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WA shark cull season ends, and ocean users don’t want it to return

The end of April marks the end of Western Australia’s shark cull – for now at least. Since January 25, dozens of sharks (the WA government has not yet released official figures) have been killed off popular…

Wave of protest: surfers were among thousands who rallied at Cottesloe Beach against the Barnett government’s shark cull. AAP Image/Theron Kirkman

The end of April marks the end of Western Australia’s shark cull – for now at least. Since January 25, dozens of sharks (the WA government has not yet released official figures) have been killed off popular beaches in Perth and the state’s southwestern tip.

The WA government remains committed to the plan, having asked the Environmental Protection Authority for permission to carry on killing great white, tiger and bull sharks longer than 3m between November and April for the next three years.

Yet our research shows that most surfers, divers and other ocean users don’t want the cull to continue. Instead, people favour improved education and ocean monitoring, and wider acceptance of the risks associated with ocean use.

Fierce protest

The state’s drum line project is part of a broader shark hazard mitigation strategy, devised in the wake of several deaths attributed to sharks over the past three years.

But the strategy – and particularly the use of drum lines – has sparked fierce protest in WA, as well as across Australia and right around the world.

Some 4000 people rallied at Perth’s Cottesloe Beach in January, while a nationwide series of demonstrations on February 1 drew about 6000 people to Cottesloe, with an estimated 2000 in Sydney and thousands more elsewhere.

Scientists around the world have spoken out about the unproven effectiveness of the approach and the toll on marine ecosystems of removing high-level predators.

Even relatives and friends of those killed and injured by sharks have joined the campaign against the cull.

Ocean-goers regularly meet sharks…

Many people have a view on the shark cull. Our research is focused on people who spend lots of time in or on the ocean, and are therefore the most likely people to encounter sharks.

As part of an ongoing project we carried out an online survey of 557 WA ocean users, including surfers, board-riders, divers, snorkellers, swimmers, paddlers, fishers and surf lifesavers.

Our survey asked questions around four themes: people’s ocean use; whether they have encountered sharks; their attitudes and practices towards using the ocean given the existence of sharks; and their views on shark management and shark hazard reduction.

The results show that ocean users regularly see sharks. Of the respondents who answered this question, 69% had encountered a shark while undertaking ocean activities. “Encounter” here includes spotting from a distance, seeing at close range, and in some instances even physical contact. The range of species is broad, but includes the three target species. Of the 258 respondents who could confidently identify the species they met, 54% reported encounters with tiger sharks, 23% with white sharks, and 20% with bull sharks.

What’s more, most of these shark encounters – including with the three species considered to pose potential danger to people – passed off without incident or injury. In other words, the presence of sharks does not necessarily equate to danger to people.

…but still oppose killing

The majority of respondents oppose hazard-reduction strategies that involve killing sharks. From a list of strategies we compiled from the WA government, marine scientists, ocean-user groups and the media, the most strongly opposed strategies were (in order):

  • baited drum lines

  • culling species identified as posing a threat to humans

  • wider use of shark nets

In contrast, the most strongly supported strategies were:

  • improving public education about sharks

  • encouraging ocean users to accepts the risks

  • increasing warning systems

The WA government’s cull is thus in direct opposition to the preferences of the majority of ocean users.

Importantly, the most strongly supported strategies relate to improving understanding and awareness of sharks, and people altering their own behaviour and practices in the ocean.

What next for Australian shark management?

As the debate continues, and the environmental impact assessment process begins, we argue that the experiences and views of ocean users provides an important source of information and should be taken into account.

Further, these and related findings should inform a new discussion about how we manage shark hazard in other parts of the country, such as Queensland and New South Wales, where kill-based strategies have been in place for decades.

Our ongoing work shows that people who use the ocean regularly are strongly supportive of learning more about shark behaviour and ecology through further research. To avoid unwanted encounters, many people pay careful attention to ocean conditions, avoiding times when visibility is poor and staying away from places where food sources are present, like seal colonies and schools of bait fish.

A better public understanding of sharks' migration, breeding and feeding patterns will help ocean users and beachgoers to feel more confident doing the things they love: being in the water.

Join the conversation

45 Comments sorted by

  1. Rochelle Vincent

    Researcher and Thinker at A Life of Contradictions

    Australia is supposed to be a democracy. If the politicians aren't listening to the people, where is the democracy? I feel so powerless when I see so much public opposition to something and the politicians just ignore the people.

