After the recent shark attacks in Australia, is a shark cull in order?

shark-cullOn Saturday November 30, 2013, 19-year-old Zac Young was surfing with three friends at The Well, a widely-known surf break around 600 feet off Sapphire Beach, north of Sydney. A 10-foot tiger shark, one of a species that is among the top three predatory sharks, appeared beneath them and savaged the teenager. Young fought the shark off, but not before if had bitten off his legs. As his friends paddled with him to the beach, Young exclaimed, “’I love you, I love you guys so much.” One friend, 14-year-old Lindsy Isaac, called this shark attack the “scariest” experience of his life. Having lost much blood, Young suffered a fatal heart attack. Isaac was extremely sorrowful: ”He was just so unique and he was just the one-off guy … You just can’t describe it. I just can’t believe he’s gone.”

The previous Saturday, Chris Boyd, 35, was attacked by what was believed to have been a great white shark while surfing at Umbies, a popular break off Gracetown in southwest Western Australia. The shark held him for around one minute, leaving him dead and missing his left arm and a segment of his right leg. He had moved to Western Australia to surf. Aaron Bradley, chaplain of the Coolum Boardriders Club, asseverated, “He was a joyful and fun person to be around and a lot of the younger people looked up to him as a role model at the club.”

Does Australia need a shark cull?

How many shark attacks are there in Australia?

Shark attacks in Australia are rare. The have been two in the area of Sapphire Beach in 150 years of settlement, while only three surfers have died near Gracetown over the last decade. Sharks have killed people around Australia only 18 times in the last 215 years. In 2011, Dr John G West, curator of the Australian Shark Attack File, published a scientific paper showing that shark attacks in Australia had risen from around 6.5 incidents – not fatalities – from 1990 to 2000 to 15 incidents a year now. While there are, on average, 87 drownings a year in Australian waters, some have decided that a shark cull is the best course of action.

Death to sharks!

Various politicos commented after the recent shark attacks in Australia. Troy Buswell, the Treasurer and Fisheries Minister, announced that the government would review its practice of only culling sharks that killed humans or were imminent risks. Colin Barnett, the premier of Western Australia, proclaimed that the public was demanding that sharks be destroyed, and that he agreed. The federal government would have to approve as the great white shark is a protected species. Killing great whites is permissible if the shark represents “imminent danger,” and Barnett suggested that it could be worthwhile to “widen” this definition. The Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, complained that shark attacks in Australia negatively impacted tourism and said she was pleased that the government was “putting all options on the table.”

Tom Innes, the president of the Margaret River Boardriders Club, advocated culling of sharks more than 10 feet long because there were now too many great whites close to the shores of Australia. Norman Moore, the former Fisheries Minister, conceded in a television interview that a rise in the great white population was a possibility, and that certainty could be brought much closer through observing the number of whales and seals in an area – seals are eaten by great whites, and as a result of conservation efforts their numbers have increased at Cape Code in Massachusetts, attracting more great whites. Dr. West, on the other hand, does not believe that an increase in shark numbers is responsible for the rise in shark attacks in Australia. Instead, he claims, it’s because more people are visiting beaches, more are interested in watersports and previously isolated stretches of coast are becoming accessible. Another factor is that surfing and swimming have become more of an all-year-round activity thanks to improved wetsuits and boards.

Or perhaps not

The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was also calmer, calling the issue of shark culling “vexed”. He pointed out that it would be difficult to find “the guilty one.” He warned that there were always “some risks” when entering the sea, which Australians are estimated to do 100 million times a year. In the sea, it’s possible to drown, be hit by an object or suffer hypothermia, and that’s assuming you aren’t killed in a car accident on the way to the beach. Christopher Neff of the University of Sydney, a shark expert, declared that culling provides “emotional relief” and demonstrates that a government is taking action against shark attacks in Australia, but evidence had shown that it doesn’t work.

Dr Bob Hueter, director of the Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, Florida, bewailed that two incidents do not make a trend. He added that killing sharks had never offered a solution, and that the answer was to manage people’s behaviour: beaches should be closed at certain times and people in the sea shouldn’t wear shiny jewellery that can resemble a shoal of fish when it reflects light. Another countermeasure is to not swim at night or in twilight because that’s when sharks feed, and sharks rely less on vision in these conditions. Furthermore, swimming at night makes you stand out much more, raising the risk of shark attack considerably.

Sharks hover on the brink of extinction, with 73 million killed every year. Recent studies have shown that eliminating sharks causes fisheries to collapse and the death of coral reefs. Australia is lucky to have sharks in its waters.

About the Author Timothy Chilman

Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”

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