Shark cull outcry overreaction

Monday, 3 February, 2014 - 15:01
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The current shark cull is a politically challenging issue, but one where Colin Barnett is right to dig in because he has time and momentum on his side.

I was trying to keep out of this one, but the nonsense I have heard on the airwaves and read in the headlines about culling sharks has provoked me to add my voice to the debate.

Firstly I had to ask myself: is this a business issue?

That is a relatively easy one. First and foremost, shark attacks are increasingly impacting on the Western Australian lifestyle, affecting people who choose to live here and those who may want to visit as tourists.

Secondly, we have a lone businessman, a fisherman, bearing the brunt of attacks on his competence (and livelihood) when he is going about his lawful business.

Thirdly, Mr Barnett has far more important issues to deal with than this massive distraction. Almost nowhere in the world would a politician have to face so much noise over such a ridiculous issue.

Finally, environmental activists need to be shown that they can’t threaten to break the law to challenge an elected parliament – no matter how much support they claim exists in the broader community.

The next stage to ask myself is: what are the broader issues of culling sharks?

For those who arrived in the state yesterday, regular shark attacks are a relatively new phenomenon. Before the past decade, the number of recorded fatalities could be counted on one hand. Now they seem to be a regular occurrence.

That is not, as some misinformed people suggest, because of climate change, rogue sharks with a taste for human flesh, or because there are more people swimming or surfing.

It is because fishermen and whalers hunted sharks to near extinction, so there were almost no big sharks left by the time our society was rich or developed enough to consider the ocean as a centre of leisure activity.

Then, a few decades ago, we acted to avoid wiping them out, declaring them and a key source of their food, whales, as protected.

Big shark species and whales are slow breeders, taking decades to reach maturity. Nevertheless, after almost four decades of protection, their numbers have bounced back. As a kid growing up in Perth I never saw a whale. In 1997 I was amused to learn there was a whale-watching lookout at Cape Naturaliste and was shocked when I actually saw a whale.

These days I am uplifted when see whales frolicking almost every afternoon when I holiday at Rottnest.

Like the whales, sharks have also made a comeback, although there’s not the same feel-good factor as occurs with whales.

WA has developed a lifestyle based around water in the absence of predatory sharks; unlike what many people say, they were not always there – they had gone missing for more than 100 years.

The sharks that find themselves in contact with humans are no longer threatened. Their numbers are strong, which is why it is silly to compare shark attack stats with the past, when there were none to speak of. And, importantly, there now is an abundance of their primary food sources in the open ocean, or parts of WA’s extensive coast line where humans are less prevalent.

Under such circumstances, where they are no longer threatened as a species by human activity, why does the death of one animal, or several hundred, make any difference? I can, after all, buy shark at my local fish and chip shop.

Unfortunately we can’t eat big sharks because of their mercury content. But we can’t eat blowfish either and they die by the thousands without any protests on the steps of parliament or Ricky Gervais holding up a placard on a red carpet.

Those behind the current anti-culling hysteria best get down to any jetty on the Swan River and squeal at the recreational fishermen whose bycatch is left drying in the sun. After all, apart from protection of a particular species, why is one fish’s life worth more than another?

Modern Australians should be proud that we are able to manage the environment in such a way that sharks have emerged from near extinction to reach numbers that represent a threat. Now we need to finesse that management.

Dare I say it, but the same should be said for crocodiles, in the north, where blanket protection also appears to have reached its use-by date.