Cull or be killed: is this really the solution to stop shark attacks?

Culling sharks is unlikely to make our beaches safer. Hermanus Backpackers

In Western Australia, politicians and members of the public are calling for a shark cull in response to the state’s recent shark attack fatalities.

The most recent of these attacks was on a diver off the north coast of Rottnest Island on October 22. The other, involving a body-boarder, took place at Bunker Bay on September 4. A disappearance at Cottesloe Beach on October 10 has also been attributed to a shark.

The proposed cull is an attempt to protect beach-goers from potential attack. But is this the best way to deal with an animal whose natural environment we invade by the thousands every day?

How many people are killed by sharks?

Although the Australian media continue to sensationalise the threat of shark attacks to swimmers, the statistics do not support these claims.

According to the Australian Shark Attack File (ASAF), sharks have killed 52 people in the past 50 years (1.04 per year) in Australian waters. Figures range from zero to three in a year (data correct as of October 24, 2011).

There’s no denying that each of these attacks is, of course, a tragedy. But the number of attacks is negligible when you consider the vast and increasing number of swimmers entering our coastal waters every year.

In reference to two fatal shark attacks in 2004-05, Dr. Rory McAuley, shark research scientist with the WA Department of Fisheries, said it wasn’t unprecedented to have a sudden rise in attacks: “Those isolated incidents don’t represent a trend” he said¹.

Are there more shark attacks?

Thousands more swimmers take to our beaches every year as the WA population and tourism continue to rise. We might expect a corresponding rise in shark attacks. However, numbers of fatal shark attacks remain the same and within the expected yearly variation. Therefore, the number of fatal attacks in WA, per capita, is actually declining.

The media will have us believe there are rogue “man eating” sharks patrolling the waters, with shark attacks on the increase.

Sharks are part of a complex ecosystem. Terry Goss