What some WA surfers think about shark culling
Story by Jed Smith As debate continues to rage from all sides of the political spectrum, and all corners of the globe, about Western Australia’s decision to allow shark culling, only one fact remains undisputed: We don’t know shit about sharks. When the great white was first lifted onto Australia’s endangered list in 1994, scientists […]
Story by Jed Smith
As debate continues to rage from all sides of the political spectrum, and all corners of the globe, about Western Australia’s decision to allow shark culling, only one fact remains undisputed: We don’t know shit about sharks. When the great white was first lifted onto Australia’s endangered list in 1994, scientists at the time readily agreed the data that put them there was totally inconclusive. Specifically, it was meshing (shark net) records for New South Wales and Queensland; game fishing records from New South Wales and South Australia; and anecdotal sighting frequencies by tourism operators and divers in South Australia – all of which reported declining catches and sightings that led to great whites being protected.
The problems with the data were many: there had been changes in shark meshing regimes over that period which could have skewed findings; the fishing efforts of certain commercial operators may have changed; not to mention the fact next to nothing was known at the time about the migratory patterns of great whites. Then there was the contentious nature of the report. While it anecdotally cited a decrease in great whites, the report also included contradictory evidence telling of a rise in great white numbers in certain parts of the country.
Two decades on, we’re none the wiser about shark numbers or their behaviour. And yet still the debate rages. With a vacuum of hard facts available, the debate recently descended into utter farce when hundreds of “angry protesters” turned out at Burleigh Heads, Queensland, to protest shark culling. Despite the fact the water directly behind them contained some 300 baited drum lines, which their government has used for the past 50 years to pluck hundreds of sharks from the ocean. As such, we thought it time to list a few hard facts about sharks, and also provide a sample of opinions from people who do actually confront the prospect of being eaten alive on a daily basis: surfers from Margaret River and the surrounding area aka the fatal-shark attack capital of the world right now.
1. West Australia is the fatal shark attack capital of the world.
Russell Ord, Margaret River, water photographer, surfer, father: Something’s definitely happening. I’d love to know what it is. Having all those attacks in three years is crazy. The last time, when (35 year old, Chris) Boydy got taken, I got a message that a 14 year old kid had been taken at Lefties (where Boyd was surfing). My son is 14 and he was at Lefties with all his mates. It definitely hits home when something like that happens.
Dave Macaulay, Gracetown, former Word Tour surfer, father: Gracetown, where I live, has become the shark fatality capital of the world. We’re all pretty rattled down that way with the amount of fatal shark attacks in the last few years. The Chris Boyd attack was the final straw and that’s how most people saw it, but not everyone, y’know. It’s still definitely divisive and I understand that. But at the same time we don’t feel very safe in the water down there.
Chris Ross, Margaret River, semi-professional surfer, diver, spear fisherman, kite-boarder: It’s a bit of all-sorts why all the attacks could be happening. Great whites have been protected for a while and they didn’t used to be, and we’re taking all their fish. There’s a lot of things. Dead whale carcasses have been washing up. I think the whites have bred up a bit more than people think.
Camel, veteran West Coast surfer*: I don’t want to sound like an idiot who wants a total cull. We are in their territory. But, there are a lot of sharks around and we should cull some of the great whites, especially the big ones that come into and hang around swimming and surfing spots.
Trevor Paddenburg, Margaret River, shark-journalist, surfer: The fact there’s been seven in three years – normally there’s one a year and that’s somewhere in Australia – seven in three years in south-west WA is a radical run of shark attacks.
“It’s definitely not stopping any crew from surfing,” says Chris Ross, pictured here above a reef that’s not real close to shore. “But it is in the back of your mind.” Photo: Chris Gurney
2. The surfing community is equally divided on the issue.
Jeff Hansen, Sea Shepherd: We can survive without surfing but we can’t survive without sharks in our ocean. It is very disappointing, because surfers are meant to be known as the caretakers of the ocean. They understand the marine environment, they understand the importance of biodiversity. The surfers who are calling for this are not real surfers.
Russell Ord: All the surfers down here want to see something done, whether there is baiting, or more studies… but it’s not a heated debate. They’re coming up with more solutions and better solutions. I think we’re getting closer to something constructive happening. The government has made a decision and hopefully the protesters come up with some good, educated solutions. We should be doing a combination of everything.
Chris Ross: They need to use the facts and not get so emotionally attached to sharks. They kill scaleys (scaled fish) every day and don’t think twice about it but for some reason there’s all this love and respect and amazement with sharks. I just think people have a mythological thing about sharks. Speaking generally, they’re just fish. I think they’re breeding up and they could breed outta control.
Camel: They shouldn’t be protected any more. It seems like there are plenty of them now and lives have been lost because of it. Taking some of them out of the system would mean surfing and diving and swimming would be a lot safer. I think most surfers in WA would agree with me. Some conservationists might not agree, but you have to look at the big picture and the rising number of attacks and encounters.
