If I understand this image of a “co-existing” future of man and shark at the beach it goes like this: Vacationers, surfers, and divers heed the incoming alert that a tagged shark is in the area and cooperatively exit the water. Yeah, right. The scared people will get out and the others will continue business as usual. People who are scared of sharks will stop vacationing there (whether there was a bite or not) and the land-owners will start demanding that the politicians they put in office start culling the sharks. Just imagine if a significant number of sharks are tagged. Never-ending alerts. I don’t think that’s co-existence. It’s another work around in an attempt to not have to co-exist with sharks. But my problem isn’t with the attempt to make people safer or whether the technology will work properly. As mentioned before, I think we will be forced to come to terms with how we honestly feel about sharks.
The first thing we have to do is be honest about is our willingness to share water with them. A quick glimpse of mankind’s history of willfully sharing land with other predators doesn’t make me very hopeful for the sharks. Granted, there is a growing population of people who recognize that we are living on a dynamic ecosystem called planet earth and that sharks are a necessary part of it. However, even with a growing number of shark warriors, the bulk of the population still lies with those who exist safely outside the self-made boundary between man and this ecosystem...not wanting to participate in it or even be exposed to it. Amazingly, we've managed to dominate this earth so extensively that not only are we no longer required to participate in the ecosystem, but we don’t even need to experience it. No wonder it seems to come as an incredible shock anytime a human is injured by any living creature other than another human.
I suppose I can relate to Rodney’s quote since many audience members come up to me after my presentations and thank me for what they learned about sharks... but never-the-less remain convinced that I am crazy and they would never get in the water with sharks like I do.
That’s fine. There is no rule that says people must be willing to swim with sharks to prove that they like sharks, but we do need to recognize that supporting sharks that are far away is different than supporting sharks that are in your back yard, a frustration that many pre-cull surfers express when griping about “shark huggers” in far away countries.
But I digress. My rambling is an attempt to lay the foundation for the topic of whether or not we are willing to share with sharks, whether they are tagged or not.
Now let’s take that mentality a step further. Much of the world remains scared to death of sharks…even many “shark fans” would rather not get in the water with them. This is the reality we need to keep in mind when beach-front resort owners start hearing about “shark alerts” going off every other day. Vacationers, most of whom will be visiting from afar, are likely to be more concerned about getting value from their expensive and carefully planned stay at the beach than the fact that sharks are a sign of a healthy ocean.
But let’s drop my personal opinion of how I perceive our willingness to share and instead look at recent history. Western Australia listed tiger sharks as a target species during their highly controversial shark cull that ran roughly from Jan 26th (Australia Day) to April 30th of the same year. Over 170 tiger sharks were caught in just over three months time. Over 50 were confirmed to have been killed according to the government’s records while independent observation and documentation would leave one to suspect the death toll to be much higher. Wow! That’s a lot of sharks in a relatively small area in a relatively short period of time! This might leave one to wonder just how many sharks are out there and how many are next to surfers, swimmers, and divers at any given time. But what one should really be thinking about is how many people were bitten by tiger sharks with hundreds of the swimming around out there. The answer, during those three and a half months, is ZERO.
The number the year before that was also zero. And the year before that and the year before that… In fact in the previous 84 years not a single tiger shark was implicated in an attack on a human in those areas that the tiger sharks were culled. The only reason I stopped at 84 is because there was one alleged, but not confirmed tiger shark related fatality, otherwise the tiger shark’s record would have continued unblemished for several more years. This species, the tiger shark, is now the topic of beach safety thanks to a sensationalist American fishing company that made it’s way into Australia.
Perpetuating the idea that shark presence is a problem that needs to be solved is a step backward from real education, awareness, and learning how to co-exist. Only a year ago, the media-savvy, self-proclaimed shark-saviors, OCEARCH, tried to play upon the shark hysteria in Western Australia as a platform to get in and tag white sharks. They were rejected by WA at that time and on a higher level rejected by CSIRO, only to have OCEARCH go around CSIRO and find other ways into the country. Now here they are on Australia’s east coast using fear-mongering once again to get press, claiming they can increase beach safety with their tagging. If they are going to use shark fear to leverage press for themselves, it seems only fair that they should be held accountable when someone is bitten after their tracking tags have been bolted on. But, like everywhere else OCEARCH has gone, they will leave the locals with the mess and take the money and fame with them when they leave. Oh wait, sorry, I forgot about their amazing contribution to shark conservation. They provided an app that people can check from their couches once every month or so and see where the perpetually pregnant Lydia will show up next.
Sorry OCEARCH. Playing upon human ignorance and fear to further your self-glorified fishing campaign is sending the wrong message and just another chapter in your decade of hurting sharks much more than helping them. OCEARCH fans are checking their smart phones with one hand while reeling in protected species at the beach with the other. But this time while fighting the animal to near death they can not only call themselves conservationists, but can also say they were contributing to public safety.
Debra Canabal of Epic Diving in the WSV hoodie. Get yours!
About the Author
Skyler Thomas is the primary blog contributor, cinematographer, and lead editor at White Shark Video.