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Government on shark watch as cull shelved

Mon 6 October 2014

Peter Spinks
Fairfax Science Columnist

Pictures of the two great whites killed by fisheries officers after last week's shark attack on 23-year-old Bunbury-man Sean Pollard have reignited debate over Western Australia's highly controversial "catch and kill" plan to cull sharks.

The attack comes close on the heels of a recommendation from Western Australia's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the state government to scrap plans for a three-year program using hooks on baited drum lines to snare great white, tiger or bull sharks that are longer than three metres.

The recommendation followed a Public Environmental Review, including thousands of public submissions and two major petitions.

Until now, the government and its advisers had intended to press ahead with the plan, with Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt having exempted the shark cull from national environment laws. This led to a $1.3 million trial, during which baited lines were placed one kilometre from the shore in the state's south-west and off Perth beaches.

During the widely opposed 13-week trial, from January to April this year, more than 170 sharks were caught, many being shot.

"The decision now by the EPA was based on there being insufficient scientific evidence that the population of great white sharks would not be harmed by the drum-line plan," says marine scientist Craig Thorburn, senior curator for Australia's Sea Life aquariums.

"It is almost certain that this program will not proceed this summer," Mr Thorburn explains. "There was an appeal period during which the government can challenge the decision – but that closed last month."

The state government would also need to obtain approval for the cull from Minister Hunt. A final decision will be announced later this month.

In the meantime, the WA government could ignore the recommendation, Mr Thorburn points out: "But Premier Colin Barnett said he was unlikely to do so this year at least."

Might the premier decide to press ahead with the cull next year?

"It depends on what happens this summer," Mr Thorburn replies. "If, like last year, there are no attacks, there would be no need to start a drum-line program. But if there are attacks, I think the WA government would try to re-introduce the program to kill sharks straight away."

Marine biologist Tooni Mahto, of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, is also cautious. "If the drum-lines were completely off the table, the WA Government would withdraw their proposal to catch and kill sharks," she says.

"Instead, what we're hearing from the WA Premier is that they have committed to not using drum-lines this summer – but have said nothing about future years," Ms Mahto explains. "The WA Government was planning on setting drum-lines over the next three summers and it's our opinion that they are still considering ways to do this in 2015 and beyond."

Another marine biologist, Sue Sargent, the Conservation Partnerships Manager at Fauna & Flora International Australia, believes it is unlikely the government will continue with its drum-line policy – "unless it commits to doing a full environmental assessment ensuring that the cull and drum-lines are not significantly impacting on either the south-west population of white sharks or other species as by-catch [those caught accidentally]."

(Other threatened species can get snared on drum-lines, such as grey nurse and short-fin mako sharks, fur seals, sea lions, turtles, whales and dolphins.)

As the white shark is protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, "it is hard to justify culling the species", explains Ms Sargent, who has worked on a project researching the critically endangered grey nurse shark.

Hunted almost to the point of extinction in the 1950s and 1960s by well-meaning, although misdirected, fishers and spear-fishers, Australia's east-coast population of grey nurses is now estimated to be between 1000 and 1500.

"While it's great to hear the drum lines are being pulled out, one can only wonder if the government will ever stop killing specific sharks judged to be posing a threat," says shark expert William Winram, oceans ambassador for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and free-diving world-record holder. "Identifying and corralling a shark is wishful thinking."

The solution

Lethal shark control, most experts contend, is not the answer to managing sharks around Australia's beaches.

"What environmentalists need to do is take the EPA report and apply this to Queensland and New South Wales where lethal shark control continues," Mr Thorburn notes. "If we can remove these programs from all states in Australia, then it becomes more difficult for such programs to be re-introduced."

According to him, the public should be encouraged to become "shark smart", so to speak: in other words, learning more about sharks, their biology and migration patterns, where and when they feed and what they feed on.

"This way, water activities can be planned to minimise the chance of coming across sharks," he explains. "We also need to accept that the ocean is the wild: we cannot control the wild and should not try to do so. But we can control how and when we act, and how and when we enter the oceans."

Last year, the Australian Shark Attack File, maintained by Taronga Zoo, listed 14 incidents of shark-human interactions. Of these, two were fatal and 10 resulted in injuries, with the remaining two cases being injury-free.

Over the same period, the National Drowning Report revealed that no less than 90 people drowned at beaches, harbours and other seaside locations. "So, 45 times more people drowned at sea than were killed as a result of shark attacks," Mr Thorburn says.

Ocean guardians

"Sharks help maintain healthy ocean ecosystems, including seagrass beds and coral reefs," Ms Sargent points out.

The decline in the number of large sharks has led to the collapse of fisheries and the degradation of coral reefs, she claims.