Dave Macaulay: I like the concept of surfers being caretakers of the ocean but I think the value of human life should come first. I think that’s the big issue here. I would like to see the government put the resources into figuring out what the best solution is using the best scientists and experts and what else is going on around the world.
Trevor Paddenburg: The debate is massively political and politicised. It’s being played out in the public arena, it’s 100 percent politics. It’s not a question of necessarily keeping beaches safe or a question of conservation. It’s being talked about on parliament hill in Perth and you’ve got the leader of the opposition talking at anti-shark rallies and (West Australian Premiere) Colin Barnett saying in the world’s media that he’s all for it, bring on the cull. The debate right now is not very constructive at all. Let’s bring all parties together, let’s talk about this and see if we can reach a goal making beaches safer for everyone.
3. People are still gonna surf.
Russell Ord: We had a really good day at North Point last week and I swam and shot photos for three hours. I was out there on my own. I’m not changing anything. My son surfs with me at Margs early; he hunts the inside so he’s sitting on his own. You just gotta enjoy life and get on with it. People are dying on the roads all the time, the chances are very, very remote that you’ll be taken in my eyes. I mean, I still swim at The Right (offshore reef break further south) on my own in the middle of the ocean. I’ve been bumped by a White out there. If you’re fearful of something, you’re just not living.
Chris Ross: We had a fun day at North Point the other day. It’s definitely not stopping any crew from surfing. Everyone loves it so much around here it’s not gonna stop them, no matter what. But it is in the back of your mind.
Dave Macaulay: I was considering leaving (the West). I’ve got four kids that all surf. I’m not worried about it myself, but I am worried for them. My daughter was actually there the day of the last attack (which killed Chris Boyd) and ran up to help. All the kids were surfing on the day. She was rattled by that. It’s not something you want your daughter to see. She was keen to move to the East and she’s been there for a couple of months now. It was pretty quiet there at Lefties (where Boyd was killed) for a couple of weeks but it’s pretty much back to normal now.
Trevor Paddenburg: When I surf Lefties or Umbies I have a bit more trepidation than I used to, but basically I think nowhere’s safe. Ken Crew got chomped (and killed) 15 meters from shore at Cottesloe. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.
“This is a big, dark slab in some of the sharkiest waters in the state,” says Chris Gurney.
4. With zero in hard data the public debate has been manipulated.
Russell Ord: Just don’t get on the bandwagon. Have some thoughts for people that have lost people. They’re going through a terrible time. I get really pissed off with the signs saying ‘Don’t go in the ocean.’ I mean, we’re gonna go in the ocean. Most of the country lives on the coast, and it’s for that very reason. We all love the ocean, it’s a matter of all getting along.
Chris Ross: It’s easy to say whatever you want about protecting sharks if you don’t go in the ocean everyday. I just think there’s always gonna be two sides to the story. A few people who don’t spend much time in the ocean seem to be having a lot of a say. It’s hard for them to tell us it’s not our territory to go swimming in.
Dave Macaulay: I can understand both sides, but I don’t personally feel like I’m well informed. I’m no expert on what’s going on. I’m putting my faith in the idea that the government are doing their homework and figuring out the best way to deal with it. I feel like the government has some level of duty of care. But the hysteria has gone crazy. A few calm heads wouldn’t go astray.
Trevor Paddenburg: To be perfectly candid, I work for News Limited and there is no bigger news in WA than when there’s a shark attack. I’ve covered several myself and basically, it’s a media frenzy. Because there has been so much media attention and coverage, the government has been forced to take action. It’s a vicious cycle in terms of so much media interest, which puts pressure on the government, then the government is forced into some sort of knee-jerk reaction. Covering it day in and day out, it just seems to me it hasn’t been that well thought-out, as the drum lines have been set.
5. No one is convinced by the baited drum lines.
Chris Ross: There’s a few big whites that are cruising around here, but they keep catching reefies (Reef sharks) in the drum lines. They need to be catching the big whites.
Russell Ord: I don’t feel any safer with them, that’s for sure. You’re gonna attract more (sharks), surely? People say it’s their domain, and it is, but I’d like to see a massive study done, not only on the great white, but the whole eco system. There’s something certainly happening.
Dave Macaulay: I feel like the government is at least trying to do something and address it. I’d like to know more information about what the best path is but, y’know, I feel like at least they’re trying address it. Most of the surfers I’ve spoken to feel like something needed to be done.
Trevor Paddenburg: Personally, I don’t feel any safer with drum lines. Any benefit, taking aside the questions of whether they should be there and by-catch and all the rest of it, is going to be offset by the fact you have baited hooks bobbing around, luring sharks in. It’s been described as a big meat curtain and it basically is. It’s like a homing beacon for any hungry shark out there. Considering the drum lines are one kilometre off shore and some of the surf spots are five, six, seven hundred meters off shore… no, I don’t feel any safer.
*Camel’s opinions courtesy Perth Now.
Follow Jed on Twitter here.
Taj Burrow, born and bred in WA, will not talk about sharks. He flat out refuses. He just goes about his biz and steams through Heineken bottles like this. Photo: John Barton
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