Australia's shark baiting - cruel, dangerous, ineffective

| 20th February 2014
An under-size tiger shark is released, bleeding. Photo: Andy Corbe.
An under-size tiger shark is released, bleeding. Photo: Andy Corbe.
New figures show that three quarters of the sharks caught by Western Australia's shark baiting were undersize. All the more reason to halt the program, writes Elizabeth Claire Alberts - and to end similar programs elsewhere in Australia
Humans are not on a shark's prey list. If we were, they would be taking people left, right and centre.

To say that people are angry about Western Australia's shark cull policy would be a bit of an understatement.

And the release of the first official figures have done nothing to abate that anger. Of the 66 sharks that have been caught so far, 49 were below the three metre target size, and had to be released.

Sharks drowning on the hooks

Trouble is, nine of those sharks were already dead. And of the other 40, many will die from serious injuries incurred as they struggled on the hooks.

According to marine ecologist Dr. Ben Fitzpatrick, those deaths are easily explained: "The problem with sharks is that they have to keep moving to breathe. So if they're not moving in the water, they suffocate and drown."

It's also a very cruel death. Sharks can struggle against a hook for over 12 hours before being detected by a fisherman.

The hooks cause 'extreme damage'

And even if they are still alive when released, many of them won't survive for much longer.

The hooks used in the drum lines are not designed for live capture, and cause extreme damage to the animal, says Shark expert Paul Sharp. "Death from blood loss is highly likely, and jaw damage may condemn survivors to slow death by starvation."

As Sea Shepherd Australia director Jeff Hansen told Perth Now: "We have seen lots of sharks with hooks in their heads being cut out and thrown back into the ocean - they are not going to survive or are wounded to the point where they cannot eat."

Tiger sharks rarely attack people

Moreover 63 of the 69 sharks that were caught are tiger sharks - that's 95% - and tiger sharks rarely attack people anyway. 

The State Government's SharkSmart website says: "Despite their potential threat to people and their reputation as 'maneaters', tiger sharks may only have been responsible for one shark bite in WA since 1980."

The species is also most active at night, when it comes closer inshore and swims nearer the water surface - precisely when few if any swimmers are in the water.

However the drum lines have so far failed to catch a single Great White - the single shark species reponsible for most human attacks.

A wave of protest

The local government's decision last December to deploy 72 baited drum lines off the state's south coast has sparked protests around the world, and the inevitable petitions.

Humans are not on a shark's prey list. If we were, they would be taking people left, right and centre.

Earlier this month, thousands of people crowded onto popular Australian beaches, brandishing banners and posters with slogans like "Great Whites Have Rights" and "Cull Politicians, Not Sharks".

Similar rallies have been organised in London, San Francisco, and Cape Town, and celebrities like Sir Richard Branson and Ricky Gervais have voiced their opposition to the cull.

Barnett: not for turning

Despite this public outcry, Colin Barnett, the Premier of Western Australia, has not rescinded his controversial policy.

The cull aims to destroy great white sharks, bull sharks and tiger sharks over three metres in length, which Barnett claims pose a significant risk to human safety.

Barnett's policy breaks the conventions of the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Act, as well as the International Convention of Migratory Species.

It is illegal to kill endangered species like great white sharks, but Environment Minister Greg Hunt has provided the Western Australian government with an exemption.

The cull actually increases risk

While the Australian government insists that the cull will save human lives, Ben Fitzpatrick (who is also director of Oceanwise Expeditions), argues that the drum lines actually increase the risk of human fatality:

"You're putting bait into the ocean and attracting animals into an area where they wouldn't necessarily be. And sharks will come back to an area if they know there's food there."

He explains that when smaller sharks are caught on the drum lines, their kicking and thrashing attracts larger sharks, drawing them closer to the coastlines.

Barnett authorized the cull following a series of attacks in Western Australia, including the recent death of a surfer in the waters off Gracetown in the state's southwest.

One drum line has been installed near the site of this attack, but most of the other drum lines are not placed where accidents have occurred. So the drum lines may be creating more opportunities for shark attacks.

The health of the oceans

We also tend to forget that our very existence relies on the health and wellbeing of our oceans.

