Last month Tasmanian Greens senator Peter Whish Wilson, who is an avid surfer, used a speech in parliament to advocate against the culling of sharks as a knee-jerk response to the recent attacks on the north coast.
Mr Whish Wilson described his position as unique one, given he is ‘one who wants to save the creatures who are potentially out to eat him’. We publish his speech here as a contribution to the debate.
Nothing attracts headlines and our attention like news of shark attacks. We can blame the movie Jaws for this macabre attraction. These headlines help sell papers but they do not help us understand and deal with the reality of co-existing with sharks on our immense and beautiful coastlines. They also do not help when fear and emotion are running high like they are at the moment in places on the east coast of Australia like Ballina or Lennox Head, where a number of tragic shark encounters have recently taken life and limb and put the local community, including surfers, into an entirely understandable spin. Having just returned from holidays at Byron Bay myself—and I was there the same week that the beaches were closed after two shark attacks—I can totally understand the feeling in the community and the intensity that has been developing over a number of years.
As a surfer and a conservationist, sharks are to me both a source of fear and awe. I have surfed most of the world’s oceans and have only ever had one close encounter with a shark. It was probably where you would least expect it: at a spot called Green Balls in Bali, where it would be fair to say I was harassed out of the water. I have also surfed places like Red Bluff, called camp of the moon, up near Carnarvon, which is one of the ‘sharkiest’ places on earth, where I literally saw sharks every day when I was surfing yet I was not bothered by any of them. I am a surfer, and the perspective I can give on this debate is a unique one—one that can only be provided by someone who wants to save the creatures who are potentially out to eat him.
With this in mind, I wanted to say a few important things tonight. Sharks are a fact of life for the surfer. They live in the water. Their food lives in the water. Recently it has been reported that surfers in the Ballina-Byron area have called on the New South Wales government for a limited shark cull following this increase in the frequency of shark encounters. I will not preach to anyone on this issue. I want to state clearly tonight that I totally understand the fear, the anxiety and even the loathing around these tragic shark encounters.
The scientist and champion of biodiversity Edward O Wilson described great white shark as: The last expert predator of man still living free. Great whites are by all odds the most frightening animal on earth—swift, relentless, mysterious and unpredictable.
But we need to put aside these understandable and instinctive emotions and calmly and rationally address the issues underlying the tragic causes of mistaken identity that have led to the loss of human life and injury in our oceans—not least because shark encounters are likely to increase into the future.
What is causing an increased frequency of shark attacks? In short, us. Recent shark attack increases are consistent with a global trend with increasing numbers of interactions following a global increase in coastal population. There is a range of factors changing the marine environment in places like Australia: increased coastal urbanisation results in increased numbers of people in the water, continued clearing of coastal habitats, increased pollution, increased fishing pressure, changing global ocean temperatures, increased pollution such as ocean mercury through waste water disposal and the burning of coal, ocean acidification and the scourge of marine plastics all put pressure on the food chain.
I have thought often and deeply on this issue. My conclusions are that the two most important things for a surfer like me are: firstly, understand the risks involved with surfing; and, secondly, only go in the water if you accept the risks. You may still be and are likely to be uncomfortable with the acceptance of these risks—sharks are always on my mind when I am in the water—but it must be your choice. As I just noted, the good news for ocean lovers is the risks of unwanted shark encounters are statistically very low and can be mitigated to some extent. But by any statistical measure death by shark attacks does not rate against even the most minimal of threats to the vast majority of modern humans.
In 2014 the Taronga Zoo Australian shark attack file reported that there were a total of five shark attacks in that year and that over a 50-year period the number of fatal shark attacks in this country averages one per year. Keep this in perspective. The Australian Marine Conservation Society reports we kill 73 million sharks every year. The IUCN reports that a quarter of the world’s sharks and rays are threatened with extinction. Sharks are a keystone species. They perform critical roles in the ocean, including maintaining the balance between predator and prey in marine ecosystems.
The danger of sensational headlines such as the atrocious headline and photo in the Daily Telegraph last Thursday around opposition to a Ballina shark cull is that they overblow these risks and so cause more fear and anxiety. This leads to fewer people enjoying the water and more unrealistic responses calling for shark culling as a means to protect lives and recreation. The risks should be better understood. Most surfers will be able to tell you what the high risk factors are in relation to sharks and attacks. Also, devices such as shark shields, which I use myself sometimes when I surf in Tasmania, do exist to mitigate the risk of shark attack, but nothing is fail-safe. To quote shark scientist Barry Bruce from CSIRO in Hobart, ‘The ocean is not a risk-free environment.’ You must know this—the ocean is not a risk free environment.
The instinct for self-protection is strong and understandable. Most surfers or others who support culling sharks do so because they see this as a protection measure. But, perhaps unwittingly for many surfers, this firstly means supporting the assumption that all sharks should be caught because they are dangerous and secondly that culls will protect them. The problem is neither of these expectations are true or are supported by any scientific or statistical evidence.
Experts from the University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute Professor Shaun Collin and Dr Ryan Kempster have said that culling sharks is purely an emotional or political response, not a decision based on scientific data. Culling techniques like drum lines are indiscriminate across species. Recently the WA shark cull caught in just a few months dozens of tiger sharks—hardly proven killers, with one recorded suspected attack in Perth in 1968—but no white sharks, which are responsible for the majority of attacks. The baited drum lines used by fisheries are even likely to have attracted sharks to the area. Nets and drum lines are also indiscriminate killers of our oceans’ dolphins, turtles and whales. It is also well proven that even in areas that are heavily netted and baited many sharks slip the nets and get through.
The risks of shark encounters will always remain unless every single shark is killed in the ocean. It is debateable how much they are lowered by reactionary strategies such as shark culls. So go figure—and go enjoy the water, but understand and accept the risks before you do so. There are always risks in a marine environment, with natural predators who rightly belong there and who have deserved that right through surviving millions of years of evolution. But there are also pleasures and fulfilment in the ocean as long as one keeps this in perspective. This is epitomised by quotes from the family of a 46-year-old Tasmanian man—who I note has not been officially identified—who was recent fatally injured by a great white shark in Triabunna, Tasmania. This family immediately responded—in their quotes to the media—by saying that culling sharks was the last thing he would have wanted, describing the suggestion as ‘ridiculous’. One of them said:
He loved the water. Loved nature. I don’t think he would want anyone to change the way they felt about what they were passionate about.
And my condolences to his family. On this note, I want finish with one of my favourite quotes:
We all come from the sea, but we are not all of the sea. Those of us who are, we children of the tides, must return to it again and again, until the day we don’t come back, leaving only that which was touched along the way.
We have touched the ocean enough already, and the indiscriminate culling of sharks is not the right option.