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    1. Edwina Laginestra
      Edwina Laginestra is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Jack of all trades

      In reply to Rochelle Vincent

      I agree Rochelle
      So many issues that a majority of Australians support (according to the polls) - leaving sharks alone, euthanasia, gay marriage - and these views are simply ignored in our parliaments.
      Many politicians do not support their constituency at all (party first? or themselves? or other business interests?). It does not seem to matter that scientific evidence does not support their stance.
      I would love to see more passionate people stand for parliament but it seems you need the backing of someone rich or powerful.
      I really dislike listening to someone tow the party line and avoid answering a question directly.

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  2. Rohan McDowall

    Industrial Chemist

    I heard that falling coconuts kill more people per year than sharks. What I want to know is, what are we doing about the coconuts??

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    1. Craig Miller

      Environmental Consultant

      In reply to Rohan McDowall

      Apparently cattle kill more people per year than sharks kill people. Eat more beef, people.

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    2. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Craig Miller

      And horses kill even more people. Has anyone thought of culling motor vehicles, the number one killer of people all over the world?

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  3. Margaret Rose STRINGER

    logged in via email @iinet.net.au

    Just another example of a government considering itself above the hoi polloi of its constituents. Here's hoping said constituents will let it know what they think come next election. But knowing WA's predilection for all things right wing, I doubt that will happen, alas !

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    1. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Margaret Rose STRINGER

      "knowing WA's predilection for all things right wing"

      So Margaret, which of the socialist states of Australia are you comparing us to? WA alternates between ALP and Coalition governments much as the other states do. We send our two Greens representatives to the Senate and have Greens members in the state parliament.

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    2. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Brad, the whole country has become more economically conservative.

      I regard the Barnett government as the best state government in my lifetime (that's not saying much). I can't think of any other government that spent as much on health and education as the Barnett government. In a time of economic uncertainty, their big spend on job-creating infrastructure projects, is also welcome.

      Perhaps the size of Barnett and Abbott's wins reflects more on the performance of the ALP than any real enthusiam for the Coalition's ideology.

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    3. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Russell,

      I agree that "the size of Barnett and Abbott's wins reflects more on the performance of the ALP than any real enthusiam for the Coalition's ideology."

      But that doesn't detract from the fact that WA has become much more right wing leaning in my lifetime relative to the other states and territories. Perhaps this reflects the ideologies of those that have moved here from over east?

      I would also strongly disagree with you when you claim that "the Barnett government as the best state government in my lifetime". The taxpayer money they have and are spending unwisely on Elizabeth quay and the new stadium would have been much more productively spent on health, education etc rather than the cuts that we have recently seen (cutting teachers aids and other support staff etc).

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    4. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Brad, you've got to be kidding - WA has become more right-wing than Queensland under Campbell Newman? The Northern Territory's policies on alcohol abuse are a bit beyond us too.

      You can't dispute that the Barnett has spent much, much more on health and education than previous ALP governments; the recent tiny cuts, which I mostly disagree with, have to be seen in the perspective of how much they've poured into education. You'll remember that the ALP went to the 08 election in dispute with teachers…

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    5. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Russell,

      We are talking about the public in general not particular government policies in the different states and territories. The fact that last year WA gave the federal coalition 12 of the 15 lower house seats pretty much sums it up (did any other state or territory give them such a big majority?).

      Part of what is going in WA is that the public thinks that they are more left leaning than they actually are and, like you, think the Liberal party is more centrist than it actually is.

      "Strangely…

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    6. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Brad, when I say the Barnett government is middle-of-the-road I back it up: they have spent more than any other on health and education (traditionally thought of as ALP concerns), created jobs with their infrastructure spending, paid their employees well (teachers, nurses, police, public servants). It's not hard to see where they could be - just remember the Richard Court liberal government, that certainly wasn't middle-of-the-road.

      Barnett has also made a really good native title settlement offer…

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    7. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Russell,

      I guess we will have to agree to disagree. I don't think your evidence shows that the Barnett government is "middle-of-the-road" and anyway that wasn't the point we were originally discussing which was whether "the Barnett government as the best state government in my lifetime". Shifting the goal posts.

      There are plenty of Noongar people that would disagree with you about "Barnett has also made a really good native title settlement offer" just as there there are plenty of workers who…

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    8. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Brad, some people are never happy. Fortunately for me, I'm reasonably happy because the better of two alternatives is in place. I'll ask you again - compared to the Court government with its obession with union busting, or the Qld Newman government, or Tony Abbott's government - wouldn't you say that Barnett is middle-of-the road. I would.

