This opinion piece was published in The West Australian with their minor alterations today on behalf of PADI and Project AWARE, as part of ongoing efforts to stop the culling of sharks and other marine life using baited drumlines off Western Australia’s beaches.
Put the Bite on Illogical Thinking, Not Sharks
The dive industry knows as well as anyone what it means to become best friends with a former nemesis, and that is what we are calling on WA’s Premier and politicians to do too.
As much as any group who uses the ocean, divers face the potential fear of sharks, and sometimes a real threat. But as an industry we have also recognised that facts need to come before fear, and benefitted in many ways from that.
Whilst shark attacks do happen, the risk is so incredibly low
that it compares with the risk of being struck by lightning. Perth’s dive charter operators have done hundreds of thousands of dives at Rottnest and never seen a large shark there. When large sharks are seen by divers, it is more often than not when spearfishing or hunting underwater.
On the contrary, by embracing sharks as a key part of a healthy ecosystem and celebrating our fascination and respect for them, the diving industry has unlocked more than US$314m in revenue around the world each year. Our shark education courses are also some of our most popular. The vast majority of shark species pose no threat to people. The key to our ability to embrace sharks has been research and education. By understanding sharks and their behaviour we have been able to get people excited about interacting with many species of sharks in controlled conditions, and create memories that last a lifetime.
And this is why we know the secret to a positive future for people and large sharks in Western Australia lies in research and acting on the evidence. We need to continue with proven effective methods of reducing risk, such as aerial patrols, whilst we continue to work hard to better understand the risks and opportunities that our shark population presents. Culling only damages these efforts by using up resources and distorting research programs that could genuinely help to keep people safer in the future.
Recently released research from CSIRO has shown that in some parts of Australia white sharks concentrate for periods of time in areas commonly used by swimmers and yet there has never been an attack. People didn’t even know the sharks were there. In the vast majority of cases where people are in the water and sharks are nearby, there is no interaction at all. So the evidence shows that we can’t necessarily equate the number of sharks in an area to the likelihood of a bite or fatality. That is good news for all of us if we are successful in our attempts to recover the world’s devastated shark populations.
We also have no solid evidence to support the theory that shark numbers in WA have increased. With global white shark populations estimated to be as low as 3000 breeding sharks, and less than a thousand of them estimated to live in all of WA and South Australia, it seems unlikely that a massive increase in population is behind the recent attacks.
The current policy of Government is based on an assumption that the presence of sharks is an indicator of danger, and that there are more sharks. Yet the evidence suggests both these premises may be wrong. So why are we mobilising hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of fisheries equipment to try and catch and kill sharks? Not only is this ineffective, but sadly it will also most likely have a more devastating toll on other local marine life, and harmless sharks, than it will on large migratory sharks.
The other justification for culling might be to try an allay community fears, but images of large vessels fishing along our beaches does more to exacerbate the myths about sharks and the damage these myths do to our tourism industry than it does to increase safety.
It took courage for the diving industry to embrace shark conservation and embark on a mission to understand sharks. This is what the Western Australian Government needs to do. The current research programs into shark behaviour and into potential non-lethal deterrents for potentially dangerous sharks is welcomed. But to make progress we also need the Government to start acting on and communicating the evidence we already have, not reacting to fears in the wake of the recent shark attacks.
Sharks are essential to our ocean ecosystem. We can’t have a healthy ocean without sharks. For this reason, there will always be a small risk of a shark encounter going wrong when we enter the water. As The Government acknowledges, no matter how many sharks they kill, they cannot eliminate this risk. Just like they can’t fully protect us from a host of other potentially tragic and fatal events in our daily lives. However, we can work to mitigate risk through research, surveillance and education, with the added benefit of increasing our understanding and curiosity for these amazing creatures that have lived in our oceans for millions of years.
As divers we face first-hand the risks of the ocean, and feel the impacts on our businesses when an attack happens. But we call on the Government to follow our example and fight fear with facts, not culling. That is what will best serve our environment, our community and the tourism industry in Western Australia.