"Large sharks, in particular, are an important part of our oceans," Ms Sargent says. "So, when we enter the sea, we should do so understanding the risk of a shark attack."

Sharks are apex predators, reminds Mr Winram, one of a rare breed of diver who swims freely with great whites without the protection of a cage. "When you remove sharks from an ecosystem, there are dire consequences. They play many important roles in keeping an ecosystem in balance and healthy."

Another reason to preserve sharks is their value to eco-tourism, he points out. "People love sharks and will pay money to travel to destinations where they can dive with them," he says. "In most places that have done assessments of the 'live value' versus 'dead value', the live value always comes out on top."

Research

The argument to protect rather than cull sharks is backed by a study published in the international online journal, PLOS ONE.

"The loss of sharks can have an impact that propagates down the food chain," the researchers write. "Simultaneously … the effects of bottom-up processes of bleaching and cyclones appear to propagate up the food chain through herbivores … but do not affect carnivores."

The scientists conclude: "Because their presence may promote the abundance of herbivores, the removal of sharks by fishing has implications for both natural and anthropogenic disturbances involving the loss of corals, as herbivores are critical to the progress and outcome of coral recovery."

Extinction

With an estimated 100 million sharks killed every year, about one-third of all open-water species of sharks are facing the prospect of extinction, an international report reveals. The at-risk list includes great white and hammerhead sharks.

The report is based on a survey conducted by 174 researchers who analysed the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List, which ranks a range of animals on how likely they are to become extinct.

Part of the reason that sharks are facing extinction relates to the popularity of shark fin soup. "This is an international problem, driven by the high value of shark fin in the Asian market," says Ms Mahto. "Fins are also imported and can be found on restaurant menus around Australia."

The legal situation regarding shark finning here is complicated, she says, because it differs between states and territories. "As it stands, it's illegal to return to port without the fins and at least the body of the shark – although they don't have to be connected in all jurisdictions."

Sanctuaries

Internationally, major advances have been made in shark conservation, with Pacific Islanders leading the way.

For example, Palau (in Micronesia) and the Maldives have established shark sanctuaries; Mexico, Honduras and the Bahamas have introduced shark fishing moratoria, while Hawaii, the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam have banned the trade in shark products.

The Marshall Islands, meanwhile, has the world's largest sanctuary to protect sharks across nearly 2 million square kilometres of ocean. In addition, the US introduced the Shark Conservation Act, with California banning the sale of shark fins.

"Australia is lagging," Ms Mahto laments. "This is because sharks are caught in several fisheries managed by Australia's states and territories."

Two fisheries are of note. First, the East Coast Inshore Fin Fish Fishery has an annual quota of 600 tonnes of tropical sharks from around the Great Barrier Reef. "The quota could be considered a stab in the dark as there are no assessments of how many sharks there are," Ms Mahto explains.

The other one is the Gulf of Carpentaria Inshore Fin Fish Fishery, which assigned no quota to the take of sharks. "It's managed by controlling fishing effort, for example," Ms Mahto says. "So there is no understanding of whether the fishery is depleting sharks," Ms Mahto says.

Netting

Beach nets designed to protect bathers are also of concern. A report on the New South Wales beach-meshing program reveals that the number of sharks caught in nets has decreased, reflecting a general population decline.

Beach nets are listed under the NSW Fisheries Management Act as a key threatening process for sharks. "The nets are not selective, and catch a wide range of other marine animals," Ms Mahto says.

For example, between 1992 and 2008, the Queensland shark netting program caught 74 common dolphins, 26 humpback whales, nine dugongs, 82 manta rays, 99 tuna and more than 100 poor turtles, few of which survive after the ordeal of being netted.

Surveys

Internationally, surveys suggest that roughly 90 per cent of the ocean's big fish have been lost since the 50s. "About 100 million sharks get killed every year," Ms Mahto says. "This means the structure and function of the food web associated with sharks will be disrupted in some way."

One documented case attributed the collapse of a US east coast scallop fishery to overfishing of sharks. "When sharks were removed from the ecosystem, it created an artificial build-up of their natural food source, the cow-nose ray, which in turn ate the local scallops. With no sharks present to keep the rays in check, the natural balance was lost."

Action

The Australian Marine Conservation Society, meanwhile, is seeking more information from the Federal Environment Minister, Ms Mahto says. "When we're clearer about what's going on, we hope to provide the public with easy ways to tell the WA and Federal Government that they prefer sharks swimming in the water, not dead on hooks."

Ms Mahto concludes: "If you want to take action now, write to WA Premier Colin Barnett and Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt and let them know you support non-lethal ways of preventing shark and human interactions."

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