Sink your teeth into this: thoughts on the Australian shark cull debate.

Sharks have unfortunately received bad press for decades now. It could be argued that ever since the cult film Jaws, our perspective of these cartilaginous beauties has been shifted in a some what negative way. In my opinion the media doesn’t help the situation at all, focusing on fatal or detrimental interactions between sharks and beach goers rather than our impacts on them or recent scientific research into their ecology. I find that UK headlines are some of the worst I’ve seen, blowing situations way out of proportion for an “exciting” and “terrifying” read. People want to hear about danger, and perhaps due to the fairly uncommon shark interactions here in the UK, it is better for business to add an eye catching and a spine-tingling sense of doom when one is reported. Its stupid, backwards, counter productive and unnecessary. Rant over…or is it?…

Giant shark recreates terrifying scene from Jaws as it dwarfs boat in popular British beach resort

The massive sea beast was spotted in Falmouth Bay, Cornwall, in a scene        reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking 1975 blockbuster

A giant basking shark in Falmouth

Title, sub-title and featured image from a Daily Mirror article published May 2016. The large shark pictured is a Basking Shark, a planktivore  that poses no threat at all, yet the title would suggest otherwise.

Across a couple of ponds and down a bit is the land of Australia. Here, the whole shark situation is more sticky with a continuous battle between beach users and sharks. Earlier this week the debate for the culling of sharks was opened once again after the unfortunate death of a young woman due to shark attack in Western Australia. Currents and high productivity levels are some of the factors that lead to the high abundances of sharks around the Australian coastline and its no secret that Australian beaches are hot spots for beach tourism and water activity. Therefore, it is clear to see how these two populations (beach goers and sharks) collide from time to time.

Managing these interactions has been a hot topic for years now. This is fair enough as the coastline and water use in Australia provides a huge tourism economy and obviously the safety of humans is important. However it is the methods used that I have some issues with.

The idea of a cull doesn’t make any sense to me for several reasons. Just to clarify, to cull an animal is to reduce the population or remove its presence from an area. OK here we go:

1.) I feel as if it’s a typical case of human dominance. We have the ability to wipe out huge numbers of animals now if we really wanted to and it almost has the sense of “you kill us, we kill you” about it. I’m sure revenge isn’t the true intention of a cull but its not as if they would learn a lesson if we killed tens or hundreds of sharks after a fatal attack and suddenly live in peace with the ocean. The initial shark attack itself is just an unfortunate random event that is sad, but never personal and likely a misjudgement between victim and pursuer.

2.) Consider the ecological role of the culled species. Sharks are often apex predators at the top of the food chain. This gives them a significant role within the environment controlling populations of multiple species down the line, maintaining complexity and stability of ecosystems. Reduction of population would no doubt be felt throughout an ecosystem. Species previously predated by sharks may boom, but any animals that are further down the food chain or are out competed by this boom would crash. This goes on and on creating a trophic cascade, which trust me people is nicht so good. Not only that but shark populations are already at so much risk. Millions of sharks from a huge range of species are removed from the ocean annually around the world. 2003 recorded the highest landfall of shark from fishing industries and since this has dropped by 20%, a possible sign of declining populations. There are still so many possible factors to take into account here, sharks caught but not brought to landfall, shark decline due to factors other than fishing effort and population dynamics of species whose abundances are unknown.

I have more concerns about an all out cull but these above are my main two and to save readers from square eyes I’ll stop it there for now.

The cull debate isn’t all about reducing the populations of sharks though. Its a time for innovative designs to be put forward for authorities to use that prevent fatal interactions on both sides of the argument. Tagging and relocation efforts have been done around New South Wales, however the success and impact of these is hard to assess. In my view the best methods are ones that take advantage of sensory deterrents, such as patterned wetsuits, or electro-magnetic devices on surf boards, as opposed to actively reducing the shark populations.

I understand that the presence of these animals can cause concern to those who use the same water and people may feel safer in the knowledge that perhaps there are fewer sharks but ultimately it is their environment that we step into. My most hated saying is “shark infested water”. There simply is no such thing. Sharks inhabit the oceans like we inhabit a town, it is their home, it is their right to be there and our responsibility to acknowledge that. I’m a massive fan of being on and in the water. Pretty much everything I do involves the ocean. Sure, at times the depth or darkness can get creepy but isn’t that brilliant! It’s the one place on Earth where we as a species dramatically drop in the hierarchy of life and I strongly feel that we should respect this. Rather than manipulating this incredible environment and the animals within it to better suit ourselves (like we have done in so many places), we should manipulate our own activities to provide safety to ourselves whilst respecting the natives of the ocean.

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