      We'll see if the Noongars accept the offer - my impression is that a majority want to accept. All workers would like more money (and I was a union delegate…

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    9. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Thanks but I have seen enough of the antics in state parliament to know that most of them act like children rather responsible adults.

      Comparing one bad government to worse ones doesn't make the current one a good one.

      You really are a one-eyed Barnett supporter aren't you. Most reasonable people realise that having a new hospital sitting dormant well past its scheduled opening date because of a failure of organisation and planning is a massive and financially costly mismanagement by government…

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    10. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Brad - as I said, you have to read the news like the Chinese read The People's Daily. Look at your quote - who is that committee Chairman? Oh, it's one of the disaffected Liberals who, like Rob Johnson, was relieved of his ministry, and is happy to attack Barnett/the government at any opportunity. Not very nice, but that's politics - it happens in both parties.

      I expect ministers to take the best advice, in Muja's case, the advice he got from Western Power, unfortunately they stuffed up.

      Sinking the railway lines is a good idea (I would have extended it maybe as far as Subi), and Elizabeth Quay a bad idea, but both parties agree on those projects - once again, I certainly don't see this government as perfect, just the best we've had for a long time.

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    11. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Russel - So no evidence to dispute the claims of gross mismanagement? Ad hom attacks on the authors of reports and blaming poor decisions on others (who honestly thought Muja was ever a good idea?) really doesn't cut it in my book. It is plain for all to see the mismanagement of these projects by the Barnett government.

      Where is the cost/benefit analysis for any of these projects?

      You can continue to defend mismanagement and wasteful projects if you like but you are sounding like one of the ubiquitous rusted on Liberal supporters who refuse to see the many failings of those they support.

      Like I said - we will have to agree to disagree (this is all way off topic of the article anyway).

      Regards,
      Brad

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    12. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Brad - the National Commission of Audit has just produced a report - what do you think that is worth? Please look at who produced a report before you take it seriously.

      I have never voted Liberal in my life; was originally ALP, have been Greens for the last 30 years (doesn't mean I like sharks, but).

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    13. Margaret Rose STRINGER

      logged in via email @iinet.net.au

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      It's WA's isolationism (forced on it, I admit) that causes it to lean to the right. I was born in Perth and I lived there till I was 21. Those with whom I'm regularly in touch are, without exception, right-wing voters. Your media support this impression. I don't accept your statement that WA 'alternates' between Liberals and Labor just as the rest of the country does; but I never wanted to set out on this comparison thing in the first place.

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    14. Margaret Rose STRINGER

      logged in via email @iinet.net.au

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      I refer to the many years I spent there while being born and growing up, and the attitude of everyone around me during that time.

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  4. Geoffrey Freeman

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    If you're not prepared to take the (very small) risk of being attacked by a shark, don't swim or surf in the ocean. It's not difficult. There can be no justification for killing animals when they are merely doing what nature intended in their own habitat. Politicians should lead in the light of science and philosophy and not pander to the ignorant and prejudiced.

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  5. Russell Hamilton

    Librarian

    "As part of an ongoing project we carried out an online survey ...."

    How much validity does that have?

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    1. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Nope, but I'm not an academic writing about my 'research' ... which was some kind of online survey - we're not told what this survey consisted of, how it was done, or anything that would make us take any serious notice of it.

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    2. Emily Lester

      Student

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      I imagine that the details of the survey will be included in the forthcoming paper they referenced at the end of the article.

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    3. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Emily Lester

      Hi Emily,

      Possibly, but there have been several surveys of opinion done on this topic, one by the government itself, which have all shown the policy as unpopular, and it would have strengthened the authors' case to have cited those .... did their research include looking for other surveys?

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    4. Leah Gibbs

      Lecturer in Geography at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Hi Russell, Emily and Brad

      Thanks for your interest in our research. We do indeed include details of the survey method in the published paper (which will be available online in the next day or two). Yes, we are aware of the other surveys that have been conducted on the topic recently. Each survey will inevitably have a slightly different target audience and respondents. But interestingly, as you say, they all point to a lack of support for the new policy. This is telling us something important…

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    5. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Leah Gibbs

      Hi Leah,

      Thanks for your response. As you probably sensed, I swim every day and am not particularly fussed by the policy. But please tell me why, when, as you write, other states have had similar policies for ages, there has been this huge campaign against this W.A. trial?

