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Sharks aren’t all scary in Western Australia

Written by Lee Johnson – Perth Scuba Owner & Manager

Article as seen in DIVE LOG Australasia Issue 308 MARCH 2014

Shark! If you live in WA you are no doubt sick of hearing it, if you are from any other state, there is no doubt you’ve heard about WA’s recent plight with the shark cull which has undoubtedly kept the media more interested, than any other political issues which otherwise would have made front page news. Many of you may have even done your part by standing up to be counted in your own states on February the 1st to protest about the ill-informed WA government decision, which led to the shark cull off the beaches of WA.

For those of you not in the loop, a brief rundown… After the recent shark activity in Western Australia and the hype that followed in a relentless barrage of media coverage that not only had the community in a panic expecting sharks to attack the very next time they turned on the kitchen tap, but also had everyone on the back foot including a clueless government, a non-responsive “Tourism WA”, a Fisheries Department without answers and many water sport businesses who had suffered massively as a result of both the actual attacks themselves and the media hype that followed.
Western Australian Sharks by Johanna Pool-8802-2Western Australian Sharks by Johanna Pool-49916
The Government had stayed out of the initial hype but were dragged into the debate on what to do as the public began searching for answers and calling for action. Not only had WA Fisheries not offered any real plausible explanations or ideas as to why suddenly there had been 5 fatal shark attacks in one year but the government seemed to have their heads buried in the sand on the issue.
The media coverage continued and the hysteria grew, fisheries continued to offer nothing new despite by now being given hundreds of thousands of dollars to “research” and tag Great White Sharks (the type of shark responsible for the fatal attacks). The science was there, but it couldn’t explain such an anomaly that could lead to 5 fatalities in one year.
Businesses continued to suffer and people were reluctant to go into the ocean.
The government responded to the unrest from the people by putting more money into aerial shark patrols, which yielded a great result albeit for the media to have a new tool to ramp up the hype and scare even more people into believing that they could be the next victim. Surf Life Saving crews who have done a great job keeping our beaches safe for many years were under pressure to make sure no shark was left unreported leading to beach closures for anything from a 2 foot hammerhead shark with a bite no bigger than a jam jar lid to a Whale Shark! The beach closures were becoming more and more regular with reports of schools of fish and Dolphins being misidentified and beaches being closed because of them. Again, the media jumped all over it. Front page news!! Cottesloe beach closed for an hour due to shark sightings were common headlines. Then the shark tagging beacons came into play, every time a tagged shark went by the tracking beacons, they would set off the warning. Great news! But then if the same shark hung around for a while or took a swim a few hundred metres away and came back, was it the same shark or another one? The media opted for “another one” and the public began to believe it. Even the ones who knew better started to believe it.
Western Australian Sharks by Johanna Pool-7562Western Australian Sharks by Johanna Pool-49914The Government had still sat on the fence in a clueless display of how not to deal with a hot potato issue and would not commit to anything more than throwing a few more hundred thousand dollars at more research.

By now the damage was done.
The shark patrols by air were ramped up, a catch and kill order was made on any shark deemed to be an “imminent threat” to people and a radio advertising campaign saying that our beaches had never been safer, and to go out and enjoy the great beaches WA has to offer spoken by Mr Barnett himself all in the name of reducing the fear the community now had.
But the media hype continued…

Businesses were hurting. I know – mine was one of them, and there were a lot of people who still wanted answers. Answers they would never get. The “experts” started coming out of the woodwork with their theories. Some good and generally plausible, some almost laughable – but the theories were still more than the authorities could give. At this time, everyone had their own theories, from El Niño effects to commercial overfishing in local waters, and probably the most used one… The Great Whites have been protected for 15 years so now there are “millions of them” Spoken by true armchair specialists who don’t venture into the water anyway. Or by the commercial fishermen who funnily enough “always see them at the back of the boat when we pull up the nets” possibly waiting for by-catch you think?
The media hype continued…
Western Australian Sharks by Johanna Pool-4991Western Australian Sharks by Johanna Pool-49911 Then all of a sudden there was a government statement, the first since the catch and kill order which had not been activated by now even though there had been another fatal attack at Wedge Island earlier, (no shark was found – apart from the one they followed for a couple of hours until it went dark).
The statement was that there would be a week for industries, collective groups, scientists, experts on sharks, experts on whale migration, fisheries and everyone who knew something or had a vested interest in the sharks and the shark policy that the government could act on, to put together their view and submit to the government ideas they had on what could or should be done about the sharks.

