A Town Wants to Kill Sharks After Shark Attacks. Here's Why It Won't Work
"It's absolutely moronic."
Image: Jeff Kubina/Flickr
It was described as "a scene out of Jaws" by at least one bystander.
A day at the beach ended in horror last Sunday, when a shark bit a 12-year-old girl wading waist-deep in the waves off Oak Island, North Carolina. Then, just an hour and a half later, another frantic 911 call: a 16-year old boy had been bitten on his left arm in nearly the exact same location.
The aftermath of the incident has been following the plot of Steven Spielberg's 1975 thriller about a man-eating shark in an eerily close fashion: after a string of horrific shark attacks, people want revenge.
While both bite victims are said to be stable and recovering at a nearby hospital, Oak Island town manager Tim Holloman told the Los Angeles Times that if a shark "look[s] like they're posing a danger," town officials are prepared to euthanize it, presumably by shooting it from a boat.
The definition of "aggressive" behavior has yet to be made, but Holloman said that darting in and out of the surf line or coming within about 100 feet of the beach—both normal behaviors for sharks—would be considered as such.
But shark experts are saying that you just can't kill sharks to save people.
"It's absolutely moronic," George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at Florida's Museum of Natural History, told Motherboard. Among the reasons he gave: there's almost no chance of anyone actually finding the shark or sharks in question, because the species of shark isn't even known.
"The reality is that a shark is highly mobile—it may already be 50 miles away from where it once was."
What's more, the characterization "aggressive" is meaningless, especially for an apex predator whose motivation is to eat other animals (though it's worth noting that sharks are almost always not interested in actually eating people, and usually let them go after a bite like this). The officials, Burgess said, are on a "witch hunt."
"By what criteria can you tell if shark is aggressive?" Burgess said. "Because it looks big? Because it's swimming right to the person? Because has a chip on its shoulder?"
Not to mention that the bites suffered last Sunday were incredibly rare, given North Carolina's relatively large population of big sharks—since 1935, sharks in North Carolina waters have bitten 52 people, only three of them fatally.
Despite these statistics, this is hardly the first time people have used shark bites as a reason to kill sharks. The state of Western Australia, a massive territory that includes some 8,000 miles of coastline, much of it sandy beaches, has been embroiled in a fierce battle over sharks since January 2014. After seven people died from shark attacks in four years, local officials supported by the state's premier implemented a catch-and-kill policy for large sharks. A half mile off the state's most popular beaches, 72 drum lines, a series of floating polyurethane barrels attached to fishing lines, were anchored onto the ocean's floor and baited to draw in passing sharks. Any shark caught on the lines larger than 9.8 feet was shot in the head.
"It's just a risk of going in ocean where they live."
Shark scientists were quick to point out the many flaws in the plan: other species were routinely caught in the lines, and drawing sharks closer to beaches with bait was not a great way to keep them away from swimmers. A group of 102 shark experts penned a letter protesting the cull, saying that other shark control programs, like capturing and releasing sharks, aerial patrols, shark spotters and better monitoring systems, "do not have to be lethal to be effective."
Scientists have shown time and again that killing sharks to protect swimmers just doesn't work. One report by Western Australia's Department of Fisheries found that not only were the lines not doing their job of catching the types of sharks that were biting swimmers, they were even catching other marine wildlife, like sea turtles, by accident. Another case study that lasted nearly two decades in Hawaii reported that lethal shark control programs didn't lower attack rates at all.
For the North Carolina case, the same sentiments are taking hold. David Shiffman, a PhD candidate at the University of Miami and one of the signees of the Western Australia letter, told Motherboard "more people are recognizing that by going into a shark's home, you take certain risks. And more people are speaking out against culls."
It's not clear yet whether local officials will actually carry out a cull. Louis Daniel, the executive director of North Carolina's Division of Marine Fisheries, said that there is "no intent on the part of the state" to take any action against the sharks.
"It would not be allowable for people to go out and start shooting sharks," he said. "It's just a risk of going in ocean where they live."
In the end, Burgess says, while shark bites are tragic events, reactions to them that include killing the offender are nothing more than kneejerk. For a group that's losing members an estimated rate of 100 million individuals each year, culling is just not the answer.
"We need not to react emotionally but in smart rational fashion," he said. "We're beyond that—we shouldn't even be thinking about that."