The shark culling scheme in WA has been widely discussed and its unnecessary negative impacts condemned by a variety of experts. Recent participation in an international forum makes me believe that the problems associated with the scheme have nevertheless been underestimated and could turn out to be costly.
Participating in a MOOC course introducing Marine Megafauna I had to write a short essay about a conservation issue. While peer-assessing five other students’ works, I was surprised to find that half of them (including me) had chosen WA’s shark culling as their topic. Reflecting about it I believe that the impact of the unjustified scheme will have wide-ranging consequences of environmental conservation, socio-economic and socio-politic nature. All of them could turn out costly for Australia and certain individuals.
I have already discussed the disproportionality of shark culling as a response to occasional accidents in the sea. That is only part of the story. Studies show that apex predators are very important for maintaining a healthy ecosystem. For example, the decline of large predatory sharks reduces the natural mortality in a range of prey such as small elasmobranchs, marine mammals, and sea turtles which have few other predators. The result is a change in abundance, distribution, and behaviour of those later species and their prey. In 2007, Myers et al conducted a study to evaluate the impacts of great sharks on food webs. The study found that the consequences of a reduction in great sharks can have severe impacts on food webs. In the study area, coastal northwest Atlantic waters, the effect of decreasing apex predator populations lead to increases in elasmobranchs which in turn led to such intense pressure on a scallop species that a century-old fishery totally collapsed.
While it could take years for the worst effects of shark culling manifesting themselves in the form of negative economic impacts on certain fisheries in Western Australia, the program also has immediate legal implications, since many shark species are protected under the EPBC Act. From the targeted species, the “best known” species, the Great White Shark, is listed as vulnerable (VN) in the ICUN red list. Other shark species affected by the program include Tiger Sharks and Bull Sharks which appear to be near threatened (NT), Hammerhead Sharks (endangered EN), Sandbar Sharks (vulnerable VN), Dusky Whalers (vulnerable VN) and Bronze Whalers (near threatened NT).
The fact that under the new Coalition government, Australia is increasingly following immoral and destructive practices that only focus on exploiting natural resources and challenging a globally appreciated ecosystem does not go without notice. The whole world has been observing for months what is happening here, most of them shaking their heads in despair and disgust. This certainly will (or already does?) have economic impacts on two major sectors: tourism and education, later in the form of international students (no longer) studying in Australia. It will also have impacts on the perception of Australia as a nation on a global level. Historically seen as a continent of extraordinary natural values, Australia is increasingly judged as one of the big polluter nations. For good reasons; failure to protect World Heritage angers divers, nature-lovers and marine enthusiasts around the planet.
At the same time, the misconducts of the Coalition government and its state allies have domestic political impacts as well. Even the overall Coalition-supporting The Australian has observed an increasing number in support of The Greens. Only half a year in government, the Coalition government is no longer supported by a majority of Australians. On 5 April 2014 Western Australian voters have the chance to make a change and to show the Abbott and Co that we are all fed up with their attitude. I’m quite optimistic and believe that the 5 April 2014 will bring Australia back on track to where it was before the infamous inner-party battle within Labor, that culminated in the ousting of Julia Gillard almost a year ago and consequently led to a right-shift in Australian politics – as much within Labor as at the federal elections in September 2013.
It’s time to turn the wheel around. We need to show the world that Aussies do care and that details do matter, even within a big country!
 Ransom Aldrich Myers (1952 –2007) was a world-renowned marine biologist and conservationist. He was a research scientist at the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans before joining the faculty of Dalhousie University as the Chair of Ocean Studies in 1997. He has published over hundred scientific publications in a range of fields of aquatic ecology. His work on sharks ranged from collecting data about the decline of shark populations to directing the focus of the media to threatened shark species. He further was a member of the IUCN shark specialist group.