Between 50% and 85% of our oxygen is generated from phytoplankton, yet the entire marine ecosystem is in danger as humans continue to overfish, develop coastal regions, pump carbon into the atmosphere, and pollute the oceans with plastic.

Sharks are apex predators, and when they are removed from the ecosystem, the entire marine food chain can collapse, or re-invent itself in a different configuration.

Vulnerable populations

While the Western Australian shark cull has yet to catch a great white shark, the targeting of this species is particularly concerning from a conservation viewpoint.

Fitzpatrick estimates that only 1,000 to 2,000 great whites live in the oceans off Western Australia, and mere quarter of them are breeding females.

"You take out just one of these sharks, and you end up having a really high impact on the population."

Sharp also points out that most of the drum lines in Western Australia run along the sharks' migratory paths. "It's like putting tyre spikes in the highway. The whole population migrating along the west coast have to run the gauntlet of these hooks."

A smart solution?

Both Fitzpatrick and Sharp advocate shark tagging, a nation-wide program operated by Fisheries Australia. Tagged sharks can transmit signals to listening stations that help people detect their locations.

Some iPhone apps will send users an alert when a large shark has been spotted off the coast of a popular beach. Not only can tagging improve human safety, but it can also help researchers understand more about shark ecology and behavior.

"There are hundreds of shark species we know nothing about", Fitzgerald says, "and now many are on the brink of extinction."

Shark education

Sharp also stresses the importance of education. While the risk of a shark attack is exceedingly low, Sharp suggests that people can become more aware of situations that may elevate the risk of an attack.

For instance, sharks tend to visit areas where fishing takes place. "I would say don't swim, dive or surf where there's fishing activity going on. I'd give it a good kilometer or two exclusion zone for safety."

At the same time, Sharp emphasises that humans are not on a shark's prey list, and if we were, they would be taking people left, right and centre.

The continuation of tagging programs and shark education certainly seems to be viable, especially as culling has been scientifically proven to be ineffective.

Hawaii - where the experiment failed

Between 1959 and 1976, more than 4,500 sharks were killed in Hawaii, one of the world's so-called shark attack capitals. Yet the Hawaiian cull was deemed unsuccessful because shark attack numbers remained the same during the culling period.

"The mere presence of large sharks does not equate to more accidents", Sharp explains, "and the removal of large sharks does not reduce risk."

While the shark cull continues in Western Australia, Piers Verstegen, Director of the Conservation Council in Western Australia, does not believe the government will be able to maintain the policy much longer.

"The Barnett government is politically isolated on the issue", he says. "It doesn't have any support in Parliament, and I think a number of premier backbenchers are hearing strong opposition from the local communities and their electors, and they're starting to get concerned."

Can it last beyond April?

The cull policy's exemption also runs out in April 2014, and the Western Australian Environmental Protection Agency recently held a seven-day public consultation to decide whether the policy requires an environmental impact assessment.

"I've never seen a campaign that has grown so fast or so strongly on any other environmental issue", Verstegen says. "For whatever reason, it's really grabbing people's attention."

Hopefully this campaign will also draw attention to the fact that baited drum lines have been used for decades along the coasts of New South Wales and Queensland.

Shrouded in secrecy

Unlike the Western Australian cull, the east coast drum lines are shrouded in secrecy and have never received extensive media coverage. But that's all changing now.

"I think one of the implications of this policy is that more people will be alerted to the fact that Western Australia is not the only place where this occurs", Verstegen says.

"I think we'll see much stronger opposition to the culls, and certainly more awareness about the wider issue."

Australia - a long list of environmental offences

For Australia's Greens, and environmental defenders everywhere, the shark killing is just part of the Australian government's brief but intense history of environmental offences.

Since Tony Abbott was sworn in as Prime Minister, the government has dismantled the Climate Commission, revoked the carbon tax, and approved sludge dumping in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

It also plans to strip Tasmania's temperate rainforests of their World Heritage Protection, in order to open them up to logging. Tragically the main export product from destroying these beautiful, unique and ancient forests is woodchips.



Petition to the Western Australian Government: Call off plan to cull sharks near WA beaches!

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a freelance writer and environmental journalist based in Sydney, Australia. To learn more about her, visit


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