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White Shark Protection Questioned After Western Australia Attack

Photo by Brocken Inaglory

In October 2011, after George Thomas Wainwright was “killed in an apparent encounter with a white shark in the waters off Rottnest Island, not far from Perth, Australia,” as I wrote at the time, “local authorities decided immediately to avenge Mr. Wainwright’s untimely death — and to kiss the ass of the local tourism industry.”

In my October 24, 2011, commentary, I cited a Herald Sun (Australia) report, which indicated that “fisheries officers have set bait lines in an effort to track down and capture the great white shark, which attacked 32-year-old George Thomas Wainwright, of Texas, near Rottnest Island off the Western Australian coast yesterday. It is the first time in WA a catch-and-kill order has been issued for a killer shark.”

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last.

After a surfer named Ben Linden was killed during an encounter with a white shark in waters near Wedge Island, off the coast of Western Australia not far from Perth, “Fisheries Minister Norman Moore gave the order for the shark to be killed if caught,” according to a PerthNow report, which also indicates that “Moore said the Government was re-assessing whether great white sharks should remain protected species.”

The July 15 PerthNow report tells us that “the search for the killer shark in the water has been called off,” but that “the State Government has … announced it will write to the Federal Government to see if there is any new evidence that shark numbers have increased. … Fisheries Minister Norman Moore will also seek the Federal Government’s view as to whether sharks still need to be considered a protected species.”

Moore was quoted in the PerthNow report as saying, “I am very worried because this is now five fatalities in a very short period of time … It calls on us to do something. We really need to look beyond what we’ve been doing so far. … My opinion up until now has been that there is no evidence to suggest that there has been a significant increase in the numbers and so therefore the protected species status should remain. I think its very very well worthwhile having another good hard look at this.”

(PerthNow recently published a timeline of fatal shark attacks in Western Australian waters.)

An Australian Associated Press report in The Sydney Morning Herald tells us that “Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke said he had not yet received Mr Moore’s letter but was happy to work with the WA government on ‘whatever they may propose.'”

Burke was quoted in the AAP report as saying, “If there are actions the Western Australian government currently wants to take to ensure human safety, national law includes provisions for that to happen … Right now my office is ensuring that the Western Australian government will be given assistance as it works to manage this.”

The AAP report also tells us that “Burke said his department was finalising an updated recovery plan for the species.”

Australia’s 2002 White Shark Recovery Plan points out that the species “is fully protected in Commonwealth waters under the EPBC Act where it is listed as a vulnerable species. … The White Shark is also fully protected in the coastal waters of … Western Australia. … Internationally White Sharks are listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.”

The 2002 White Shark Recovery Plan tells us that “the current population status of White Sharks in Australia is difficult to assess,” that “there are a number of sources of mortality (other than natural mortality) of White Sharks in Australian waters,” that “game fishing groups have expressed a keen interest in accessing White Sharks for tag-release since the species was protected,” and that “tag and release if not undertaken with care or without knowledge can contribute to White Sharks dying through the stress of being captured.”

I must admit to finding worrisome the fact that Fisheries Minister Moore — who also serves as Minister for Mining and Petroleum and Minister for Electoral Affairs — boasts in his official bio that “he has taken the tough decisions necessary to protect Western Australia’s important commercial and recreational fishing stocks.”

While Moore did announce earlier this month “that regulations were being drafted for a State ban on targeted or dedicated shark tourism ventures, including cage diving operations, based on the attraction of sharks,” his reaction to recent deaths resulting from shark encounters is alarmist, at best. In a July 15 statement, Moore was quoted as saying, “There is no documented level of fatal attacks attributed to white sharks in such a short time and geographic location, anywhere in the world, than what we have experienced in WA and further action is necessary to deal with it.”

That despite the fact that the same July 15 statement indicates that “the Federal Government’s White Shark Recovery Plan was released in 2002 and reviewed in 2008. That review found insufficient evidence to confirm an increase in species abundance.”

Given that Moore himself was quoted in the above-mentioned PerthNow report as saying, “My opinion up until now has been that there is no evidence to suggest that there has been a significant increase in the numbers and so therefore the protected species status should remain,” his eagerness to execute the shark who killed Ben Linden is enough to make one wonder whose interests he has in mind.

Moore’s authority to kill the offending shark is outlined in the 2002 White Shark Recovery Plan, which indicates that “Western Australia has considered the issue of shark control and recently adopted the Shark Response Plan which is detailed in the Shark Hazard Report Western Australia 2001. … The Response Plan provides that in the event of a shark attacking, or attempting to attack, a person, fisheries officers would, upon verification of the identity of the animal, immediately attempt to kill the shark. To be able to kill a great white in the interests of public safety, the Minister for Fisheries has issued a Standing Order, which authorises Western Australian Police and Department of Fisheries officers, in the event of an attack, or attempted attack, to immediately kill the shark responsible for the attack.”

Moore, in other words, reserves the right to kill a shark for being a shark — regardless of the protections afforded the species.

Moore would be wise to consult the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.

The ISAF 2011 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary points out that “the number of shark-human interactions occurring in a given year … directly correlates with the amount of time humans spent in the sea. As (the) world population continues its upsurge and interest in aquatic recreation concurrently rises, we realistically should expect increases in the number of shark attacks and other aquatic recreation-related injuries. If shark populations remain the same or increase in size, one might predict that there should be more attacks each year than in the previous year because more people are in the water. Shark populations, by contrast, actually are declining or are holding at greatly reduced levels in many areas of the world as a result of over-fishing and habitat loss, theoretically reducing the opportunity for these shark-human interactions. However, year-to-year variability in local economic, social, meteorological and oceanographic conditions also significantly influences the local abundance of sharks and humans in the water and, therefore, the odds of encountering one another. As a result, short-term trends in the number of shark bites — up or down — must be viewed with caution.”

Moore would also be wise to have a look at Surf Life Saving Australia’s National Coastal Safety Report 2011, which indicates that “61 coastal drowning deaths” occurred in Australian waters between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011, and that “there were nine coastal drowning deaths, four coastal deaths, and two ocean drowning deaths in Western Australia in 2010-11. This represents 14.8% of the national coastal drowning death total.”

Upon the release of the ISAF 2011 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary, ISAF Director George Burgess was quoted in a University of Florida news story as asking, rhetorically, “We’re killing 30 to 70 million sharks per year in fisheries — who’s killing who?” and explaining that “the reality is that the sea is actually a pretty benign environment, or else we’d be measuring injuries in the thousands or millions per year.”

Moore should make an effort to understand that wisdom can often be found in a broader perspective.

4 Comments

  1. Morgan Griffith wrote:

    We who venture into the ocean must realize we have ventured into a world that holds the greatest mysteries left on this earth. To spank a shark by going on a killing spree not only does not keep attacks from happening but shows the utter stupidity of the human race. Enter the wilderness, take your chances on becoming a victim.

    Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 12:54 am | Permalink
  2. David Brensilver wrote:

    Morgan,

    In addition to “stupidity,” I’d use the word “arrogance,” among others.

    David

    Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink
  3. Jess wrote:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink
  4. David Brensilver wrote:

    Jess,

    To disagree would be absurd.

    David

    Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

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