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The great shark debate: to cull or not to cull?

The great shark debate continues in Australia as summer approaches. Shark bites on bathers and surfers are a particularly sensitive reality. These are personal and community-wide tragedies that implore…

Public attitudes are shifting against government shark culling programs. Athel D'Ombrain Collection, University of Newcastle

The great shark debate continues in Australia as summer approaches. Shark bites on bathers and surfers are a particularly sensitive reality. These are personal and community-wide tragedies that implore us to find adequate solutions. The goal of everyone is to improve shark bite prevention and risk reduction while finding solutions that reflect the values of the public.

Shark culling and shark hunts, as an acceptable government response to beach safety, have been up for consideration. The Western Australia Government’s decision to spend $2 million dollars “to track, catch and, if necessary, destroy” sharks in preemptive shark hunts that would cull sharks from local waters has come under scrutiny. The Herald Sun reported on a new poll on the West Australian website that found that 82% of respondents opposed the new plan and only 13% supported it.

It may be that support for culling and shark hunts in Australia is waning. For more than 30 years, there has been a trend toward greater balance between wildlife, marine life and national values.

If a brown snake is in your backyard in New South Wales today, the law states that you must call someone to remove it, rather than killing it. Much the same was true for crocodiles, first protected in Western Australia in 1969 and then in the Northern Territory in 1971. And stinger-suits are often mandatory on swims out on the Great Barrier Reef. The public is informed of the dangers and manages this delicate balance with sophistication.

Yet there is one additional piece to note in the current shark debate. When the question of whether to cull great white sharks is asked, it is important to recognise that shark culling is currently taking place today along the east coast of Australia.

This spring marks 75 years since the New South Wales Government first began funding shark nets along Australian beaches. In Queensland, a shark control program (including nets) began in 1962. But after more than 70 years, the objective government data raises new questions about their effectiveness, while also highlighting the number of great white sharks killed.

How effective are nets?

In 2009, the NSW Government conducted a study and released a “Shark Meshing Program Report” that reviewed the effectiveness of shark nets on reducing shark attacks. It stated that “the annual rate of attack was the same both before and after meshing commenced.”

Are shark nets really a culling method?

During the 2006 Scientific Shark Protection Summit in NSW, a report characterised shark nets this way:

“The program aims to cull populations of large aggressive sharks adjacent to metropolitan beaches, and thus minimise the potential for shark attack on swimmers.”

How many white sharks have been killed?

Since 2008, fisheries data shows that a total of 54 great white sharks have been culled by the programs in NSW and Queensland. The nets also inadvertently killed 13 endangered grey nurse sharks during this period (four in NSW and nine in Queensland) because the program is indiscriminate in the species that it catches.

What are the other environmental costs?

The answer to this question influenced New Zealand’s removal of its shark nets in 2011 and stopped Brazil from considering the option, even following 11 shark attacks in 1994.

Government reports show that the species of marine life caught and killed in the nets are overwhelmingly “non-target” species, which includes dolphins, turtles, whales and dugongs. In 2011 in NSW, 61% of the marine life killed in the nets was “non-target” species. In 2010, that number was 64%.

Recently, an independent report by Bond University into shark nets found that “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.”

A difficult balancing act

To be clear, there are two sides to every story and it is important to include each perspective. Fisheries scientists work hard every day to protect shark species and reduce shark bites.

Proponents of nets would note that there are numerous ways they try to reduce catching non-target species, such as putting “pingers” on nets to try and keep dolphins and whales away. There are also efforts to limit the mortality of species by checking the nets regularly and taking them down (in NSW) during whale migration months.

In many cases, the total catch from shark nets in a year is the same as a few days by fishery boats off the coast. In addition, researchers collect scientific data from many of the species that are caught.

Shark nets do help prevent shark bites, but endangered species die in the process. Flickr

Finally, proponents of shark nets would note that there have been dramatic reductions in fatal shark bites since the nets were put up in both NSW and Queensland. However, it is also true that better first-responder care, treatment for infections and the use of wetsuits are key factors in increased survival rates from shark bites.

Where to go from here?

