In recent years, shark mitigation has become a topic of international debate after Western Australia began culling sharks in response to a spate of fatal shark bite incidents in the region. This was followed by La Reunion Island instating a culling program and banning water activities at certain beaches after they also recorded a rise in shark bite incidents. Despite pressure from the public and scientists for governments to adopt non-lethal shark control policies, both WA and Reunion Island proceeded with their lethal shark control programs.
In June 2014, scientists and experts from all over the world descended upon Durban, South Africa to attend the Sharks International conference. The conference was an opportunity for the world’s shark experts to share their latest research findings and discuss developments in shark conservation. We took this opportunity to raise the issue of shark control and ask the delegation of more than 300 attendees what their expert views were on the management of sharks to mitigate the risks posed to ocean users.
Unfortunately, many scientists and experts often choose not to enter into the shark control debate through fear of losing their job or funding for their research. Therefore, to ensure we collected views from all sectors, we allowed conference delegates to anonymously complete our survey, giving individuals the freedom to speak out on the issue.
We found that 97% of experts were opposed to any form of lethal control and 89% were supportive of non-lethal control measures.
The remainder of delegates surveyed were either in favour of lethal control measures (3%) or didn’t think that any form of control was necessary (11%) due to the minute risk that sharks pose to humans.
Frequently, delegates highlighted that culling programs are detrimental to many forms of marine life, not just sharks, and that culling is an outdated control method.
Historically, shark culling programs have not been viewed as an effective approach to managing the risk of shark bites on ocean users. In fact, when shark culling was carried out in Hawaii (between 1959 to 1976), over 4,500 sharks were killed, and yet there was no significant decrease in the number of shark bites recorded.
Culling has been the primary shark mitigation policy of the New South Wales Government for over 60 years through the use of “shark” nets. A report by the Department of Primary Industries showed that, despite this, 23 of the 139 (17%) shark bite incidents in the state between 1937 and 2009 occurred at netted beaches, the very beaches that are meant to be protected from such events.
Many experts stated that more investment is needed to develop new technologies for monitoring sharks and the use of non-lethal deterrents should be explored further. Of the non-lethal approaches suggested, experts were divided with a relatively even number promoting tag and release methods, shark exclusion zones (ie: Eco-Barrier), aerial patrols, and shark spotting programs.
Concerns were raised, however, over the expense and effectiveness of some of these programs, and some experts questioned whether it was necessary to implement any form of control at all (lethal or non-lethal). Rather, some experts suggested that the money should be invested into educating the public about the risks of entering the ocean and how individuals can reduce their risk of a negative encounter with a shark.
To conclude, there is a clear concern amongst global shark experts that current lethal control policies being employed in Australia, South Africa, and worldwide are no longer appropriate given advances in modern technology and our greater understanding of the important role sharks play in marine ecosystems. Greater investment in research, public education, and non-lethal shark management strategies is seen as the best way forward.
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