Western Australia to kill sharks in controversial policy

AIMS researchers conducting monitoring surveys and study of Grey Reef sharks at Scott Reef in Western Australia.

SYDNEY- Sharks longer than 3m which approach popular beaches on Australia’s west coast will be killed by professional fishermen under controversial new measures following a spate of fatal attacks.

Western Australia’s state government revealed yesterday it would also set baited drum lines along the coast, which has been labelled the world’s deadliest shark attack region. There have been six fatal attacks along the coast in two years, including a death in the popular Margaret River tourist region late last month.

The baits will be set 1km from shore from January to April next year, mainly at beaches around Perth and the state’s south-west.

State Premier Colin Barnett warned beachgoers the measures would not eliminate the risk of attacks and that swimmers and surfers must continue to take care.

“We are aware of the risks sharks pose to our beach users and the Western Australian way of life and we are implementing strategies to reduce these risks,” he said.

State Fisheries Minister Troy Buswell said it was not “a culling of sharks”. “It is not a fear-driven hunt, it is a targeted, localised shark mitigation strategy.”

But the move prompted criticism from conservationists, who called it an indiscriminate “cull”.

Shark researcher Christopher Neff of Sydney University said it was an “unfortunate policy”.

“This is a tool that is used to kill sharks and to reduce populations – that is by definition culling,” he said.

The series of attacks in recent years has triggered an emotive debate in Australia about how to prevent further deaths.

Many Australians, who grow up on the beach and spend countless hours in the oceans, regard a cull as excessive, unfair and something of a breach of the bond between humans and wildlife.

Mr Paul Sharp, 40, an underwater photographer and marine conservationist from Perth, set up a Facebook page opposing a Western Australian cull which attracted 60,000 supporters in the weeks after last month’s attack. He said much of the support has come from fishermen, lifesavers and divers.

He said sharks rarely make repeat attacks and culls were “an emotional or vengeful response, rather than a logical one”. “It is like randomly killing dogs in your neighbourhood because one day a dog will bite someone,” he told The Straits Times.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a keen ocean swimmer, even entered the debate, saying all surfers knew they faced “some risks” when entering the water.

The attack in Western Australia was followed by another fatal attack in New South Wales and prompted the authorities to consider a range of measures, including building more shark nets to enclose beaches, stepping up helicopter patrols and tagging sharks with satellite-linked receivers. Surf shops have also been selling devices such as shark shields, which are supposed to deter sharks by emitting electric impulses. And researchers at the University of Western Australia have been exploring the possibility of a shark-repelling device that produces light, sound and bubbles.

But experts say the risk of shark attacks is low and more people die from drowning at Australian beaches.

Shark expert Colin Simpfendorfer, from James Cook University, said sharks rarely eat people and probably do not like the taste of human flesh. He said theories abound as to why sharks attack people, ranging from mistaking people for seals or large fish to protecting territory, but the truth is that “we don’t really know”.

It is very difficult to study why sharks bite people – “you can’t go out and experiment on it”, he told The Straits Times. “It happens so rarely... It is an area we struggle to understand.”

Scientists believe the spike in shark attacks on the west coast has been caused by population growth, while the popularity of wetsuits has allowed people to stay longer in the water.

The authorities say there are precautions people can take. These include not swimming in deep waters or at dawn or dusk or after heavy storms and not splashing heavily. It is also safer to swim in groups and near patrolled beaches and to stay close to shore and avoid cooler waters.


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