Don’t Take the Bait: WA Shark Cull

14 / 02 / 2014

The Western Australian Government’s controversial shark culling policy has sparked local and international outrage, with thousands turning out to protest the baiting and killing program.

This month in Sheilas, shark cull protest leader and scuba diver Natalie Banks explains why the measures will not prevent shark attacks, and reminds us of the majestic beauty of a maligned marine animal, now under threat in its own habitat.

By Natalie Banks

Nothing brings me more joy than spending time in, or on, our oceans. I wasn’t brought up as a beach baby or even some one who enjoyed swimming, but the day I decided to go snorkelling, a magical world appeared before my eyes. A world away from the craziness of life on land, a world where I felt at peace.

My passion for snorkelling eventually led to learning how to scuba dive and I have been fortunate to dive throughout the world, interacting with all types of marine life. In fact, when I first learnt to dive, just off Scarborough Beach in Perth, a juvenile whale shark swam right above me. I felt no fear, just absolute awe. It is the same feeling I have now, when I dive with sharks. I actually see it as an honour to have such majestic marine creatures join me on my diving experience.

When scuba diving, I am often reminded that I am a visitor to the oceans and not in my natural environment. Any number of things could go wrong during a dive, however a shark incident has been one of my least concerns. That is, until recently.

The Western Australian Government, in their attempt to protect ocean lovers from the rare case of a shark incident, has installed bait lines one kilometre from our shoreline, within the southwest of the state and the metro area of Perth.

Bait lines attract sharks. I have seen what happens when sharks are baited. They are lured in. I simply cannot understand how the Western Australian Government can believe that the public will feel safer bringing sharks closer to the shore. As much as it is an honour to dive with sharks, proper protective measures and knowledge about shark behaviour is recommended when interacting with them.

As a scuba diving instructor, the peaceful and magical environment I long to share with new divers is now marred by a bloody meat curtain along our coastline. A meat curtain that not only lures sharks, but also captures and kills the marine life divers are so fortunate to see. The beautiful sharks I have dived with  are now at risk of being caught on hooks the WA Government has installed, slowly drowning while they await someone to rescue them hours later. Or left to attract more sharks, and inhumanely eaten alive. Even if these amazing creatures are rescued, the damage inflicted by the hook, and the injuries sustained as they try to free themselves, would likely see them die anyway.

These bait lines, the public were advised by the WA Government, would “target” three shark species; the Bull, Tiger and Great White, of three meters in size or greater. How can a hook or bait tell the difference between the species of a shark and prevent a shark 2.5 metres in size from being caught? Unfortunately, we are already starting to see that they can’t. Sharks as small as one meter have been caught, while Mako sharks have been reported to have died on the drum lines. The so-called solution of the WA Government is indiscriminate and doesn’t “target” specific sharks as the Premier advised it would, and therefore we are already seeing major flaws in this initiative.

I have been speaking out loudly against the introduction of bait lines into our waters for some months now. Like the majority of people who are against this initiative, I have written letters to Local, State and Federal politicians as well as to the WA Premier. However, my letters to those responsible for this initiative have gone unanswered. Requests for meetings have also been turned down. Feeling frustrated that the Western Australian Government was not listening to my concerns, I decided to reach out to a few people that I knew within the diving community, the political sphere and Sea Shepherd to see if they shared my anger and fears. I was humbled and surprised to see how many people actually did. Sharks are generally misunderstood and tend to put a lot of fear into people. Nevertheless, thousands of people were willing to stand up against the introduction of drum lines into Western Australian waters, and join me in protesting against this initiative.

In fact, over 4,000 people joined me on 4 January and over 6,000 on 1 February at Cottesloe Beach, the most popular beach within the Premier’s electorate. Solidarity protests have also taken place within other locations across Western Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, New Zealand, South Africa and Italy as a result of others also seeing holes in Western Australia’s shark bait and kill initiative. Further protests are planned for Spain, Argentina and London in the upcoming weeks.

People have often asked me, why this issue. Well for me, it’s personal. Shark incidents are so rare and to see a policy that kills a threatened species, which has not done anything wrong but swum in its natural environment, in my opinion, is immoral. I have a beautiful 18-month old niece. How do I explain to her that innocent sharks, which are slowly dying almost daily as a result of this initiative, deserved to die at the hands of the WA Government?