The debate on sharks remains unsettled as another summer approaches. We know that there are no simple solutions to shark bites, but all of the data must be available for public consideration. Beach safety is an important issue and serious shark bites do occur.

Yet the public seems willing to engage in a wider debate, with shark hunts and culling off the table, to make room for new options that have clearer benefits and less costs. We need to make beach going as safe as possible, but zero-risk does not exist. This is often why community values offer us a place to look and the path forward.

Join the conversation

35 Comments sorted by

  1. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    Actually, there IS a simple solution to shark bites - accept the fact that if you swim in the ocean, there is a very remote chance that you might encounter a shark, and that if you do so, there is an even more remote chance that it might bite you.

    It's called education. Anyone who thinks the ocean is a benign place where humans can roam without any possible consequences should be disavowed of that at a very early age. And if you are going to venture in, take prudent precautions.

    Sharks are an important component of the ecosystem. Leave them alone.

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    1. will bayley

      holistic health care

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      my personal thoughts are if we can land man on the moon talk instantly with someone across the world dogs ears are sensitive to high pitch noise surely some one can come up with a personal system that repels predators that can be built into a surf board
      aerolyte planes manned by volunteers to watch the popular beach areas in summer there are lots of things that can be done to protect humans in the water
      if the predator is dangerous and close to unaware children in the water kill it
      as a final solution
      I have no problem with sharks My wife and I respect all animals and treat them with the respect and care that they deserve

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    2. Nick Kermode

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to will bayley

      Will you say

      "if the predator is dangerous and close to unaware children in the water kill it"

      then...

      "I have no problem with sharks My wife and I respect all animals and treat them with the respect and care that they deserve"

      I would have though that someone with respect for all animals might have thought that removing the "unaware children" from the animals habitat might be a touch more respectful of the creature than killing it.

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    3. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to will bayley

      There is a system called "Sharkshield" that can repel sharks. I wear one on most of my dives in SA and there are models designed for surfboards.

      But it is reasonably expensive (around $600), and it is not completely effective.

      Aircraft to warn people out of the water when sharks are around is a good idea, and has been used for decades. But killing them - no!

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    4. Stephen Prowse

      Research Advisor at Wound CRC

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      We need to better understand risk and risk management and reject knee-jerk political responses to fatalities stemming from interactions between people and wildlife, be it sharks, crocodiles, snakes or fruit bats. We take greater risks very time we get in a car than we ever take in our interactions with wildlife and these risks can be lowered even further with quite simple mitigation processes. In our affluent society we have moved passed the need to unnecessarily cull wildlife and need to better learn how to value it, live with wildlife and protect biodiversity.

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    5. Adam Britton

      Senior Research Associate at Charles Darwin University

      In reply to Stephen Prowse

      Even more relevant is the risk of shark attack compared with the risk of drowning. There were 284 deaths reporting in a 12 month period from July 2011 to June 2012 (Royal Life Saving Drowning Report), and although only a portion of these (55) were drownings close to beaches (of which an even smaller proportion took place in areas where sharks can be found) people should be far more worried about drowning than being attacked by a shark. Furthermore, both of these can be easily mitigated against by…

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    6. Paul Whyte

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      I wonder what you see as the "not completely effective" part of the shark shield is?

      You do have to turn it on and the last version does only have batteries for 8 hours. It does not work for Wobbles but they only bite if you are silly enough to stand on their head.

      It's dangerous to dive with it turned off and if you see a dangerous shark then turn it on. There have been reports of sharks snapping immediately then swimming off. Since the big sharks that bite like to swim up behind prey it's only the ones you don't see that are a worry.

      But still all those ifs and buts don't really add up to not being effective.

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    7. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Paul Whyte

      Turn it on you say? I must try that next time.

      But seriously, you would be aware that Safework SA has trialled the effectiveness of Sharkshield and found that although it does deter sharks, it would not prevent an attack from a determined shark. And although some people have questioned the findings of the trial – saying that the trial conditions were too extreme – there have also been reports of sharks approaching (but not attacking) divers who were wearing the devices (and had them turned on).

      Sharkshields are a useful tool to improve safety, but as I said, they are not a guarantee against shark attack – just like seatbelts would not guarantee your survival in a car crash. But despite that, I still wear a seatbelt.

