Through some physics wizardry, great white sharks can hide in plain water. It’s a great skill for hunting, but in West Australia, it’s also now a tool for survival after an Australian premier announced plans to shoot all great whites near beaches on sight.
Spurred by a spate of five fatal attacks on swimmers in the last 10 months, the Australian government announced a $6.85 million dedicated for “shark mitigation strategies” on the continent’s west coast.
The program includes a major change to Australia’s shark mitigation laws. Previously, only sharks that had attacked swimmers could be killed. The new program allows them to be killed on sight, and includes $2 million to the Department of Fisheries for tracking and killing sharks that meander near beaches.
After saying that the new laws won’t incite a shark hunt, Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett infuriated conservationists by dismissing great whites. “We will always put the lives and safety of beachgoers ahead of the shark,” he told a radio station. “This is, after all, a fish – let’s keep it in perspective.”
Great whites, one of the most iconic predators of the world’s oceans, are just a fish? Yeah, conservationists are pissed. From NBC News:
“This may be the most reactionary and archaic response I have seen in my lifetime of shark study,” added George Burgess, curator of the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File. “Such methods run totally in contrast to modern scientific thinking,” he told NBC News, noting that “no evidence” from the 5,000 attacks on file suggest that sharks have become more aggressive toward humans. In fact, only two or maybe three of those attacks can even be attributed to one shark involved in multiple strikes. Western Australia’s strategy, he added, "is particularly ill-founded in that it involves a protected species — an animal already acknowledged to be in trouble not only in Australia but in most areas of its biological range.
Barnett’s response is to what does appear to be a boom in fatal attacks. Those five in the last ten months make up nearly half of the 12 fatal attacks recorded in the last 100 years. It’s unclear why the attacks have suddenly become more frequent, but some are arguing that perhaps great white populations have boomed.
Until studies are conducted, it’s also possible that the rise in attacks are due to more people being in the water, or perhaps overfishing in deeper waters has pushed sharks towards coastlines to feed. But with great whites being a protected species in Australia for at least a decade, and the population of great whites off America’s west coast being considered for Endangered Species Act protection, a shoot first, ask questions later policy seems more grounded in politics than ecology.
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.