It’s understandable to be a little bit afraid of sharks, though irrational. We don’t need saving — they do — and the Environmental Protection Agency agrees.
A male great white shark can weigh more than 2,000 pounds and grin gleaming rows of serrated teeth. When these animals do interact with humans, there are fatalities (though exceedingly few). In an attempt to prevent shark attacks then, authorities in Western Australia instituted a policy that sanctioned the killing of sharks to ensure the safety of swimmers, but people fought back. Now, the Western Australian Environmental Protection Agency has weighed in with its two cents, and the verdict is to save the sharks.
So here’s what’s happened over the last few months. At the start of the year, the Western Australian state government instituted a policy that sanctioned capturing and killing large sharks. Commonly called the Western Australian shark cull, the method was simple: deploy a drum line, basically an unmanned trap, to lure and capture sharks using baited hooks. The idea was to put these drum lines along popular swimming beaches, stopping sharks from reaching bathers and putting the fish in a position where fishermen could kill them. But this method of making a safer day at the beach came with potentially dire environmental consequences.
Nature dictates that the biggest animals are (usually) at the top of the food chain. In the oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of the Earth and are home to more than 80 percent of all life on the planet, the apex predators are sharks. As such, sharks regulate the quantity and quality of all marine life. They typically feed on weak, unhealthy, and older fish, which in turn keep the fish population healthy and virile, allowing stronger and more diverse species to thrive. Oceans without sharks could mean an ocean where fish diseases run rampant, wiping out species. Whole ecosystems could be thrown into chaos.
But safety of beach-goers trumped global fish health for the Western Australian government when drum lines were put in place this past January. During a three-month trial, drum lines the captured 172 sharks. Fifty were shot, 20 were found dead on the hooks, and 90 were tagged and released. The trial period also captured public interest. It wasn’t long before people from residents to scientists to celebrities expressed outrage at how readily the Western Australian government was killing sharks. It even sparked a Twitter campaign.
Things promised to get worse for the Australian shark population. The government’s plan following this three month trial was to set up as many as 72 baited drum lines off the coast near Perth and other popular beaches along Australia’s south-west coast every summer beginning on November 15, 2014. On April 30, 2017, the drum lines’ efficacy would be reviewed and their continued use would be up for consideration.
But now the Western Australian Environmental Protection Agency has weighed in with the recommendation that the drum line proposal should not be implemented.
EPA Chairman Dr. Paul Vogel said of a review of the government’s proposals that “there remains a high degree of scientific uncertainty about impacts on the viability of the south-western white shark population.” And “in view of these uncertainties,” he said, “the EPA has adopted a cautious approach by recommending against the proposal.”
The EPA recommendation, however, only takes into account an assessment of the environmental impact of shark culling; it doesn’t take human safety factors into consideration. This means there’s still a chance that the Western Australian government might look at other factors when making their final decision on whether or not to implement the drum lines.
The final decision on the shark cull will be made next month by Western Australia’s environment minister, Albert Jacobs, with approval from the federal environment minister, Greg Hunt. But for his part, Western Australia premier Colin Barnett said he was disappointed by the EPA’s decision. “I cannot look the people in the south-west in the face and say ‘your beaches are safe, your diving [and] surfing conditions are safe’ because I don’t believe they are,” he said.
Perhaps he should not that Jack Bauer has killed more people than sharks have in the last 500 years, and we kill about 3 sharks a second. Perspective.
Between the EPA’s recommendation and continued public outcry against shark culling, the Western Australian government’s decision might swayed. We’ll have to wait and see whether the simple option of killing critical predators wins out, or whether we can find some safety measure that protects both swimmers and the oceans’ ecosystems.