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Shark bite prevention should be led by evidence, not politics

Things could not be harder for the beach-goers of Western Australia. Following the worst spate of shark-related fatalities ever recorded, it is summer once again. Shark sightings are up and there is always…

Pre-emptively emptying beaches when sharks are around can save lives, but there are other ways of preventing bites. Caroline Embrey

Things could not be harder for the beach-goers of Western Australia. Following the worst spate of shark-related fatalities ever recorded, it is summer once again. Shark sightings are up and there is always the risk of another fatal incident and tragedy for the community.

This is a real risk and it is entirely reasonable for officials to take affirmative steps to reduce the chances of a shark bite. Recent funding for a watch tower overlooking Cottlesloe beach is a good example, and the WA Government should be given credit. However, it is because these are serious times, that the government should also end its ridiculous pre-emptive shark hunt strategy.

On Sunday, the policy was in action when an imminent threat to beach-goers was declared and a catch and kill order was issued for dangerous great white sharks.

However, so imminent was the threat that they could not find any great white sharks for two days. So imminent was the hostility from the white sharks, that they ignored two lines set with bait. All the while, the public was out of the water, alerted to the potential risks and the beaches were closed.

Imminent, it appears, is a rather qualified term.

On the one hand it could be said that this time everyone was lucky. This pre-emptive program “to track, catch and, if necessary, destroy sharks”, unique in all the world, works and will help in the future. On the other, it is possible that this exercise runs the risk of distracting the public from real shark bite prevention.

What does that look like exactly?

Options include new education programs for different user-groups in the water, because not all activities carry the same risk. Spear-fishers face higher risks and kayakers could have a training protocol in case they see a shark near them.

Water temperature is also emerging as a good first indicator of risk. New research on great white sharks on both sides of the Indian ocean (Cape Town and WA) suggests that white sharks come into shore much more often between 18ᵒC and 20ᵒC, and less so above 22ᵒC or below 15ᵒC. Checking the water temperature at your beach is a tangible safety step that can be taken.

But rather than talking about research-based methods, we are discussing pre-emptive shark hunts with no scientific evidence that they will prevent shark bites. Simply put, if this program were the Emperor, we would inform him he is wearing no clothes.

A recent case out of Sharm el-Sheikh Egypt highlights my concern. In 2010, there were three non-fatal shark bites in one day and a shark hunt was called. Fishermen went out and two large sharks were caught and killed. The beaches, which had been closed, were re-opened. The next day a shark fatality occurred in the same area. The “success” of the hunt had lulled some into a false sense of security and tragedy followed.

Every story should be taken with a grain of salt and I am clearly highlighting one anecdote over another. But the point is that there are choices when communities approach difficult issues of safety.

An alternative option comes from an island that is also in the Indian ocean and which saw unprecedented fatalities on its beaches in 2012, Reunion Island. Reunion recently developed its shark plan for 2013 by holding a public workshop with input from all sides. I was invited to participate.

Shark hunts were discussed with great emotion. Yet the government left it to the evidence and to the experts to finalise the plan. Shark hunts were not included and with community feedback new initiatives emerged that have never been tried before anywhere in the world. In particular, they took a “disturbance” approach that centred on keeping (bull) sharks at a distance and eliminating the element of surprise, which is a key factor in opportunistic shark bites.

Western Australia is left with an unsatisfactory truth. The risks will continue when people go in the ocean, no matter what the government catches or does not catch. Zero risk does not exist and political programs like the “catch and kill” order can undermine other good work that is taking place, particularly from within the WA Department of Fisheries. The department is overseeing new community engagement programs and innovative scientific research that will benefit every West Australian. These are professionals who, alongside WA Surf Lifesaving, have the impossibly hard job of keeping people safe in the water.

The issue now is a political one. Elected officials want the safest beaches possible, but this is about whether the evidence or the politics should take the lead.

Join the conversation

31 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    I agree political leaders shouldn't ignore evidence.

    But evidence doesn't tell a government what to do. Otherwise we'd just put scientists in charge of the country.

    Politicians have to balance lots of things - evidence, cost, opportunity cost, risk, popular opinion, their own moral beliefs - before they make a decision. Yes, they have to make a 'political' decision.

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    1. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to James Jenkin

      "Following the worst spate of shark-related fatalities ever recorded ..." is hardly evidence which can be discounted.

      "this is about whether the evidence or the politics should take the lead." If we try this policy, then we'll have some evidence of whether or not it's successful, if we don't try it then we won't have any.

      So much outrage over a policy which only aims to eliminate sharks that are menacing swimmers, and which isn't, so far, killing any sharks.

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  2. Susan Hemruth

    Luftmensch

    Let's ensure that scientists do have positions of influence in society. This article calls for an evidence-based evaluation of the situation.

