Australia's Shark Cull Is Killing the Wrong Sharks

Bad news for sharks that present little threat to the humans that the cull is supposed to protect.

Image: Western Australians for Shark Conservation

An array of 25 enormous baited hooks has been bobbing from bright orange buoys since late January in turquoise waters just off postcard-perfect white beaches around Perth. The so-called drum lines are a desperate attempt by a conservative state government to protect summertime beachgoers and the region’s tourism sector from a growing scourge of shark attacks.

The nascent Australian attempt to cull sharks before they can kill any humans has proven potent when it comes to capturing immature sharks and species that are mostly harmless. But when it comes to killing great whites, which have been responsible for most of the (very rare) attacks on surfers and divers along the Western Australian shoreline, where culling began more than a month ago, the state government’s controversial program has floundered like a fish out of water.

The state’s use of the drum lines, which have long been used by two eastern Australian states despite angry opposition from environmentalists, have triggered huge waterfront protests. A legal challenge by Sea Shepherd aimed at stopping the cull has been denied, with Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett "relived" that the cull will continue.

It's true that the program has been effective at catching sharks. The problem is, it's not catching the species it was designed to—and some warn that they could actually be drawing more potential man-eaters toward area shorelines.

Early state figures released at the end of February showed that 66 sharks were captured during the three-month trial program’s first three weeks. Of those, 16 were shot in the head and dumped at sea, because they were longer than the target size of three meters. Nine undersized tiger or mako sharks were hauled in already dead. All of the rest, with the exception of a three-meter tiger shark that was dead when it was pulled in, were released alive because they were smaller than the targeted size.

The jarring fact that’s really being trumpeted by the cull program’s critics, is that not a single white shark has yet been captured.

Almost all of the sharks hooked have been tiger sharks, which is a species that a recent academic study found might have killed one person in the state of Western Australia during the past 40 years—even as the total number of deadly and nonfatal shark bites have “grown exponentially.” (The troubling trend might be linked to the recovering population of migratory humpback whales, which are favored prey among white sharks.)

Large white sharks, meanwhile, claimed 11 victims during the same 40-year period, plus 13 nonfatal recorded attacks. 

A young metro tiger shark is released after being caught on a drum line. Image: Western Australians for Shark Conservation

The most recent victim was plumber Chris Boyd, who was the seventh person to be killed by a shark in Western Australia in just three years. His November mauling by a white shark spurred the launch of the new cull program, despite widespread opposition from fellow surfers, boogie boarders, divers, and even from some shark attack victims and their relatives.

It’s possible that great whites are being hooked by the baited lines, before using their famous might to wrestle themselves free.  The West Australian newspaper reported that three hooks have been found bent out of shape, sometimes with the bait missing. In one of those cases, a large tiger shark was seen escaping from the hook as the line was pulled in.

Perhaps more worrying than the program’s failure to capture any white sharks are fears that the baited hooks, along with hooked, dead, and dying sharks, could be attracting more deadly specimens into the near-coastal waters.

Ross Weir, founder of Western Australians for Shark Conservation, a group that has been monitoring and speaking out against the shark cull program, said his boat-faring teams have spotted dead undersized sharks in the water after they were released alive.

“They’re releasing sharks that are not in a good enough condition to survive,” he said.

Those fears were bolstered when Australia’s Sixty Minutes program captured images of an undersized shark being hauled out of the water with its tail missing, which was presumably the handiwork of a larger shark.

“More often than not, what they do is they catch the smaller sharks,” Weir said. “The smaller sharks get hooked and they struggle and they thrash. That struggling and that thrashing attracts larger sharks into the area to feed on whatever is on the end of the line there.”

Activists and scientists alike have decried the lack of scientific evidence that such programs actually reduce shark attack risks. Sea Shepherd's attorneys argued in their court documents that the federal government erred when it provided Western Australia with exemptions to the Fisheries Management Act, which normally protects the targeted sharks as protected species. They say corners were cut when it came to consulting the public and experts before the exemptions were granted, an argument rejected by the WA Supreme Court.

While critics have seized on the recent shark capture data as evidence that the shark cull is already a failure, government officials argue that it vindicates the program.

“We have caught and destroyed a number of large sharks,” the state’s fisheries minister, Ken Baston, said in a statement. “This catch data proves there are a large number of big sharks near these beaches.”

Baston says he understands that some people don’t like the program, but that it’s needed to “restore some balance” along the beaches in favor of the human inhabitants.

Not only is the government standing by the culling program, it is expanding it; more drum lines are planned for release by the end of April. Which would seem to be bad news for populations of sharks that present little threat to the humans that the cull is supposed to protect.