The Western Australian government’s plan to kill sharks with baited lines in response to the death of a surfer is indiscriminate and won’t stop shark attacks, says a prominent shark biologist.
Dr Ryan Kempster, a marine neuroecologist at the University of Western Australia, said the announcement of a ‘catch and kill’ program in the wake of last month’s fatal attack was a “shark cull” which was not supported by the scientific evidence.
“The dictionary definition of a cull is to ‘reduce the population of a wild animal by selective slaughter’,” Dr Kempster told The New Daily. “This is a cull.”
Dr Kempster, also the founder of a shark conservation group, pointed to a study on the effectiveness of six shark control programs carried out in Hawaii between 1959 and 1976 that resulted in the deaths of 4668 sharks. It concluded such “shark control programs do not appear to have measurable results on the rate of shark attacks” and that further large scale programs “may not be appropriate”.
Furthermore, a 2012 report published by the Western Australian Department of Fisheries recommended against the use of either shark nets or drum lines in Western Australis due to “environmental impacts”.
“Our preferred approach is for the use and deployment of non-lethal shark repellent devices and for improved education and communication of knowledge to the community about ways to avoid shark attacks,” says Dr Kempster.
Premier Colin Barnett and Fisheries Minister Troy Buswell announced the move on Tuesday as part of a package of new protective measures following a fatal shark attack near Gracetown last month. Chris Boyd, 35, was killed on 23 November by what authorities suspect was a great white shark.
Part of the controversial measures will see baited drum lines deployed 24 hours a day one kilometre from the shores of heavily used beaches between January and April 2014. Baited drums lines will also be used following any future shark attacks. Sharks caught on the drum lines or spotted in designated zones will be killed.
As well as the controversial baited drum lines the new measures will see the creation of Coastal Management Zones throughout Western Australia and specific shark mitigation plans developed according to individual zones’ needs.
Mr Buswell denies the “more aggressive response” amounts to a shark cull. The Western Australian government has allocated more than $20 million to the program over the next four years.
“The preservation of human life is our number one priority and these measures are designed to do that, with minimum impact to the surrounding environment,” he said.
Surfing community divided
The move has drawn a mixed response from the surfing community. In the wake of Chris Boyd’s death, Tom Innes, President of the Margret River Boardriders Club, told media that the number of large sharks needed to be reduced in order to reduce the risk of attacks. He has praised the government’s response.
“People are relieved and thankful that the government has stood up and made a constructive move on a tough issue that is rapidly increasing,” he said.
The club itself though has refused to take a stance, saying individual member’s opinions “do not reflect the entirety of the MRBC members who are managing shifting views on the issue”.
A petition against against any great white shark cull in Australia currently has over 12,000 signatures on change.org, while a Facebook page against shark culls in WA has over 62,000 likes.
Yet a delegation of Margret River surfers and business had been lobbying for a tougher state government response before the measures were announced, citing a need to protect beach goers.
Keith Halnan, owner of a Margret River surf shop who was part of the delegation, told ABC radio that a cull was needed.
“A lot of people think cull, cull, cull, is like kill, kill, kill but we’ve got to do a biological control here,” said Mr Halnan. “You know, we’re not about to kill all the great whites but no one is putting a value on human life here.”