Friday Forum: Should we be killing sharks in WA?

This weekend, thousands of people opposed to the killing of sharks off the WA coast will gather on beaches in Australia and New Zealand to protest the plan.

Passionately opposed to the control measures imposed by WA Premier Colin Barnett, critics of the plan argue that there is no scientific justification for the killings and say much more could be done, including tracking and tagging, to limit future attacks.

At the very same time as critics are waving their placards at Cottesloe beach and beyond, fisherman contracted by the state government could be hauling sharks, some of which are on the endangered species list, from the water and shooting them. Their work is sanctioned by state and federal governments and supported by parts of the community – beach goers, surfers and shark attack victims’ families. 

It is an issue that has divided the nation. Is killing sharks the right way to protect beach users? Or should we respect the right of sharks to exist in their natural environment and accept the risk we take when we step into it?

Ahead of this weekend’s protests, The New Daily presents both sides of the arguments and gives you a chance to have your say.

The case against the cull

The move to control shark numbers in Western Australia, involving the deployment of 72 baited hooks throughout the state’s south west and the destruction of any sharks greater than three metres in length, is illogical and amoral, say opponents.

Seven people have been killed by sharks in Western Australian waters since from 2010-2013. In the same period 717 people have died on the state’s roads, while 926 were seriously injured. There is far more chance of being killed in your car on the way to the beach than in the jaws of a great white. For a run-down of the ways you are more likely to die than in a shark attack, click here.

WA premier Colin Barnett said he was implementing the move to save lives, but federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, the person who signed off on the proposal, admitted the measures were financially motivated.

“Australia is an island country with a strong beach culture where water-based activities are carried out along most of its coastlines,” Mr Hunt’s statement said.

“A loss of confidence in water-based activities impacts on tourism and other leisure-based businesses impacting on the Australian economy, making this impact a matter of national significance.”

Paul de Gelder

Shark attack victim Paul de Gelder. Photo: AAP

Sharks are usually at the top of the food chain, performing a vital role in keeping the sensitive oceanic ecosystem in check. Great white sharks are on the endangered species list, declared vulnerable by the Australian government in 1999.

If deadliness is a consideration here, sharks are not as scary as jellyfish. According to National Geographic, box jellyfish kill more Australians than snakes, sharks and saltwater crocodiles combined. Box jellyfish have claimed 70 lives in the past 120 years in Australia, and two have been killed by the less dangerous Irukandji.

An estimated 20-40 people are reportedly killed by jellyfish each year in the Philippines and stings are prevalent in Malaysia.

Even victims of shark attacks oppose the plan. Paul de Gelder, a former navy diver who lost his right hand and leg in a shark attack in February 2009, is against it.

“I’m  curious as to how he (Barnett) plans to ensure that only sharks above  three metres are killed when all previous indicators show that more by-catch (dolphins, turtles, whales, rays etc) are caught than the intended target,” he wrote on his blog.

“The ocean is a wild place that we don’t yet fully understand and for a person who admitted that he isn’t an expert in the field to presume that he should play such a detrimental role in upsetting its delicate balance blows my mind.”

Brigitta Kurmann, whose son Peter died in March 2012 when he was taken by a shark diving off the WA coast, is also opposed.

“I’m 100 per cent against it (the cull) … I come from Switzerland where we have avalanches, we had 10 this year, people are not going to stop going to the mountains,” she told The New Daily.

“You can’t avoid all the dangers that nature presents to us, and Peter was very aware of that. He knew what the ocean was like, but he just loved it so much.”

The case for the cull

The Western Australian government’s shark mitigation policy will allay fear and protect people’s lives in the water. Some surfers in the state have been lobbying for a shark cull to protect surfers and swimmers since 2011.

Premier Colin Barnett introduced the policy to catch and kill sharks over three metres near popular beaches, with the first shark, a three metre Tiger shark, killed this week.

“I get no pleasure out of seeing sharks killed,” Barnett told reporters this week. “But I have an overriding responsibility to protect the people of Western Australia. That’s what I’m doing.”

The catalyst for this policy, and other shark mitigation measures, is from an apparent rise in the incidence of shark attacks.

WA fisheries department research suggests shark strikes were rising in West Australian waters from one a year in the mid–1990s to two or three annually in period 2010-2013.

The increase reportedly saw a change in attitude from the south-west surfing community, with groups lobbying for a cull at beaches where sharks frequently came close to the shore.

“We have had 20 fatal shark attacks in WA in the past 100 years – seven of them in the past three years,” Mr Barnett said. “I know that the many West Australians who love to use the ocean – divers, surfers, swimmers and families – want increased protection from dangerous sharks at these beaches.”

The policy has the support of Surf Life Saving WA. Spokesperson Paul Andrew told the ABC: “If we can improve the coastal safety of our beachgoers and the people that we serve, we support those types of reasonable initiatives.”

As noted in the case against, Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved the policy and while he suggested he did not agree with it, he said the potential economic impact of fear of beaches was nationally significant.

In response to the increase rate of attacks since 2010, West Australian media reported a drop in surf-related shopping, and a potential impact on tourism.

It is important to note that the shark cull is not an isolated measure. The Western Australian Government has committed to a $22 million Shark Hazard Mitigation program.

It includes funding for eight research programs on keeping beaches safe from sharks, as well as the more controversial beach enclosure, baited drum line trials and catch and kill strategy.

The Government’s long-term plan is to establish Coastal Shark Management Zones with targeted strategies for each area including patrols, education, signage, beach side trauma packs and drum lines.

— Reporting by Melissa Mack, Greig Johnston

Now it’s your turn. Is killing sharks in an effort to protect beaches the right thing to do? Vote in the poll and leave your views in the comments field below.

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