Resist the urge to kill Great White Sharks

Image source: Wikipedia, attribution: Terry GossWhat comes to mind when you think of sharks?  

Jaws?  

Blood thirsty predators?

Well for me, sharks have always been the most beautiful of animals; mysterious and graceful and hugely misunderstood. Unfortunately, sharks have been portrayed in a negative light for many years, often creating irrational hysteria, hatred and fear of these amazing marine creatures.

The great white shark is probably the species of shark that has come under the greatest scrutiny and not least in recent days, when it transpired that the Western Australian Government intends to invest AU $2million in a new Department which will track, catch and destroy sharks as part of their ‘shark mitigation strategy’.

This is highly disturbing news.

The great white shark is fully protected in both Australian Commonwealth waters and in WA state (coastal) waters, and not only does this new plan directly contradict the Government’s ‘White Shark Recovery Plan’, it also grossly undermines Australia’s international responsibility to protect these sharks.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare is calling on the WA government to rethink the shark kill aspects of their mitigation strategy.

At IFAW, we strongly believe that the widespread killing of Great White Sharks would be disastrous not only to our marine environment but also Australia’s reputation as a world leader in marine conservation.

WA’s decision is simply not the right response. The ocean is the shark’s habitat, and needlessly removing them from our oceans would affect the delicate balance of the marine ecosystem, which could be ecologically and economically devastating.

All year round thousands of swimmers, surfers and other water sports enthusiasts around Australia take to beaches in waters that are home to many different species of marine life including sharks, and this number rises every year as population and tourism increases.

And of course, these people want to feel safe when entering the ocean, but there is no evidence to suggest shark attacks are increasing; we simply see yearly variation in the number of attacks.

According to the Australian Shark Attack File (ASAF) there have been 53 human fatalities in the last 50 years in Australian waters from shark attacks – that’s 1.06 attacks per year. 

Some years there are no fatalities recorded, other years there have been up to three in a year, but the average remains around one every 12 months.

There is no taking away from the truly tragic nature of these deaths and we would never underestimate the grief and heartache felt by those who have lost loved ones, but IFAW firmly believes that a shark cull is not the answer.

Sharks directly and indirectly regulate the complicated, natural balance of the marine ecosystem and pre-emptively killing sharks has not proven to be a successful strategy in other countries, and is certainly not backed up by scientific evidence or rationale.

‘Shark control’ efforts in Hawai’i between 1959 and 1976 saw the culling of 4,668 sharks; the result of which saw no measureable differences in the rate of shark attacks in Hawai’ian coastal waters.

This very review of shark control methods concluded that an increased understanding of shark biology and behaviour was actually the answer to reducing shark attacks.

And here we are, 35 years on, with these lessons yet to be learned.

A much wiser use of these funds would be increased helicopter patrols, more research and better public education about avoiding shark hazards. Investing such huge sums of money into shark killing contradicts the whole marine planning process.

To date WA Premier Colin Barnett has taken a balanced approach to the shark conservation debate, and we urge him to reconsider this aspect of the plan and instead take a lead in public education to alert people to the best ways to minimise risk.

Shark populations are already under enormous pressures from fishing practices, which has seen numbers decline by a huge 90% in oceans around the world. Over 100 million sharks are killed every year (that’s 11,000 every hour) in several ways; recreational fishing, take and bycatch in commercial fisheries and the devastating practice of shark finning.

When ‘shark control’ methods are added to this list, the chances of shark populations recovering start to appear very slim indeed.

So perhaps it is actually sharks that should fear humans?

--SL

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