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    6. Leah Gibbs

      Lecturer in Geography at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      It's a really good question, Russell. I think the answer is possibly that the drumlines in QLD date back to the 1960s and shark netting in NSW to the 1930s. The attitudes of many Australians, and people in other parts of the world as well, have changed a great deal since then. We've learnt a lot about the impacts our actions have on environments. In addition, fish stocks have been significantly depleted, and species including white sharks have been recognised by international authorities as vulnerable to extinction. So a lot of different things have changed, and I think the use of drumlines and nets on the east coast has slipped under the radar of public awareness. Recent events in WA present a great opportunity for us to learn and rethink the way we manage shark-related hazards in other parts of the country. I hope we take this opportunity.

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    7. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Leah Gibbs

      Yes Leah, a lot of that is true. Odd though that groups spending such a lot of effort whipping up international campaigns against the WA government remained unaware of what goes on along the Queensland and NSW coasts .....

      It's a pity too because the one thing this state government doesn't react well to is criticism that it perceives as unfair. A different approach might have achieved a lot more.

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    8. Nick Kermode

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      "Odd though that groups spending such a lot of effort whipping up international campaigns against the WA government remained unaware of what goes on along the Queensland and NSW coasts"

      Such as?

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    9. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Nick Kermode

      Nick, I was referring to where the authors write: "should inform a new discussion about how we manage shark hazard in other parts of the country, such as Queensland and New South Wales, where kill-based strategies have been in place for decades"

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    10. Nick Kermode

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      I realise that. Which groups are unaware of what goes on in QLD and NSW though?

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    11. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Nick Kermode

      Presumably all the ones that made such a fuss about WA, but haven't done the same to NSW and Qld.

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    12. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Nick Kermode

      Nick, if you have been following this issue at all you would have seen the contributions made by The Greens, Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd and other groups. Would you like to point us to where they have flung themselves into campaigning against similar policies in other states?

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    13. Nick Kermode

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      1. Shifting the goal posts is not a way to defend your argument. Ie: "remain unaware" and "flung themselves" are far from the same.
      2. You should also be careful about your starting assumptions, they are way off the mark.
      3. Not here to educate you, a few minutes searching all by yourself will tell you that you are far from correct to say any of the above groups are "unaware" what is going on.

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    14. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Nick Kermode

      Come off it Nick. Please tell us how these groups have staged demonstrations and campaigns against the shark kill policies of those other states.

      It's a perfectly valid question to ask, as Leah acknowledged, why there as been all this animus against the WA government, but not against those other governments?

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    15. Nick Kermode

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Unaware: Having no knowledge of a situation or fact.

      Do you honestly believe Sea Shepherd, The Greens, AMCS etc don't know that QLD and NSW have shark control programs?
      So "come off it" Russell, you made the statement, the burden of proof is on you. Again, "please tell us how these groups" are "unaware" of what goes on in QLD and NSW. This is the point I took issue with. Not staging demonstrations and campaigns (they do)_is not_ the same as being "unaware". You moved the goal posts from this…

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    16. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Nick Kermode

      Nick, I can't help with your comprehension issues, so just in relation to your answer to my question, why WA?, that "It is simply a tactical approach ...." I can only suggest that an approach that aims to get a government to very publicly back down isn't the way I would have approached it - and it hasn't worked so far.

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    17. Nick Kermode

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      I think I can comprehend your paragraph thanks Russell. You said they "remain unaware" which is obviously ridiculous and rather than admit it is wrong you dodged it for a couple of posts then insulted my intelligence. All you have are dodges, strawmen and more questions totally unrelated to what I picked you up on (which I already answered), so I will leave it there.
      Thanks.

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    18. Nick Kermode

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Nick Kermode

      PS If you are happy to admit you were wrong then we have a common starting ground and am happy to answer questions and continue the discussion.

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  6. Neil Gibbs

    Senior Engineer

    Thank you Leah and Andrew for scientifically researching this issue. It is only with true data that we can dispel myth. It is very encouraging to find out that normal human beings can actually see through the smoke and mirrors, while our “leaders” often have difficulty. It is certainly not a good omen that the EPA is headed by people who seem to believe that it is OK to indiscriminately kill our fellow life forms without regard to considering whether the killing actually achieves anything, especially when these people are charged with “environmental protection”. The planet Earth is home to a vast array of creatures, one of which happens to be us. We all have a place in the web of life. As an ocean user myself, it is very sad that people are being killed by sharks and we need to find a way to minimize the instances of this, but a different approach is clearly needed.
    Neil Gibbs, Carlsbad California

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