I dream of the day when I can show my niece, the majestic world within our oceans. However, I am concerned about what we are doing to our marine life and the health of our oceans for generations to come, by killing our apex predators. I am also concerned about lured sharks swimming past drum lines and increasingly into areas where swimmers, and particularly children, frolic.

The WA Government has pointed to Queensland and South Africa as proof that drum lines work. Both Queensland and South Africa use nets as well as drum lines. It seems to make sense that if a shark is to be lured closer to the shore, a barrier of some description should be installed. However, nets are responsible for a high incidence of by-catch, including threatened and endangered species like sea turtles, dugongs, dolphins and whales. Therefore, drum lines, with or without nets, are not the answer for our marine conservation. I suspect that as people become more aware of the by-catch issues surrounding the use of nets and drum lines in other countries and states, greater pressure will be put on their leaders to use alternative and more eco-friendly solutions. We must remember that the chances of being involved in a shark incident is so rare, even without drum lines and nets, and that these measures still can not 100 per cent guarantee that a fatality will not occur.

Small measures that benefit both human and marine life are preferrable to the drastic measures that catch and kill indiscriminately any creature that gets trapped on a hook or within a net. On average 80 per cent of the community have advised the WA Government through a variety of surveys, that they are against shark baiting and killing within the state. But the Western Australian Government isn’t willing to listen. Even scientists across the globe and shark experts like Valerie Taylor and Hugh Edwards have spoken out to advise that the initiative will not prevent shark attacks and is doomed to fail.

And failing it is. The footage shown of a tiger shark being shot in the head four times, has repulsed people from all over the world. This is not considered a humane death and is not the Australian way. As a result people are threatening to boycott not only Western Australia, but the entire country.

The majority of sharks caught so far have been undersized tiger sharks. Sadly, tiger sharks have not been implicated in shark incidents in Western Australia for over 17 years. Yet, we are already seeing hooks having to be cut out of a tiger shark’s head as well as another tiger shark with its tail missing and stomach torn open.

The southwest fisherman contracted to undertake the shark bait and kill policy at a cost of nearly $6,000 a day, was not able to determine the correct species of shark he initially caught. This is of great concern when he has only been given permission to kill the three targeted shark species, and raises questions of mistrust in the southwest contractor. Acoustic tagging of sharks, which would allow greater research into these misunderstood creatures, wasn’t introduced until later in the initiative, after the community started raising questions about this, and even then, there are times when this isn’t done or an identification tag is used instead.

The Government’s own Fisheries Department, which educates the public on sustainable fishing and states that the presence of sharks is a sign of a healthy marine environment is now being forced to undertake the contract in Perth due to commercial fishermen dropping out. All the while, the WA Premier and the Fisheries Department are having to beef up their security.

All of these issues highlight that the WA government rushed into this initiative without proper consultation and has been making policy on the run.

Questions must be asked as to why the Western Australian Government isn’t considering directing the funds being spent on the shark bait and kill initiative, on ways to protect human life as well as the marine life instead. Why hasn’t funding been provided to extend and enhance the Eco Shark Barrier, currently within Coogee Beach in Perth, to popular beaches along our coast? Why isn’t money being spent on subsidising personal protective measures such as the Shark Shield for divers and surfers? Furthermore, why aren’t funds being spent on increased helicopter patrols and tagging and tracking sharks to understand their behaviours? South Africa’s Shark Spotter program in Cape Town has been immensely popular with the local community and could be easily introduced into areas such as Margaret River, Yallingup and Dunsborough in WA’s southwest. Surely there is a need for more research to be undertaken on these threatened and endangered species of sharks, before we kill them.

Until these drum lines are out of Western Australian’s waters, protests attracting thousands of people will continue to take place. The eyes of the world are watching Western Australia right now and I will continue to offer ways to enable thousands of people to have their voices heard. This has become the greatest fight of my life, but hopefully one day, future generations will thank those that stood up and spoke out for our sharks.


*protest image from Wikicommons