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    8. Paul Whyte

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      I'd like to have a read of that report.

      I would expect that sharks would approach a dive with a working shark shield.
      They only start repelling at about 4 meters.

      I had thought that the test on the manufacturers web site was convincing. It has a tuna head with a shark shield imbedded but turned off. A large shark approaches bites the tuna then circles for a second bite but is rapidly repelled as the device is turned on.

      I usually think of humans as not being as tasty as a tuna.

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    9. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Paul Whyte

      A copy of the report is here:
      http://www.supportoursharks.com/en/news/Miscellaneous/Articles/20120618/Huveneers%20et%20al%202012%20-%20Shark%20Shield%20testing_SafeWork%20SA.pdf

      A copy of a news report about divers with sharkshields being approached is here:
      http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/breaking/14605262/divers-circled-by-4-5m-shark/

      I never rely on manufacturers claims in isolation of independent testing, as you might well imagine they have a vested interest in the outcomes.

      But notwithstanding any of that, all I have seen and read indicates that sharkshield is a useful tool, and does improve your safety in the water. But no-one should be under the illusion that it is 100% effective against sharks in all circumstances. But then - I would not believe that for any safety device.

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    10. Paul Whyte

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Thanks for the link. It makes a good read. I think I'll ware my freedom 7 around my waist in future and not my ankle. Some of those great whites really did come in close in those experiments!

      I look forwards to the read of the follow up experiments that test the ability of the freedom 7 to deter against distance!

      I'll do my best not to smell of tuna. ;-)

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    11. Grant Preller

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Paul Whyte

      I have heard quite a few issues and questions relating to the shark shiled...

      First is obviously the price - $600 dollars - ouch! And, certainly down in the Margaret River region, a lack of available stock (at least that was the case the last few times I've checked with our local surf shops).

      Second - they seem to be reasonaly well designed for diving but not so much for surfers (that said, statistically, more surfers get eaten that do recreational divers). Reports are that they are bulky and…

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  2. Brian A Witkin

    logged in via Facebook

    If anyone here wants to fight against the unjustified and unprovoked mass murdering of an endangered species, sign the official petition here: www.SaveGreatWhites.com

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Brian A Witkin

      Plenty of Great Whites in SA at the moment, as well as WA and South Africa. They are already protected here and any culling would only be conducted because there is that many they didn't require the 'saving' your petition page suggests?

      Personally I don't want a cull but I don't want to sign a petition to prevent culling based on the illusion that the great white is endangered.

      Get off your lounge chair and get out into the environment and you will see sharks are far more abundant than the bleeding hearts would have you believe.

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    2. Paul Whyte

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      In 550 dives I have only seen sharks at known shark aggregation areas. I like seeing sharks, they play a vital role in maintaining the health of our fisheries.

      There are very few sharks left. We are poorer as a result.

      The bleeding hearts myth just betrays an ignorance of marine science.

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    3. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Paul Whyte

      I don't know whether you read the South Australian recreational fishing forums Paul? The great white sharks are seen pretty much daily in summer right across the state. More recently...since protection legislation many moons ago....they are sighted at other times of the year as well.

      While there has been a reduction in grey nurse numbers along the east coast of OZ, this is not the same situation elsewhere including other oceans of the world in which the grey nurse shark inhabit.

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    4. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      P.S. Go to WA especially in the North of the state and try and land a fish before a shark bites it in half....not easy!

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    5. Paul Whyte

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      With the explosion in seal numbers they have a job to do.
      There is only a few places in the world where great whites breed. We are lucky to have one close by. They are listed by CITES as vulnerable. That means that numbers are low. If you read about population drops in marine environments you will find that numbers drop first in areas away from breading and aggregation sites. Once numbers drop in the high density sites the species is just about gone every where. So logically numbers found in high…

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    6. Paul Whyte

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      The studies of grey nurse DNA shows that the GNS are very territorial and don't migrate. There is no DNA from the otter areas found in Australia's GNS.

      40 years ago GNS were found up and down the coast.

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    7. Nick Kermode

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Hi Wade.

