I am someone who has spent a lot of time in the ocean, easily as vulnerable to a shark attack as any other human being.
This year in particular the media has been full of shark stories. And the media LOVE shark stories. But to feed a stereotype that -- most of the time -- is completely false, should be put in the past.
The tragic occurrence of a shark attack can be a life changing, incredibly serious and traumatic event, and by no means should we ever think otherwise. But with so many people questioning whether Australia needs to cull sharks, what we really need is to seriously rethink strategies for controlling a situation that will never really be in our control.
What we have learnt from the Western Australia cull is that it did not reduce the risk of sharks in a localised area, it simply destroyed species which spend time close to shore, often juveniles, which often were species that are not involved in attacks, resulting in a barbaric and ecologically devastating outcome.
Wildlife always poses a risk. In the past there have been people mauled by bears, ripped apart by great apes, attacked by lions. Yet we scream out if anyone ever mentions destroying these animals, let alone cull a species.
So why is it so different with sharks?
Would we cull every big cat we found in an area if a lion in Africa mauled someone? Absolutely not. So when there is a shark attack, which is often by a Great White or a Bull Shark, why does it seem okay to go out and kill every shark that we find?
I grew up in South Australia, which has one of the highest populations of Great Whites in any State in Australia. In saying that, we have far fewer people in the water. Our coastlines are a lot harder to access, are not very user friendly, so we have fewer surfers and swimmers in the water.
In comparison, the east coast is packed with people using the water, and this is becoming greater every single year. People will never stop surfing, or swimming, or relying on the ocean, but what we have to realise is that neither will the sharks.
These animals have evolved for millions of years, survived ice ages, climate change, and yet, they are struggling to survive the human race. Our children need a planet to live on in the future, an ocean to thrive in, and every living being that is there in the ocean plays an important role.
Great Whites, in particular, are apex. They are a predator that eats rarely and kills to survive. Yes, the attacks are unpredictable, often fatal, but still, they are rare, so to reduce the risk of something already rare, we must come up with different strategies.
To lose this species or damage the populations would mean disruption in a food chain that is already struggling majorly due to overfishing by humans. Humans are taking target species from the sea in incredibly disruptive numbers, predators are losing food they need to survive, they are searching for new places, eating different species. To lose those predators is to lose a whole new trophic level in so many food chains, which would only do more damage.
With many people speaking up for a shark cull, what we need to understand is that this will most likely not be effective in reducing the risk of an attack. An isolated cull is actually a lot more ineffective than what people may realise. As long-term shark biologist Barry Bruce has said in the past, these animals are migratory and some travel up to 80km a day. The chance of the same shark coming back and attacking again is not a likely situation.
What needs to happen is a combination of more effective strategies to attempt to reduce the risk. Australia's coasts need more spotter planes, a better system to notify the general public of sharks in these areas, on a regular basis.
Money going towards culling these animals should be given to scientific professionals, pilots and notification systems that alert the general public, surfers, and swimmers in these areas. Scientific studies should be prioritised, so that more sharks can be tagged and tracked, so that we actually know their whereabouts regularly and also have a better chance of knowing the exact animals in the area.
The government needs to make a conscious effort to alert the general public of risk in areas, learn more about the animals, increase knowledge and awareness, and -- as a result -- protect our beach goers and sharks. We need to learn to co-exist, because ultimately, we need sharks for the future of our oceans, and for our kids.
I am sure everyone will agree that a planet with a healthy ocean is the best planet.
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