Perhaps predictably, the Western Australian government has claimed that its shark drum line season, which ended last week, was a success. In a media statement, fisheries minister Ken Baston said that “172 sharks were caught on the lines - 111 of them off the metropolitan coast - and 90 sharks were tagged before being released”.
As the debt-laden state government prepares to hand down a tough budget, these results – and the A$22 million of taxpayers' money spent on trying to prevent shark bites – deserve critical analysis.
Here I offer five take-home messages based on this statement and the new figures.
1. The drum lines didn’t catch a single great white
Not one great white shark was caught during the entire program, which undermines the entire basis of this trial. White sharks have been at the top of the government’s target list, with crews even chasing them along beaches, because the protected species have been involved or suspected in several fatal shark bite incidents. In the past few years the government has suggested one individual white shark could be responsible for more than one incident and needed to be killed. They stated previously that they are going to “take the shark before it takes the human being”.
Yet the program was also designed to kill bull and tiger sharks as well. Under the current program, the drum lines caught 163 tiger sharks. However, a fatal tiger shark bite has not been reported in the drumlined area since 1929.
2. There is still no evidence that culling works
There is a reality that must be acknowledged amid the continuing political theatre surrounding the shark cull: the policy is shambolic. There is no evidence that drum lines will reduce shark bites.
Baston himself admitted that “we will never know if any of the sharks caught would have harmed a person”. But in the next sentence he said he wants people to enjoy the ocean “without the constant fear of shark attack”. It is tempting to conclude this is not about beach safety, but about giving a sense of security. The Barnett government has decided that killing sharks is good politics.
3. The policy is about boosting public confidence
Here is another line (the opening line, in fact) from Baston’s media statement:
The State Government’s shark mitigation policy is successfully restoring confidence among Western Australian beachgoers.
The clear implication is that the government has been killing sharks to make people feel better. Something had to be done, and this was the option.
But the government has not provided any survey data to serve as evidence for its claim that confidence is being restored. The fact is that, in the absence of having caught a great white, they declared “mission accomplished” on public confidence. This, despite the thousands who rallied to support shark protections in Perth and around the country.
4. WA loves science … but not scientists
The government also claims that the shark mitigation strategy, which involves tagging and research as well as culling, is “greatly contributing to the scientific knowledge about shark behaviour”.
Yet it has ignored scientists throughout this entire episode. It ignored the 100 scientists who wrote them a letter in 2013. It rejected a report by Bond University associate professor Daryl MacPhee, which said: “Due to the environmental impacts of shark control activities, it is not recommended that either shark nets or drum lines be introduced into Western Australia”. Documents released in response to a freedom of information request by Humane Society International showed a Department of Fisheries memo in which staff argue against the language of the previous “imminent threat” policy because:
The policy assumes that the actions are to prevent an imminent threat of attack. This cannot be proven in any case. There is abundant evidence to prove that not all sharks, even those known to be dangerous, are not about to attack just because they are in the immediate area/vicinity where people are present. This again makes the policy subject to criticism.
The document concludes: “The removal of any link to ‘imminent’ needs to occur.” What followed was the announcement of an imminent threat policy from the WA government.
The government went against all of these scientific suggestions, and it may yet get worse. WA has asked federal environment minister Greg Hunt for a three-year extension to the policy. This would compromise the integrity of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act by allowing federally protected species to be killed.
5. There is no community education plan
There is one thing that we know for sure will improve safety in the ocean: better education. So why is it missing from the policy?
A broad-based public engagement and education strategy can help manage the risks. This is important because not all activities in the ocean carry the same level of risk. It depends what you do, how far out you do it, and for how long. If West Australians really want to be safer in the water, they should demand real risk reduction, not risk perception reduction.
Finally, it is important to note the science of shark culling is also dubious at best. Less sharks does not mean less risk because many sharks swim long distances. Killing a tiger shark today in Perth does not stop the one swimming down from Indonesia next week. Both Jessica Meeuwig at the University of WA and Colin Simpfendorfer of James Cook University have noted how drum lines may not reduce shark bite risks.
It is time to call this policy what it is: a shark sham.
This article was amended on May 9, 2014 to clarify that the absence of fatal tiger shark bites since 1929 refers to the drumlined area, not the whole of WA. Tiger sharks also caused deaths at Cape Leveque in 1955 and Broome in 1990.