      Although sighting of great whites has seemed to increase, relying on anecdotal evidence like that can be dangerous, especially when the source is fisherman, many who may have a strong desire or maybe even a commercial interest to see the GWS protection lifted and feel the amazing thrill of fighting and landing big great white once again.
      With that said though it certainly is possible that we do have an increase in GWS shark numbers in parts of our waters. There are, I believe, two possibilities…

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    8. Nick Kermode

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Paul Whyte

      Interestingly Paul even the DNA from Australia's GNS populations don't match. The WA pop and the QLD/NSW pop are genetically different. Tagging has in fact shown that they do travel over some long distances but most certainly do have their own personal favorite spots to aggregate which they return to.

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    9. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Nick Kermode

      Nick, I think you have an old fashioned view of recreational anglers. I don't know of one angler that seeks to land a great white as most are extremely environmentally aware. More aware than the green zealots who seek the biggest no take fishing zones possible through ignorance and hate.

      In SA shark fishers are a small minority who are according to the authorities, extremely law abiding and careful despite the claims of local green groups.

      I bet there are plenty of untagged GNS that have likely never been included in recent studies? I suspect that while there has been localised depletion on some known aggregation sites, the GNS have moved on due to competition with increasing seal numbers/climate change altering water temps etc.

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    10. Nick Kermode

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Hi Wade, I don't really have any view of recreational anglers. I used to be one of them, but ever since becoming a serious diver I have enjoyed the adrenaline and excitement of the type of interaction with marine animals that diving brings and can no longer bring myself to fish recreationaly. I prefer to get in there with them now. Still, I don't mind to catch dinner while camping or on a live aboard though, and am not judgemental toward rec fisherman. My guess above was merely to point out that…

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    11. Grant Preller

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Paul Whyte

      Just because CITES says they are vulnerable doesnt mean they are - scientists have very, very little understanding about Great Whites at all.

      Anecdotal stories by water users overwhelmingly indicate that there are way more shark sightings than there were in the past. More sharks the water or are sharks less scared around humans? Eitherway, something has changed in the last 5 - 10 years.

      With regards to the apex predator argument... I just cannot see how a great white is realistically going to make any significant difference to seal numbers. It seems akin to keeping lions in a game park to keep the herds of impala in check. I'm obviously missing a piece of logic from this argument which I would love someone to explain :)

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  3. Wade Macdonald

    Technician

    A topic worth mentioning here for sure....

    The beach nets provide a physical barrier albeit a potencially lethal one to many marine animals. It is a balance issue for us humans and this can only be achieved through using all available technologies that minimise potencial deadly interactions.

    There is however acoustic tagging programs as well. Acoustic beacons are now being set up along our coastlines that detect acoustic tagged sharks. While not all sharks will be tagged prior to entering populated beaches and rock ledges it is another tool that can be used to minimise deadly attacks. A pager alert is sent to local authorities and surf life saving clubs once a shark is detected.

    A good example of this can be found on this great program below. Go to the 18 minute mark ofthe video to get straight to the subject matter.

    Hope this helps....

    http://www.abc.net.au/tv/greatsouthernland/episodes/ep02.htm

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    1. Paul Whyte

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      If you had dived the beach nets you would not be so impressed by them. They are never very long and only are about 4 meters heigh in 15 meters of water.

      Half the large sharks caught by them are caught on the inside of the net.

      The shark bite at Bondi beach in Sydney some years ago was when the nets were in place.

      The nets mostly catch southern eagle rays which I find quite beautiful creatures. I've pulled 10 of them alive from the nets and one that was dead. When the nets have tangled a…

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  4. Suzanne Cass

    Management Consultant and Paralegal

    While there are livestock carriers entering and leaving Australian ports - particularly in Western Australia - expect shark attacks. All the attacks over recent years have been linked to the arrival and departure of one or more of these ships, which throw dead and dying animals (especially sheep) over the side, or alternatively into an on-board macerator which sprays the remains of the animnvite Aals into the sea.