    Why kill sharks if we are not confident that this will actually make the beaches safer?

    Less hype, more science please!

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    1. Mark Carter

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Chris Gillham

      Nice try Chris, but your efforts are as half-baked as all the others being dreamed up by the media.

      Q.Do other places which have growing humpback whales populations experiencing more shark attacks?
      A.The EAST coast of Australia also has a large and going population of Humpback whales which hug the coasts during migration. But they don't have any increase in shark attacks...

      Shark attack fatalities are so low in the first place that any 'increase' is probably just simple stochastic variability. We are talking about a cause of death here which lags behind falling of chairs...

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  3. Wade Macdonald

    Technician

    Recently in Adelaide the government banned the use of shark fishing gear in metro waters between the hours of 5am to 9pm. This was in reaction to recreational shark fishers 'supposedly' luring sharks into metro waters even though there was no evidence according to fisheries scientists. Basically a greenie group used an old photograph of a metro caught shark, not for protection of swimmers, but for an anti fishing agenda based on a fear campaign. As I fish this coast regularly, I understand the sharks…

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    1. Mark Carter

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Well now you know how conservationists feel on this issue- our shonky politicians take off-the-cuff decisions for the sake of media coverage with no reference to reality.

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  4. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    Here's my view: as citizens, we all need to contribute to the rational design and implementation of sensible policy by politicians and administrators. As long as we have shock jocks and tabloids rallying to have government "do something!" (anything), we won't have rational policy.

    How good would it be to replace the headline "Another shark death as government sits idle" with "Community supports evidence-based solutions for shark attack." Am I dreaming?

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  5. Comment removed by moderator.

  6. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    Hard to argue with evidence, but politicians and the media certainly do their best.

    I think a lot of this shark hysteria is driven by an irrational fear that the media like to fuel. We don't ever hear reports of the dozens of people who die from bee stings annually, but we hear about every near miss (or is that near hit?) from a shark and can have days of coverage of one actual attack - regardless of whether the person attacked died.

    If I had a dollar for every deadly shark attack that occurred in Australia since I was born, I'd be able to go to a nice restaurant with my family. If I had a dollar for every deadly car crash, I could pay off my mortgage.

    So cooler heads with better information need to prevail. Shark culls won't solve any problems.

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    1. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      But it isn't really culling. It isn't deciding that there are too many sharks around so if we kill off some there'll be less chance of an attack.

      As I understand it, the policy only applies to sharks that are menacing swimmers and can't be chased away. It's a self-defense precaution, rather than a cull, and not likely to kill many sharks.

      I think you have the germ of a good idea there Tim: a cull of motorists who have lost more than 6 demerit points. (I've never lost one in more than 40 years of driving, so, safe).

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    2. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Culling "menacing" sharks assumes a level of either anthropomorphic danger, i.e. that sharks are deliberately targeting humans to eat, or that sharks only feed in one location. Neither is true.

      Sharks are an apex predator and are very important for maintenance of food chains in correct balance. Removing them for no measured and verified reason is not only folly but also arrogant.

      As for a motorist cull, we already have one, it is called the road death toll. Doesn't make us safer.

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    3. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      As you say Tim, sharks are an apex predator, and as the recent evidence shows, they don't mind preying on us. If I knew there was a shark near me in the water I would feel menaced and I would like it chased away, and if it came back I would like it killed.

      There was a researcher in the paper this morning estimating there might be only 700 white pointers cruising around the W.A., S.A. coastlines. Could 700, moving over that huge an area, be having that big effect on the environment? The biggest apex predator in the sea is we humans who have totally disrupted the natural balance of sea life and I can't see that a policy that may result in the killing of a couple more sharks a year, if that, is going to make much of a difference. Storm in a teacup.

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    4. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Please stop perpetuating the "man eating" myth. Sharks feed all the time, yet the less than a handful of annual fatal attacks suggests that they don't prey on us, hell, they don't even take a proper bite of us. http://www.shark.ch/Foundation/FAQs/index.html

      Now, you quote "700 white pointers" cruising WA to say that they can't be having that big an impact on the environment, yet at the same time wish to pretend that they are somehow a threat. You can't have that argument both ways Russell.

      Also, to advocate killing more sharks, when we already kills thousands a year, is just nothing more than emotive arguments based upon irrational fear. Read the link I posted instead of sensational media coverage.

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    5. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      "they don't even take a proper bite of us"

      Tim, you need to become aware of the situation in W.A. - 5 deaths in a year! Beaches continually being closed - I think they were again this weekend (after I had already had my early morning swim).

      I read that site, all the sites, and all the literature I could find, a year ago when I was researching the topic for work. The current policy is sensible and unlikely to result in many sharks being killed. Environmentalists surely have bigger fish to fry than to go on about a policy that is likely to have a negligable effect on the environment, if any.

