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WA Shark Frenzy: How to stop a Runaway Train

Cottesloe, WA, 10 am. Several thousand people gather, for the second time, at Cottesloe beach, the electoral district of WA Premier, and Science Minister, Collin Barnett. The goal, to complain about the shark cull policy established by the Premier.

At the same time, the media reported on one tiger shark found dead on a drum line. Two other sharks, below the culling threshold of 3 m, were released offshore, and a third tiger shark, just over the threshold, were killed over the past week.

The issue of shark attacks has gained the momentum of a runaway train. Every single statement in support of his policy by the Premier and every single rally by the opposed activists adds fuel to the train, which now seems unstoppable.

A number of reasonable and effective measures had been deployed by the Western Australian government until November 2013, including helicopters watching for sharks in the most popular beaches; a tagging program matched with the development of an impressive acoustic array to detect tagged sharks and report their positions to the public through Twitter; a research program to deliver new technologies and strategies to mitigate attacks; and a campaign to inform citizens using the ocean on best practices of self-protection and management of their risks. All of these are intelligent actions, but none of them represent a silver bullet that will halt attacks. Hence, one more attack in November 2013, triggered the announcement of a policy all scientists had advised against: a cull on sharks.

Protesters are blamed of being disrespectful to the sorrow and pain of victims’ families and of the fate of future potential victims. However, even some victims that have survived attacks and family members of victims of fatal attacks do not support the cull policy, as they understand this is an irrational measure of revenge that does not make anyone safer and does not quench the pain of their losses.

Despite holding the portfolio as Science Minister in the Western Australian government, Premier Barnett has entrenched himself, against all advice from scientists, in a shark cull policy that is not supported by any prior experience elsewhere or any scientific evidence.

Indeed, arguments by scientists pointing at no evidence of increased attacks or rising shark numbers or shifting behaviour, and discussing possible effective actions and alternatives to culling have been thoroughly reported. As an example, The Conversation records over 36 analyses, comments and research briefs, most over the past year, on this topic.

Hence, the current controversy is not about lack of scientific evidence or lack of efforts to communicate the evidence, it is about social dynamics and the complex feedback between the forces of fear, mass communication, public emotions and political survival that are fuelling the runaway train of shark mitigation policies.

This is an ugly landscape where we all lose and is providing an embarrassing show of global proportions. The debate gets attention in main international media, such as BBC and The Economist, and top international journals, such as Nature. This is impacting on the reputation of Western Australia shifting from one privileged region of wealthy, civilised and informed citizens, into one of misinformed, blood-thirsty citizens and leaders driven by revenge and disregard for scientific evidence.

Two generations have been traumatised by now from the fear generated by Spielberg’s “Jaws” and its many sequels. Fear is one of the great allies of the media, as fear can hypnotise the public and drive them into blind consumption of headlines.

Arguably, it is only the media that wins with all this noise, and not surprisingly, it is the media who have added fuel to the train until it reached its present runaway pace. The festival has spread well beyond the local media as global mass media have flocked to Western Australia to produce documentaries with revealing titles. There’s National Geographic’s “Australia’s Deadliest: Shark Coast”, whose summary reads “WA’s pristine coastline has been ravaged by a deadly predator…” or our own ABC’s “The Search for the Ocean’s Super-Predator”, which summary starts “In the depths of Australia’s Southern Ocean a Great White Shark is savagely attacked by a far larger mystery predator…”.

Shark biologists at the UWA Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia now live from sunrise to sunset amidst a forest of microphones and cameras in front of their faces in search of a slip of attention that can be turned into one more headline or statement in a yet scarier documentary.

Over the summer of 2011/2012 the media distorted the statistics, which at seven fatal attacks in three years in Western Australia show no evidence of increase in attacks, to created hype around sharks. First by triggering alarm on a fictional increase in attacks and shark numbers and then by bringing those that complained that government actions were ineffective to the spotlight on the emotional surge following each attack.

The only certainty in this ugly issue is that attacks will continue to occur, and emotion levels, anger and pain will rise again. While waiting for the next attack the media offers plenty of headline space to fuel arguments between Premier Barnett and the few who support his cull policy and the protesters that oppose it.

Once politicians adopt defence policies such as netting, widespread in the eastern states, or culling, they become hostage to these policies. Regardless of how ineffective they are demonstrated to be and their many adverse consequences, such as impacts on non-targeted endangered fauna, the removal of these policies by the government will render it liable to legal actions from families of victims of subsequent attacks.

So, how do we stop this runaway train? I suggest the following actions should align to provide the conditions for all involved to return to a reflective, intelligent stand:

Bring scientific evidence back to the forefront in guiding policies and the public debate.

Encourage and support political leaders that have the courage to abandon ineffective policies, such as shark culling.

Learn from experiences elsewhere by hosting an international conference on “Managing human-shark interactions”.

Manage public emotions: engage social psychologists into providing advice on the management of fear of sharks and build educational programs into school education that undo the great damage that “Jaws” had on people.

Hold workshops on positive reporting for journalists and reporters.

Develop counselling programs for family members of victims to shark attacks.

Catalyse scientific and technological developments that may mitigate shark attacks with little or no impact, by continuing to support existing programs and have an open international call to fund the best new ideas.

Allow the debate on shark attacks to deflate below the headline level of the media: this is likely to occur during the coming winter, when a sharp reduction in the citizens that use the oceans may lead to a prolonged silence in the media around this issue.

Promote a dialogue between all parties in the controversy to find common ground and a set of principles and actions agreed upon by all parties. A model format can be the “Ocean Solutions Dialogues” of the Oceans Institute at UWA, which brings together government, industry, citizen groups and other stakeholders and scientists to discuss issues in the marine environment with a focus on solutions. These Dialogues are run under Chatham House rules, with no report to the media.

Any additional media hype following a subsequent fatality, a third demonstration, or one more shark culled would be evidence of collective failure of a society composed of citizens known and respected for their passion for the ocean, their kindness and their respect and appreciation for science.

Sharks Protest at Cottesloe Beach, Perth, WA. Photo by Sean Comiskey

Sharks Protest at Cottesloe Beach, Perth, WA. Photo by Sean Comiskey

Sharks Protest at Cottesloe Beach, Perth, WA. Photo by Sean Comiskey