While the new plan to cull sharks in Western Australia seems for itself very controversial, things get worse if one considers the context. A closer look at the facts confirms that fishery management and law enforcement might not be nearly as good as generally perceived.
No question, it would be nice to reduce the risk of humans being attacked by sharks (or any other animal) to zero in order for us to enjoy every single corner of the planet to its fullest. Yet, does that match with other goals such as biodiversity conservation and species or habitat protection?
It’s obvious that we can’t have both; maximal biodiversity and the freedom to use nature as a safe playground for us humans. Confronted with a choice between both, should we really ignore current legislation and kill rare and for the ecosystem important species to “improve public safety”. Mr Buswell’s argument “the preservation of human life is our number one priority” seems convincing and citizens are likely to applaud for his efforts to protect them. However, I doubt that the plan will achieve the apparent goal.
Firstly, there is the question of effectiveness of this plan. One doesn’t have to be an expert to understand that “setting baited drum lines” wasn’t the best idea to keep sharks away from attacking humans. To my understanding, “setting bait” will have the opposite effect of mitigating attacks. WA authorities are probably aware of it as well and consequently the plan for “faster, more aggressive response after attacks with more vessels“.
Secondly, the harshness (and likely costs) of the measures seem to stand in no relation to the risk. In 2012 there were 14 unprovoked and 8 provoked encounters between humans and sharks in waters around the country, resulting in 14 injuries and 2 fatalities (for humans). Compared with transport fatalities (35 killed cyclists, 194 killed pedestrians and 1477 total fatalities in 2009) this number seems extremely low. While it is estimated that at least one in four fatal road accidents is caused by elevated alcohol levels (above the legal BAC limit of 0.05) and knowing that a large number of us still drive after drug (incl. alcohol) use, the idea suggests itself that killing sharks to increase public safety seems to be completely displaced. Better law enforcement on roads could safe much more lives within a year than those lost due to shark attacks over history!
Finally, the proposed measures are totally out of proportion from a shark protection perspective. While, in an attempt to stop overfishing of many shark populations around the world, Western NGOs have made huge campaigns to reduce the consumption of shark fins in Asian countries with very positive echoes in Hong Kong, China and other Asian cities and countries, nobody seems to care about shark finning in Australia, not even NGOs. According to ABARES 261.5 tons of shark fins and 505.3 tons of shark meat were being imported to Australia in 2012 alone!
Given little to no control over where the products come from, it is quite likely that at least part of the products come from very poorly managed fisheries in South Africa and Peru, where recent articles have revealed the brutality of this business. While we are constantly being told that Australian fisheries are among the best managed in the world, we forget that at least 75% of the seafood we eat are imports, most of it lacking proper traceability, contributing to overfishing, human rights abuse and environmental degradation in the countries of origin.
All in all, it is more likely that with the new shark plan WA’s authorities seek to gain voters’ support rather than to increase “public safety”. If they were honest, they would inform us that the best “Tool Kit” to protect communities was still common sense and not the meaningless slaughtering of sharks. However, honesty is not what wins elections these days and we all prefer to believe what sounds good while ignoring reality than to look at the often simple but disturbing facts of life.