Opinion Piece in The West today – The One That Got Away a Lesson to Authorities

As published in The West Australian today (minus minor editing improvements made by The West)…

The One That Got Away a Lesson to Authorities

The recent failure by Fisheries Officers to catch and kill a white shark in Geographe Bay has demonstrated why the Government must rethink the controversial pre-emptive kill policy for protected white sharks.

The hunt started not because a shark had behaved in a menacing way, but because shark sightings had repeatedly forced the closure of beaches.  It was assumed that shark sightings between Christmas and early January may have been the same shark but no evidence was provided.

An order was then given to kill a protected white shark displaying natural behavior in known shark habitat because it was holiday season.  It seems more like prolonged inconvenience than imminent threat.

It would have been difficult having to ask people on a beach holiday during a heat wave to leave the water.  But do we really want to start killing protected animals for that?

And if they had caught and killed a large shark?  Would Fisheries or the Premier have then said that the ocean was now safe?  I don’t think so, because in reality the risk would hardly have changed.

In the end, despite the deployment of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, the Fisheries Department was unable to catch a single white shark.  Meanwhile, other marine life was put at risk of capture by the prolonged use of baited hooks, whilst the surveillance and education campaigns did their job of keeping people and sharks apart.

And for now it appears the white shark has done what white sharks do, moved on.  White sharks are highly migratory and will not stay in an area long.

The Government’s kill policy is not helping the situation in Western Australia.  Far from dispelling people’s fears, the sight of numerous boats hunting a shark off our beaches risks heightening the fear and thereby the damage to our marine tourism businesses.

Alongside the kill policy, the Government announced new surveillance, research and education policies for which they should be commended.  These policies are proven ways of reducing the risk of shark attacks.

Education in particular is desperately needed after years of poorly informed public discourse that has led to a number of myths that a responsible Government should be seeking to bust.

Sadly, every shark species has been tarred with the brush of the recent series of attacks.  There are 180 shark species in Australia, all critical to healthy ocean ecosystems and fisheries. Only three of these are considered responsible for most unprovoked attacks, that is white sharks, bull sharks and tiger sharks.  People need to understand that every shark sighting doesn’t mean a dangerous animal is lurking off our beaches.

Further, the likelihood of an unprovoked attack remains low. Even lower now at patrolled beaches with aerial surveillance.

Despite public perceptions fuelled by increasing awareness of the sharks off our coast, there remain very few white sharks.  The best estimate we have from genetic studies suggest there are only about 700 breeding age white sharks in Western Australia and South Australia combined. Despite protection, white sharks still die in significant numbers as accidental catch in fisheries.

The most likely reason for more white sharks visiting WA beaches in the past couple of years is a change in ocean currents that may reverse in future years.

More education is also needed on the circumstances of attacks. A useful recent report from the Department of Fisheries looked at a range of environmental factors, but did not examine human activities such as fishing.

As a diver, that is very important information in assessing the potential risk of my activities. The risk of shark attack and the range of species that might attack are completely different for spear fishing compared with sightseeing dives. Perth’s largest dive charters have done hundreds of thousands of dives without seeing a large shark, yet larger sharks are occasionally reported by other sightseeing divers and are commonly seen by spear fishers.

As our population grows and more people enter the water in more locations, we will increasingly become aware of the sharks that live in our waters.  We need to better understand these animals for our own safety and theirs, because the healthy ocean environment we all value depends on maintaining healthy populations of sharks.

The kill policy is costing literally millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money and putting marine life at risk with no demonstrable benefit to public safety.  Surely it would be smarter to redeploy this money into boosting proven prevention methods like surveillance, research and education that will continue to further reduce the already low but still real risk of a shark attack.

Writen by the Squid for PADIProject Aware and CCWA about the shark hunt underway in Geographe Bay (minus minor improvements made by The West).

Article about great white shark cull policy / shark hunt under Premier Colin Barnett in Western Australia.

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9 thoughts on “Opinion Piece in The West today – The One That Got Away a Lesson to Authorities

  1. People must take responsibility for themselves, for God’s sake. Sharks live in the water – accept it and move on. Want to swim? There are plenty of pools around if you don’t like your chances. I accept the risk when I dive, people need to accept the risk when they swim. You’re seven times more likely to die from a gun shot wound while walking down a British street that you are to die from a shark attack.

