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The One That Got Away a Lesson to Authorities

written by Tim Nicol – CCWA & PADI Spokesperson

The recent failure by Fisheries Officers to catch and kill a white shark in Geographe Bay has demonstrated why the Government must rethink the controversial pre-emptive kill policy for protected white sharks.

The hunt started not because a shark had behaved in a menacing way, but because shark sightings had repeatedly forced the closure of beaches. It was assumed that shark sightings between Christmas and early January may have been the same shark but no evidence was provided.

An order was then given to kill a protected white shark displaying natural behavior in known shark habitat because it was holiday season. It seems more like prolonged inconvenience than imminent threat.

It would have been difficult having to ask people on a beach holiday during a heat wave to leave the water. But do we really want to start killing protected animals for that?

And if they had caught and killed a large shark? Would Fisheries or the Premier have then said that the ocean was now safe? I don’t think so, because in reality the risk would hardly have changed.

In the end, despite the deployment of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, the Fisheries Department was unable to catch a single white shark. Meanwhile, other marine life was put at risk of capture by the prolonged use of baited hooks, whilst the surveillance and education campaigns did their job of keeping people and sharks apart.

And for now it appears the white shark has done what white sharks do, moved on. White sharks are highly migratory and will not stay in an area long.

The Government’s kill policy is not helping the situation in Western Australia. Far from dispelling people’s fears, the sight of numerous boats hunting a shark off our beaches risks heightening the fear and thereby the damage to our marine tourism businesses.

Alongside the kill policy, the Government announced new surveillance, research and education policies for which they should be commended. These policies are proven ways of reducing the risk of shark attacks.

Education in particular is desperately needed after years of poorly informed public discourse that has led to a number of myths that a responsible Government should be seeking to bust.

Sadly, every shark species has been tarred with the brush of the recent series of attacks. There are 180 shark species in Australia, all critical to healthy ocean ecosystems and fisheries. Only three of these are considered responsible for most unprovoked attacks, that is white sharks, bull sharks and tiger sharks. People need to understand that every shark sighting doesn’t mean a dangerous animal is lurking off our beaches.

Further, the likelihood of an unprovoked attack remains low. Even lower now at patrolled beaches with aerial surveillance.

Despite public perceptions fuelled by increasing awareness of the sharks off our coast, there remain very few white sharks. The best estimate we have from genetic studies suggest there are only about 700 breeding age white sharks in Western Australia and South Australia combined. Despite protection, white sharks still die in significant numbers as accidental catch in fisheries.

The most likely reason for more white sharks visiting WA beaches in the past couple of years is a change in ocean currents that may reverse in future years.

More education is also needed on the circumstances of attacks. A useful recent report from the Department of Fisheries looked at a range of environmental factors, but did not examine human activities such as fishing.

As a diver, that is very important information in assessing the potential risk of my activities. The risk of shark attack and the range of species that might attack are completely different for spear fishing compared with sightseeing dives. Perth’s largest dive charters have done hundreds of thousands of dives without seeing a large shark, yet larger sharks are occasionally reported by other sightseeing divers and are commonly seen by spear fishers.

As our population grows and more people enter the water in more locations, we will increasingly become aware of the sharks that live in our waters. We need to better understand these animals for our own safety and theirs, because the healthy ocean environment we all value depends on maintaining healthy populations of sharks.

The kill policy is costing literally millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money and putting marine life at risk with no demonstrable benefit to public safety. Surely it would be smarter to redeploy this money into boosting proven prevention methods like surveillance, research and education that will continue to further reduce the already low but still real risk of a shark attack.

Writen by the Squid for PADI, Project Aware and CCWA about the shark hunt underway in Geographe Bay (minus minor improvements made by The West).

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