    Sharks are an intelligent species who come to know and recognise these ships and can follow them for hundreds of miles - and they have become used to the steady diet coming their way. The livestock export industry can deny this all they like - but we invite CEO Alison enfold, right here, right now, to take a dip as one of these ships leaves Fremantle

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Suzanne Cass

      Suzanne, it appears as though you have a problem with live exports and are using this article for 'alternative' purposes?

      The migration of snapper into SA's gulfs brings in the sharks every summer just as the baitfish schools along the east and west coasts do every year as well. Then there is the exploding NZ fur seal populations across this countries southern coastline. If the livestock trade ships were the reason for increased shark attacks on humans then why do the natural migrations/changes in seal numbers etc still bring in the sharks?

      Surely they would be sitting in wait within ship ports and harbours not chasing snapper/seals and baitfish schools along inshore beaches and rock ledges where most people get bitten?

      I have spent more days surfing,fishing and diving than I care to remember andI know where the large sharks go for food. Livestock ships would just be an opportunistic free meal but never a complete migrational change of natural predation as you suggest.

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  5. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    I love the idea of a shark cull. While we're at it, lets have a bee cull, a lightning strike cull, a power tool cull, a drowning cull, a driving cull.....

    Imagine the difference we made if we killed all the bees, it would be much more effective at controlling deaths in Australia than a shark cull. Imagine if we banned lightning, another more threatening menace than sharks. But the real killer lurks among us, haunting our every waking moment: driving. If we just converted speed cameras into speed canons, so that bad drivers were blown off the face of the planet, we'd have 1000x the impact as a shark cull.

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  6. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

    With the concept of "balance" mentioned by both the article and in the comments, I thought it might be salient to mention the following pair of statistics.

    Humans killed by sharks each year globally: 5-10.

    Sharks killed by humans each year: 30-80 million.

    Shark attacks are a tragedy, but let's not lose sight of the bigger picture here. Sharks are apex predators whose numbers have been decimated worldwide over the last six decades and their outright slaughter (driven primarily by the practice of finning for shark fin soup) continues apace. Many shark species have declined by 90-99% since WWII. Their protection is crucial for the health of marine ecosystems.

    Sharks are older than the dinosaurs but on current trends, they now face their largest ever threat to survival: us.

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    1. Paul Whyte

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Byron Smith

      I think that the main tragedy is those silly sods who get them selves bitten by sharks when protection has been on the market at a low cost ($600) for many years.

      The shark shield sales are well over 10,000 units but still most surfers and divers don't use them.

      The police and military divers have them as part of their kit.

      Still most dive operators and surfers don't use them. Just short sightedness by my way of thinking.

      It's just a shame that the hot heads who want to hunt sharks in WA have a hot headed Government in power that lets them.

      I agree with you about the value of sharks and the desirability of keeping them on the planet.

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    2. Peter Gerard

      Retired medical practitioner

      In reply to Byron Smith

      A great comment that puts the shark versus human conflict into perspective.
      One thing I find very heartening and to some extent unexpected, is the response of parents and friends, when a surfer is killed by a shark. In most instances that I can recall, they express the opinion that their son or friend would not have wanted the shark hunted down and killed.

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  7. Jonathan Captanis

    logged in via Facebook

    The majority of shark bites are preventable. unfortunately, people who are bitten often arnt aware it isnt good to go swimming at dusk/dawn and/or when weather conditions provide for poor visibility in active shark areas. spearfishing and other activities that turn ocean users into live bait are well, stupid to say the least, and like sky diving should be better regulated with compulsory education/courses.

    of course there will always be a case that occurs outside of these parameters, but thats just the risk of the ocean.

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  8. John Brady

    logged in via Facebook

    Biased article warning. In Neff's section titled "How effective are nets?", he selectively quotes from section 2.6.2 of http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/276029/Report-into-the-NSW-Shark-Meshing-Program.pdf
    I suggest readers inform themselves from the primary source, because yet again Neff has been cluttering the Conversation with misleading information. Especially note the "Fatal" column in Table 6, which may reflect the netting of larger sharks.

    An alternative quote from section 2.6.2:
    "The overall number of attacks was the same (61) in the 37 years before and after the SMP, but the number of attacks at meshed beaches was reduced by 62%."

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