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Technology and Public Education Offer Better Solutions to the Shark Cull in Western Australia

In January of 2014, the government of Western Australia began an extremely controversial activity that has sparked heated international debates – the cull of white sharks and tiger sharks. The reasoning behind the cull is that it will help protect the thousands of beachgoers off the coast of WA from the toothy jaws of sharks sliding beneath the waves. Australia has more shark attacks than anywhere else in the world, and public outcry has called for the government to do something. However, the decision to kill sharks has horrified environmentalists worldwide and is riddled with problems, both ecological and economical. Through a blend of modern technology and education, there are many other more effective solutions that can be used to mitigate shark bites.

western australia
A new survey showed that the shark cull enacted by the Western Australia government is not supported by the public.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Paul Mannix.

Problems with the shark cull

  • Sharks play a vital role in marine ecosystems as top predators, keeping everything else in balance. Fewer sharks equal a less healthy ecosystem, which may lead to numerous imbalances that could ultimately be very detrimental to humans, such as offsetting populations of fish we eat or damaging reefs that are popular for ecotourism. Divers in particular love to see sharks in their natural habitat and are drawn to certain areas to see them, including Australia.
  • The cull is likely to be very ineffective for swimmer safety. Sharks are extremely migratory animals; the WA coast does not have a resident shark population that will learn to stay away from beaches. If 100 sharks are killed, 100 more will migrate in and replace them, up until the overall population is depleted – which, it can be agreed, would be fairly horrible for ocean health. In addition, baiting sharks near beaches inherently brings sharks closer to the beaches. If they are not caught with the bait, then they might just swim past the boat and closer to swimmers.
  • Many people who like to spend time near the coast enjoying nature, like surfers and divers, also tend to be the same people who like wild animals and don’t particularly want them be killed. A recent survey from the Sydney SeaLife Aquarium revealed that 87% of the public favored non-lethal responses to controlling the shark problem, and 69% supported public education as the best method for preventing shark bites. Overall, the people surveyed did not support the cull and believed other methods would be much more effective.
  • The cull casts a very negative light on the Western Australia government and tourism may suffer. People travel from all over the world to enjoy the gorgeous coastlines of Australia. Nature-loving tourists may choose not to travel to WA because they don’t want to support the cull, and over the long run the tourism industry there will suffer. Of course, the same tourists might be scared off by the idea of shark bites – but that is why alternative solutions must be pursued!

How do we keep people safe?

Controlling massive underwater predators is a tricky business. Fortunately, humans are quite clever, and we have a host of technological advances at our fingertips. There are several solutions to the shark problem, all of which deserve an in-depth look.

Sharks on Twitter

Last year the Western Australia government tagged 338 sharks with acoustic transmitters that monitor their movement. Receivers have been placed near beaches, and when a tagged shark comes close, a computer alert is triggered. Then the shark “tweets” a message to the Surf Life Saving Western Australia Twitter Feed, letting Twitter users (the human ones) know the shark’s size, breed, and location. It’s a genius idea but has a few flaws. People on the beach have to subscribe to the Twitter feed and have to be diligent about checking it while they are at the beach (who wants to look at their phone on a beautiful sunny day at the beach?). Also, not all sharks are tagged. A shark could be nearby, and beachgoers may be lured into a false sense of security without any sharky tweets. But hey, some warning is better than no warning.

For the California coastline, there is an interesting app called Shark Net which allows the user to view tagged white sharks that come close to areas such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Ano Nuevo State Beach, Tomales Bay, and just north of Santa Cruz. The app also allows the user to explore individual sharks and learn about them with detailed infographics. Shark Net not only allows researchers to study the movements of white sharks, but it also provides the public a vital connection with an important ocean species.

Capture and release

Rather than baiting and killing a white shark – which raises much public controversy – it would seem to make sense for us to use our efforts to bait and capture sharks, then release them in a location further away from a beach. We know that sharks are intelligent – perhaps this could serve to “teach” them that certain beach locations are off-limits. It’s doubtful that a white shark would return to a given location after such a stressful encounter (though not impossible). Of course, this requires more effort on the part of the government and the people on the baiting boats, but over the long run it would be less damaging for the public view of the WA government. In today’s world of increasing environmentalism, a more eco-friendly method of dealing with the sharks would likely be very welcome.

Western Australia
Beachgoers in Australia would benefit from greater education surrounding sharks.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Heather_Iss.

Public education

People fear what they don’t understand. Fear leads to terrible decision-making strategies, such as the ongoing cull. With a push towards public education, people will better understand the risks of swimming, surfing, and diving, and make informed decisions about when and where they can conduct their coastal activities. People are more likely to follow sharks on Twitter or another app if they know such a thing is possible. Rather than needlessly killing beautiful predators of the ocean, we can work towards understanding them better and how to avoid them.

Living in harmony with the ocean

Simply put, the cull of white sharks is short-sighted, ineffective for the safety of beachgoers, and damaging for the economy of Western Australia. Serious effort needs to be made to find and utilize alternative solutions. We must learn to live in harmony with our oceans as much as possible. Humans depend on the sea for food, jobs, recreation – we risk losing all of these things if we choose to abuse the creatures and ecosystems beneath its waves. Respect our oceans by choosing to buy seafood from distributors with a certification in sustainability from the Marine Stewardship Council, such as Pucci Foods.

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