    • It’s a good point Leane, I’m with you in accepting the risk being an important part of participating in ocean activities and the Government can’t take that risk away, and shouldn’t pretend they can. I also avoid some activities or areas that seem more risky. The debate started as if the risk has overnight become much greater and if we should change our behaviour, or policy response but ended up being about killing white sharks. The five deaths were pretty awful as I’m sure we all appreciate, I had a friend at the scene of one. But I still don’t think the risk has increased that much in WA, certainly not as much as the media is making out which is just out of control.
      And keeping it in perspective is important, it is definable true that there are much greater risks on land we accept readily, no one is proposing culling the number of cars on our roads, or young men who might make a one punch attack.
      In saying all that, I’m very much supportive of research and surveillance to help your average beach goer feel safer and hopefully also to help us divers and surfers. Dive tourism is suffering massively and somewhat unfairly. If we can reduce risk without killing sharks i’m all for it, and it will help prevent killing if sharks in the future. Research is needed for conservation efforts too, and educating people about sharks is essential to keeping public opinion in support of sharks. So in my view there is a win win in research.

  2. I appreciate what your saying but I’ve been commercial abalone diving for over 20 years and spear fishing for 30. I can tell you that the numbers have gotten way out of control.
    One diver in Esperence saw 3 in one week and another has seen 5 last year.
    My spearfishing mates are having encounters from Esperance through to Exmouth and 5 years ago none of the divers ever came accross a great white. Ocean currents may be a reason as the industry sightings have started 5 years ago. Personally I think the numbers have increased due , protected specie, less shark fisherman, current shark fisherman quotas have been cut back and the increase in the whale population. I do support culling , it’s realistically the only way.

    • Hi David, thanks for the reply. The main thrust of the article is that $2m could be better spent on more research and education than hunting a shark dubiously tagged an ‘imminent threat’.
      Beyond that my view is that we need a lot more information. Some people are reporting a lot more sightings, others aren’t, but there are credible people reporting more (as well as some not so credible and a lot of hype). We also need to be careful because not everyone can tell the difference between a white shark and other species, especially for ‘smaller’ sharks of less than 3m. There are wild discrepancies in sizes reported too with reports tending towards claiming a larger shark. It can be very difficult in low vis even for experts.
      Currents are probably part if not all of the explanation, given the redistributions I’m hearing about if lots of marine life – More Spanish Mackerel at Rotto, Dhuies off the South Coast, tropical seabirds off Perth and Lancelin – it just makes sense that the same is happening with sharks.
      The only guide I can find to a possible increase in numbers overall is the gillnet fishery by catch records, they don’t show any change in catch of white sharks, although there have been some effort and location shifts the south and lower south west coasts haven’t changed as much. I’ll blog these soon. That’s not super scientific of course but best available. I don’t think we can go out killing sharks till we know more, and even then there’s more to consider and it would have to be the absolute last resort and one I’d be unlikely to support. I don’t think we’ll go there in WA when you think how many more sharks they have in places like South Africa and South Australia and how migratory white sharks are.
      Not withstanding all that, we don’t want more fatalities if at all possible within the constraints of what we can reasonably do, and you and I very much share the possibility, however small, it could be us or a close friend or family next time.
      I’m also talking with UWA researchers who seem very confident they can keep improving on deterrents like shark shield, or invent better ones. When it comes to shark behaviour we also know very little and could learn a lot that would be useful.
      It’s a hard debate and appreciate your informed view. I’m annoyed as much by ‘its their territory don’t go there if you don’t want the risk’ as I am by ‘we are the apex predator and should accept no risk, kill them all.’ Neither are a credible way forward, and that’s what we need to work towards.

      • Also, killing one shark would have made no difference to the overall risk. There is no such thing as a ‘rogue shark’ and no evidence has yet been produced to support rumours of an injured resident white off the Capes, which goes against everything we know about white sharks, although its not impossible.

      • For some reason that hasn’t been explained by fisheries the focast has been changed from tagging the GWS and better understanding it’s movements to now trying to kill an individual shark if it hangs around a popular beach in the southwest. A few months ago off Perth beach’s tagged sharks were setting off the beacons on a regular basis and yet no kill order was issued and one shark in particular which was originally tagged at Albany turned up in metro waters and now appears to have moved on. I personally would feel more comfortable if fisheries would do what fisheries do best and increase the research into the GWS and continue the tagging programme and deploy more beacons than anchor a boat off a beach in the Southwest trying to satisfy what I feel is purely a political decision.

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