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    6. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Russell, I live in WA.

      5 deaths? More people drown, on average, scuba diving. More people die, on average, from bee stings. More people, on average, die from lightning strikes. In fact in WA, more people die just going to the beach and once there, more drown once they are at the beach (10-20 per year drown at the beach in WA). http://www.lifesavingwa.com.au/docs/community/Drowning-Report_2011.pdf

      Once again, you are trying to pretend that sharks are targeting humans as food, they aren't. If…

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    7. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Actually, an addendum to my post: more people die from drowning in the ocean in Western Australia each year than die from shark attacks world wide. Even the near drownings in WA exceeds the total shark attacks in the world each year.

      Human's don't have a problem with sharks, they have a problem with the ocean. It is a dangerous place to swim.

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    8. Mark Carter

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      The reason conservationists are so appalled by this crappy policy is that it will target a rare species of a group which under pressure worldwide but the science out there says pretty clearly it will have no impact on the safety of swimmers in whose name the cull is supposedly taking place. Taking destructive action for no real outcome but to appease the media- pretty much the definition of pisspoor public policy.

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    9. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      "Saying that sharks should be killed because they swim in the ocean is just ridiculous."

      Which of course I didn't say.

      "you are trying to pretend that sharks are targeting humans as food" - no, it doesn't matter what reason they attack humans, the point is they are attacking and killing people off metropolitan beaches, and it may prevent another person being attacked if a shark/s that keep hanging around beaches are eliminated.

      "the science out there says pretty clearly it will have no impact on the safety of swimmers"

      Does it? I don't think there's much reliable evidence out there to say the policy would have NO impact. Let's see if the policy has any effect - it probably won't, but the possibility of killing the odd shark isn't going to lose me any sleep.

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    10. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Of course, if you hunt the sharks to extinction that will solve the problem of people swimming in the ocean too close to sharks....

      As I've already pointed out, this is overblown hysteria about something that has so little impact. Money would be better spent on surf lifesaving to stop people drowning at the beach.

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    11. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      "Of course, if you hunt the sharks to extinction that will solve the problem of people swimming in the ocean too close to sharks...."

      Exactly. And when we've done with the sharks we can move on to crocodiles. Yes, they haven't been sighted at Port Beach yet, all the same, just the idea of them up the coast there ......

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    12. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      So, then we have ecosystem collapse as there are no large predators left.

      Great idea.

      Why don't we just start cutting our noses off to spite our face while we're at it.

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    13. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Tim, maybe you don't have to worry so much. (The crocodile remark was a joke).

      However .... did Tasmania sink below the waves because we hunted the Tasmanian Tiger to extinction?

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    14. Nick Kermode

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Hi Tim, please keep up the exchange. So far we have from Mr Hamilton;

      strawman, non sequitur, slippery slope,special pleading, the gambler,false cause, burden of proof, band wagon, begging the question, composition/division, appeal to nature, appeal to emotion,personal incredulity, middle ground and anecdotal....at least

      Now eyes down for a full house :)

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    15. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Nick, thanks, we just need an ad-hom, black or white, loaded question (oh wait, I'm about to address one of those), and no true scotsman.

      Russell, your question is not relevant, nor an applicable analogy. Tazzie Tiger was not the only predator in the ecosystem, other similar level predators were introduced (foxes, dogs), and I'm going to assume you were using hyperbole for comedic affect with the Tasmania sinking remark.

      The problem is that you place no value on the ecosystem, especially as…

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    16. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      ""Lets kill a shark if it threatens us" is just ridiculous, why don't we have a law that states "I've just invaded your home, you come out and try to bludgeon me with a cricket bat, so I shoot and kill you and your next door neighbour.""

      An analogy equating sharks and humans?

      Tim, clearly "Pulphead" wasn't in your Xmas stocking. There's a fabulous piece in it about the coming war between animals and humans that I'm sure you'll enjoy.

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  7. Craig Thomas

    logged in via Facebook

    So, what evidence do you have that catching Great Whites off WA won't reduce shark attacks?
    One anecdote from Egypt?
    Call me underwhelmed by your "science".....

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  8. William Owyong

    Programmer / Photographer / Divemaster

    A statistic like "5 shark attacks since September 2011" means nothing without details of the circumstances surrounding each one and only serves to instill fear into the community rather than understanding. The science is being ignored because it opposes the media and media-driven public opinion.

    The full stories behind every incident/encounter seem to be so twisted and mangled by sensationalist media that the truth is lost (don't let the truth get in the way of a good story?).

    If the politicians are creating policy based on public opnion, fear, and incomplete statistics then it only spells disaster for everyone as the wrong actions and outcomes will be the only result. Like trying to fix a leaking pipe with a hole punch.

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