Videos related to this blog:
Swimming in Shark Alley, my first shark film ever, filmed in 2004 in South Africa. Swimming around on the surface with cape fur seals, even if I was somewhat close to the rocks, was simply stupid. I blame Lalo Saidy for taking me out there after an evening of drinking absinthe. Just kidding, Lalo.
Elasmo 3 (Free diving with whale sharks). When all 35 feet of these animals passed under me multiple times, I was very tempted to grab the dorsal fin and go for a ride, but out of respect I did not. I doubt the massive animal would have noticed me much, but rumor has it that our contact rubs off an important protective layer covering their skin.
Hammerhead Love. As soon as I sat at the bottom of this aquarium, a beautiful scalloped hammerhead became brave enough to come in and take a closer look at me…again, and again, and again.
The Farallon Islands (2006).
Petting a nurse shark. I swear this shark wanted some affection.