Monday, October 24, 2011

Western Australia's White Sharks: recent fatal encounters bring calls for shark witch hunts

With three fatal encounters with white sharks occurring in just the past few weeks, officials in Western Australia (WA) are reacting, or shall I say overreacting, by suggesting that efforts get underway to catch and kill the shark or sharks responsible.

In the end, this is nothing more than a political attempt to appease the public, to show that the government is doing something to ensure the safety of its citizenry. If Australian officials want to do something that is realistic, you close the beaches, do a shark survey of the area which includes tagging so as to better understand where local white sharks are traveling. And you re-educate, reinforce in the minds of the public that these waters do not belong to mankind; they belong to the animals that normally inhabit them. Man is the intruder, not the sharks.

As reported in the Science Network/Western Australia, shark experts are making their opinions known about any wholesale taking, or culling, of sharks.
"WA Premiers Research Fellow and Professor of Neuroecology in the School of Animal Biology and UWA Oceans Institute, Professor Shaun Collin says the culling of any species of sharks is not the solution. 'Not only will this be indiscriminate killing of a protected Australian species (under both the EPBC Act and state legislation), there is no way of being sure the sharks caught will be those responsible for the attacks.'"

"Shark Ecologist within the Marine and Ecology Program at the South Australian Research and Development Institute Dr Charlie Huveneers says shark attacks are still very rare events with a low probability of occurrence. 'There is no scientific evidence to suggest that the short time period between the recent attacks is a reflection of an increased population of [great white] sharks,' Dr Huveneers says."
The office for the Minister of Fisheries has reported that while the great white shark is protected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999, there is an exemption for the killing of a shark if a human life is in danger.

But one has to examine the actual application of such an exemption. Does it refer to defending a human who is about to be bitten or has just been bitten by a shark and, therefore, it becomes more a case of immediate self-defense? Or does it get broadly applied as a perverse preventative measure: mankind versus the shark, who has the greater right to be there in the ocean? Man?

It all seems to be taken right out of the script for Jaws: an incident followed by public outcry and officials trying to appear as if they are doing something to make the beaches safe once again.

“It sounds a little bit like taking revenge, and we’re talking about an endangered species,” said marine zoologist and shark researcher Barbara Weuringer of the University of Western Australia.

However, unlike the Hollywood movie, there isn't a shark swimming in the waters off Australia with a taste for human blood. While that can be said of rare documented experiences with other land predators like lions or bears, thereby necessitating the removal of that particular animal; it is not the case with sharks - ever.

Hopefully, shark experts will be able to have sufficient influence with government officials, so that some ridiculous oceanic witch hunt does not transpire. What has occurred in Western Australia is a statistical anomaly - to be sure, a tragic one - but an anomaly nonetheless. And tracking down and killing numbers of white sharks may, perhaps, quell any public outcry, but by no means will it guarantee that there won't be another shark-human interaction tomorrow.

If you would like to make your opposition to any shark culling in Western Australia brought to the attention of officials of the Australian fisheries department, David Shiffman of the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami, brought to my attention a petition site. Click here to visit the website.

Read about scientific opposition to shark culling in the Science Network/Western Australia.
Read more about the recent fatal shark encounters in Western Australia in The Washington Post.
Visit the Care2 petition website.

No comments: