On November 23 2013, a 35-year-old man named Chris Boyd was mauled to death by a great white shark while surfing off the southern coast of Western Australia (WA), the eponymously named state that occupies a third of the continent. The incident quickly gripped the nation, and was reported to be the seventh such attack in WA since 2011. Clearly something had to be done.
The state government moved quickly and chose to stage a cull, which will last through April 30, in which any hooked bull, tiger, or great white shark over ten feet long would be killed.
The cull is being conducted by using a controversial technique; the use of drum lines, in which sharks are caught on baited steel hooks that are tethered to drums filled with a buoyant polystyrene material and anchored to the seafloor, around half a mile out to sea. Anything found on the hook is either shot or released alive — sort of.
The decision was defended in January by the WA state premier, Colin Barnett, who said, “I realize that many people object to the catching of sharks. The government has taken this measure after long consideration; it wasn't a knee-jerk reaction. We've been looking at this for some time.”
But there are other ways to protect swimmers from sharks, and the use of drum lines had been condemned in a 2012 report commissioned by the WA government itself.
Records of the cull for 51 days, from January 25 to March 16, reveal that in that time 110 sharks were hooked. Of those, 31 were shot outright, and 14 were found already dead. Not one of the sharks caught was a great white —the species predominantly responsible for killing people.
As the cull began, an oil rig maintenance man named Andy Corbe, who had just sold his business, set out for a sailing holiday with his wife, Laura. They witnessed its violence firsthand. Corbe described watching a Department of Fisheries boat drag a female tiger shark about half a mile.
“They stopped and told us to get back one hundred meters [c. 328 feet] so they could discharge a firearm. Then they shot it in the head with a powerhead. That was full-on,” he said.
The Corbes put the holiday on ice and have been photographing the cull since. They work in shifts, watching while Department of Fisheries agents patrol the baited drum lines, 12 hours each day, from 6 AM to 6 PM.
“I hate the brutality of it,” said Andy. “They’re supposedly using fishing gear that won’t catch anything undersize — under three meters [ten feet] — but the majority are well under and they end up badly damaged. They use these massive hooks that come out through the top of the head, so there’s just blood everywhere. We’ve recently started filming the sharks underwater when they release the undersize ones. A lot of them are just sinking to the bottom upside down, basically just drowning.”
According to Corbe, the drum-lining has actually just attracted more sharks. “They’re re-baiting every day so they’re setting up a little local eco system so a bunch of fish are hanging around, which attracts larger predatory fish, which in turn attracts sharks. What we’ve seen recently is that the sharks they’re catching are getting bigger, so they’re coming in from offshore. These aren’t animals that are hanging around our local shores. It’s one hundred percent counter-productive, and we’re even seeing hooked sharks coming up that have been half eaten by other sharks. The level of shark activity is just increasing.”
Nonetheless, last week the WA government asked Australia’s Federal Department of Environment for federal permission to extend the program for three years.
Not that there aren’t other ways to protect swimmers from sharks. Indeed the government is funding studies of other shark repellents, including the use of bubble curtains, strobe lights, and sub aquatic sounds.
And a private initiative is being tested at Perth’s Coogee Beach: a plastic curtain to protect beaches without entangling smaller fish. It was created and paid for by a local inventor named Craig Moss, who said, “The trial can’t have gone better.” However, the state government refused the enterprise funding, and the trial will be allowed to expire April 14, without being reinstalled — again seemingly ignoring the advice of the 2012 report: “Further consideration could be given to the feasibility of using shark enclosures for bather protection.”