Shark Culls: Are they worth it for a safer summer?


Words || Freya Wadlow

You know what is wild?

Sharks have swum in the ocean for 450 million years. This is 200 million years before the dinosaurs, before mammals, before angiosperms (flowering plants)[1].

They’ve survived three ice ages, and the rise and fall of great aquatic invertebrates, primitive reptiles and mammalian megafauna.

And they’re heading for extinction in the next century. Over 1/3 of all shark species are threatened, with 80% of pelagic (open ocean) sharks near threatened, all of which are targeted by the fishing/finning industry.[2]

And yet the knee-jerk solution Australia has to shark attacks is to extend federal culling, even though legislation prohibits this in NSW.[3]

In the case of shark attack mitigation, there is a huge contradiction between the recommendations of government-funded research, and the actual policies that are implemented. The current Australian approach to shark mitigation is that less sharks = less attacks, hence the outdated strategies that kill or entangle sharks is the dominant norm.

The NSW Fisheries Scientific Committee actually lists the state’s own management program as a threatening process for marine wildlife[4]. These species are in need of increased conservation strategies, not increased slaughter! Their reproductive strategies cannot cope with such a drastic decline in population; with only a few pups born each pregnancy, and relatively slow growth of each individual to reproductive maturity. Removing top predators can have unpredictable and cascading negative effects on whole ecosystems down the trophic levels (literally ecology 101 subtweet @Greg Hunt).

But what about the new ‘smart’ shark nets?

Contrary to popular belief, shark nets are not a polite fence to ward off marine life from entering the beach, rather are in place to entangle and kill animals passing by. There is little scientific evidence to suggest that nets actually prevent fatalities, shown by annual shark interactions reduced in areas both with and without the nets since the program was implemented[5].

This isn’t a surprise as the nets are 6m tall, and placed in water about 10m deep- allowing sharks to swim over and around the nets themselves- evident as over 40% of shark entanglements occur on the beach side of the nets. Asides from large holes in most nets, in NSW they are only in the water for 8 months each year, and 14 days each month5!

Additionally, although this $1.4 million a year program is supposed to only target sharks over 2m, in reality they are indiscriminate to the marine bycatch. Only four species of shark have been identified to be responsible for human fatalities, yet a 2011, government report released that 61% of marine life killed in nets were ‘non-target’ species, including endangered turtles, humpback whales, dolphins, rays, and harmless shark species5.

Although there has been a concerted effort to begin trialing new methods of shark incident preventions, including using drones, and aerial spotting, we are still funneling funding into netting and culling strategies. The ‘smart nets’ which relay feedback when a large marine animal is trapped can only be deployed when a strategic team is assembled and ready to intervene, which raises the question as to how this is can pragmatically be a solution for the vast stretch of Australian coasts?[6]

Of course, any attack on a human is traumatic, and we need to find a way to coexist in harmony and eliminate marine fatalities.

But increasing culls as soon as a large story breaks in mainstream media is not the way forward, rather exists as a band-aid solution with devastating effects. We need to support current research and acknowledge that the techniques we’ve been using since the 1960’s are outdated and ineffective.

What we should be doing is increasing research by tagging and monitoring these migratory species to understand where they go, which beaches are highlighted, and why.

[1] Naylor, G & Aschliman, N. 2013, “How many species of living sharks, skates and rays are there, and how did they arise over the course of evolution?”, Proceeding of the International Symposium- Reproduction of Marine Life, February 21-22, 2009. 5-12

[2] IUCN, 2007, The conservation status of pelagic sharks and rays, Report of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group & Pelagic Shark Red List Workshop, Tubney House, University of Oxford, UK.

[3] EPBC 1999, Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, Department of the Environment and Energy, Australian Federal Government

[4] FSC 2006, Fisheries Scientific Committee determination on the shark meshing program in NSW waters, Fisheries Scientific Committee, NSW Department of Primary Industries

[5] NSW DPI 2009, Report into the NSW Shark Meshing (Bather Protection) Program: Incorporating a review of the existing program and environmental assessment, Public Consultation Document, NSW Department of Primary Industries, Australian Federal Government.

[6] NSW DPI 2016, Shark Management Strategy, NSW Department of Primary Industries, Australian Federal Government.