Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sharks At Risk In Australia: tagged sharks may be victims of Western Australia hysteria

Researchers in Australia are trying their best to foster calm and rational thinking in the wake of five fatalities in Western Australia due to great white sharks in the past 12 months.  As the number of human-shark interactions increased, so did the demand for some kind of action to be taken by the Australian government.

It's really a classic and unfortunate case of public concerns for safety mixed with businesses concerned over loss of potential business that has fueled, ala Jaws, demands for action ranging from protecting beaches with shark nets and drum lines to actively pursuing sharks that are spotted close to shore to culling sharks in the hopes of reducing the potential for deadly encounters.

The media is subtly fueling the hysteria with reports (see below) of sharks "lurking" off local beaches.  Yes, lurking.  Not swimming  as they have for hundreds of thousands of years in oceans that were always meant for their existence, but lurking.

According to a report in Australia's Herald Sun, in September the Western Australia government authorized $4 million to use drum lines and track any sharks that come close to beach swimmers.  This decision came, in contradiction, on the heels of a government-funded report by Queensland's Bond University that found that drum lines provided no discernible measure of safety from sharks and, in fact, would succeed in catching many other unintended species.  Drums lines are floating drums anchored to the bottom with baited lines attached.  The idea behind them is that, unlike shark nets which are designed to prevent sharks from entering an area or that inadvertently ensnare them, drum lines are specifically designed to hook and kill a shark.

The random killing of white sharks threatens the efforts of researchers who tag and track sharks using various telemetry devices that can provide information on the shark's location.  In fact, the Western Australia government has even voiced an interest in killing tagged sharks when their studied movements bring them close to populated beaches.  But with ongoing tracking information of Western and Southern Australia's white sharks (a population reported to be only around 1,000), scientists can learn more about their movements - seasonal patterns, migration routes, and more - and in so doing can best advise as to methods that would provide for public safety while also protecting the sharks as they roam within the environment nature intended.

"Killing tagged sharks is the worst thing we could do right now,'' said Tim Nichol, marine coordinator for the Conservation Council of Western Australia. "We need to learn more about white sharks and these are the sharks giving us information about their movements.  It is very expensive and difficult to tag white sharks and only a small proportion of the population is currently tagged.''

I can hear the voice of Amity mayor Larry Vaughn, "Now you do what you have to to make these beaches safe, but these beaches will be open for business." 

Source: Herald Sun

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