We all began working on our submissions, we collected our data, on paper we presented our ideas and we came up with solutions which could potentially diffuse the issue and put people back onto the beaches and in the water to continue living the great lifestyle every Western Australian loves.

Less than 24 hours later, the government advised that it had scrapped the submissions idea in favour of a shark cull.

What happened that night, none of us will ever know. What made our premier do a complete backflip on finally giving industries and groups in the know a chance to set things right to a shark cull is a complete mystery to all of us. All we know is that the decision had been made.

That decision… To set drum lines with massive shark hooks all along the Western Australian Coast, 1 kilometre off beaches frequented by people. Any shark caught over 3 metres in length would be destroyed and taken out to sea and dumped.
The government stated that the hooks were of size and shape that only sharks of this size would be caught and no by-catch would be caught.
How wrong were they?

So there you have the run down… Ok so it wasn’t that brief, but important as a base to the rest of this article.
Western Australian Sharks by Johanna Pool-8191Western Australian Sharks by Johanna Pool-49915 In Perth, we have a few dive shops. 17 or so I think, some are very active with lots going on all of the time, and others tend to be a bit dormant. There are big players (ones that have been around forever,) and there are the stores who do a great job producing divers, and selling them gear to keep them diving, offering dive clubs and events for divers and then there are the ones who do a bit of everything but not a lot in particular. Whatever category a shop is doesn’t really matter at this point. One thing that is for sure, they have all suffered due to the shark attacks and the media hype. Every last one of them.  As dive store owners, we all benefit from nature. We all earn a living out of the ocean. Other than a few crayfish, we don’t take anything out of the ocean except awesome memories and if we are good, great photos. We teach people to become what we have become, we teach people to experience what we are lucky enough to experience every day and we give them the tools to become what they want to be. Doing what they want to do in a world that we have introduced them to. We search for unique species, marvel at huge schools of fish and admire the sheer size of rays and if we are extremely lucky, sharks as they glide by. That’s us, in a nutshell. It’s what we do.

So with all of that in mind, can you believe that there are dive shops in Perth who are 100% in support of the shark cull? I can’t.

I think over the last couple of years! My business has dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars! I am sure that all of the others have too. Many continue to lose money (but that’s an issue for later). Even though I have lost more money than I ever want to think about, I still – no matter what – do not and will not ever support a shark cull. How hypocritical would it be for me to make a living out of the ocean and then turn my back on the very creatures which make the ocean as magical as it is and to point a finger and say ‘ take out that species’ – because it is responsible for me losing money by doing what nature made it do to survive. Nature gave the Great White Shark its instinct – ok and a big set of teeth to go with it.

It chills me to think that there are dive store owners who back baiting and killing nature’s longest surviving animals… just so that they can make a bigger profit. It chills me even more to know who those stores are. I am not going to name them, I am sure they have their reasons, but I can’t think of any that can be more valid than the reason not to cull. Even the attack victims’ families are opposed to a shark cull, which incidentally is an indiscriminate way of taking out any shark without any real evidence that it could have, would have or had ever attacked a person.

Western Australian Sharks by Johanna Pool-5628Western Australian Sharks by Johanna Pool-49912
One of Perth’s diving industry leaders, who had, up until now done so much for diving as a sport, and had in return gained so much out of the sport both financially and by experience but most importantly to me, one who I respected so much when I first became a part of this great industry 18 years ago, is one of the stores at the forefront massively in support of the government’s initiative to kill any shark caught over 3 metres in length off our coast. For reasons which can only be financial, (every interview or comment made has been about how much money they have lost), they are prepared to have these awesome creatures killed and go against so many people, many of them, their own customers, all in the name of showing a profit.

