By Ryan Kempster
Imagine a world where every car crash death was printed in the newspapers or every drowning mentioned on the radio or even every bee sting fatality broadcast on the evening news.
We would quickly be so overwhelmed with the sheer volume of reports that soon enough nobody would ever drive, swim or even step out of their house, due to the irrational fear of what might be awaiting them. Yet every day, the inaccurate and unjustified portrayal of sharks in the media fuels our fear that they are lurking off our coasts waiting for their next meal ... us!
The number of shark bite incidents occurring each year is directly related to the amount of time humans spend in the sea. With increasingly more people venturing out into the oceans every year the likelihood of someone encountering a shark increases, with which there is very likely to be a corresponding increase in shark bite incidents. Unfortunately, the vicious reputation of sharks ignited by Hollywood, through movies like Jaws, and fuelled by the international media, means that the public rarely oppose the killing of sharks.
However, the tide of fear and vengeance against sharks is changing. In recent years some countries have recognised the importance of sharks, affording them extra protection by establishing sanctuaries. But recent calls for culls in WA and Reunion Island are a sobering reminder that things have not changed enough. The public, especially friends and family of victims, are understandably emotional, but it is at these times there is an even greater need for educated decision-making rather than emotionally-driven retaliatory actions.
During the latter half of the 20th century, shark culling was carried out in Hawaii in an attempt to make the waters safer. From 1959 to 1976, the state of Hawaii culled 4,668 sharks including 554 tiger sharks. No significant decrease in the rate of shark attacks was detected. Yet here we are 40 years later, again attempting a failed strategy. The whole notion of a cull seems to imply some sort of quantitative strategy based on scientific data, which in the case of sharks is certainly not true. It is simply an appeasement tactic, one of emotion rather than real science.
As predators at the pinnacle of the marine food pyramid, sharks play a critical role in ocean ecosystems. They regulate the natural balance of these ecosystems at all levels, and so are an integral part of them. As they usually hunt old, weak or sick prey, they help to keep these populations in good condition, allowing the healthy and strong animals to reproduce and pass on their genes. The effects of removing sharks from our oceans, although complex and rather unpredictable, will be ecologically and economically damaging.
Studies have shown what happens to ocean ecosystems without sharks. Fisheries shut down due to increases in normal prey species which decimate commercial stocks. Coral abundance declines and is replaced by macroalgae. Species diversity declines. Ecological chain reactions are set in motion which cannot be undone. We should fear a world without sharks far more than one with them.
If we really want to make the public safer, the focus should be on education and research. Public awareness and education about sharks and attacks will stop the hysteria, stop the media sensationalism and turn public opinion from fear to acceptance of sharks as being critical to the health of our oceans and a necessary part of the ecosystem. The way to reduce attacks is not to kill anything that poses a threat to us. It is to educate people on how to minimise their risk, the times of day and conditions under which attacks are most likely to occur, put warnings at beaches that these areas are known to be frequented by ‘dangerous' sharks.
There really needs to be some perspective involved as to the calculated risk we take when we enter the ocean, and some real facts as to how small that threat is, especially in comparison to other daily activities which hold a much higher risk to our health and wellbeing. With the correct information, we can make a reasoned judgment as to whether or not we accept the risk to enter the oceans.
Published in UWA News, 3 September 2012