But to single them out wouldn’t be entirely fair. There are others. Big players in the scheme of things who support the cull with financial reasons being the main motivation. Maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it is survival instinct too – just on a different level. On the other side of the fence, there are a few dive stores who have gone all out and put their hands up and said we do not support the shark cull.

Perth Scuba Blade Coral Bunbury 02Mar2014 by Johanna Pool-9583They have been active in promoting better ways and possible solutions that the government never gave a chance. Those same stores also lost a lot of money. No different to the ones who support the cull, but they are the ones who are passionate about the ocean, about the lifestyle and about the belief that no creature needs to be killed to prevent more attacks. Killing more sharks will not stop an attack. Education will, precautions will, knowing your environment and knowing when the seasonal migrations occur will. To those stores, I take my hat off to you. You have my complete respect. As competitors in this industry, you are my biggest threat. Because you too are as passionate about our oceans and the creatures within them as I am. And because you are putting it all on the line to support the very things which could so easily have put you out of your business, your livelihood and your home.
I would much rather share an industry with these competitors than any other so called ocean lover who puts profit before nature. At least I know with these stores as competitors, there will still be an industry in the future.

So the cull continues… Who knows what will be by the time this article goes to print and you read it. I can tell you at the time of writing it, in the first 2 weeks, there have been 5 Tiger Sharks caught ( the first being misidentified by the fisherman and media as a bull shark), 2 have been 3 metres – shot dead and taken out to sea. 3 “undersized” 2 of which died before being unhooked and one which was let go but sank to the bottom upon release… More than likely also to die.
The reports are mixed on this one but in the history books that I went through, I found very few confirmed Tiger Shark fatalities. To date, not one Great White shark has been caught. (So much for being millions of them, and the massively increased numbers.) Funnily enough, since the baited drum lines went out, there haven’t been any more media reports of sightings either.

I believe that Colin Barnett was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He had to do something. He had to make a decision on what was becoming a restless public and a relentless media. Had someone been taken by another shark while he procrastinated on what to do, the media would have destroyed him. If he ordered a cull, he would face opposition from one section of the public and support from another section of the public. He also faced having to go against the agreement to protect Great White Sharks as a vulnerable species in Australia, an agreement that has held strong for 15 years. With that decision has come the condemnation of his actions from anti cull lobbies and environmental supporters from around the world.

Whilst Colin Barnett made a decision which will affect a lot of futures, (including his own political one if the recent polls are anything to go by) I don’t blame him for making a decision. I do however blame the media for the shark cull. Since the fatal attack on surfer Nick Edwards in 2010 the media has been relentless. The more attacks, the more coverage, the more sightings, the more hype, the more “boat encounters” the more pressure on the government to act. In my opinion the media forced the cull decision.

Western Australian Sharks by Johanna Pool-9573Western Australian Sharks by Johanna Pool-49917
Had the media reported the shark attacks as they happened and let it go there would not have been anywhere near as much hype? I know they have a duty to bring the story to the public. And we all know, a shark fatality sells newspapers. But to have non-stop reports, articles about attacks, shark sightings, beach closures and even when there was nothing to report… Stories on sharks for the sake of a story were just wrong. You would swear at one point there, the reporters knew that if they mentioned a shark in their story, it would be in the first 3 pages of the newspaper guaranteed. It is no wonder the public were whipped into a state of hysteria.

The media were the first to jump up and down and get on the bandwagon when the news came about the cull. Asking us what we thought and saying it’s such a shame to go against the wishes of the people… Well – to the media – I hope you are happy, because if you had let it go, we wouldn’t be where we are today. There wouldn’t be a cull, Colin Barnett wouldn’t have had to make a career changing decision and oh that’s right, you wouldn’t have anything to report.

In summary, no politician makes a decision like Colin Barnett had to without pressure from somewhere. He was under a lot pressure to react and make a decision. Unfortunately – he made the wrong one. Now there is no way back.

Whatever happens from here is yet to unfold. All I can say is that it is a sad issue for WA to be remembered for on the world stage.

 


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