After a fifth fatality since last September, officials in Western Australia are calling for a review of the protected status of great white sharks.
Great whites received protection in Australia in the 1990s and were then considered likely to go extinct, but now some believe their numbers have increased to the point that protection should be lifted, although the last review of the federal government’s White Shark Recovery Plan in 2008 didn’t provide any evidence that the population was growing and there’s no further evidence to support the theory.
The latest attack involving 24-year-old surfer Ben Linden off Wedge Island, has led some to call for protection to be lifted, while others are less hasty to make that call.
Fisheries Minister Norman Moore believes it’s time for a reassessment and will be raising the issue with Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke.
“If there are actions the Western Australian government currently wants to take to ensure human safety, national law includes provisions for that to happen,” said Burke.
However, conservationists argue that it’s more likely that an increase in the human population and growing number of people who participate in water sports year-round may be distorting the perception that there are actually more sharks and suspect that the slow rate at which sharks mature and reproduce makes it unlikely that their numbers have increased.
Others highlight the inherent dangers of swimming in the ocean alone. John G West, curator of the Australian Shark Attack File, pointed out that there were an average of 87 drownings per year on the country’s beaches. Typically, one fatal shark attack is reported per year.
Dr. Bob Hueter, director of the Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research, also advises using caution when jumping to conclusions.
“The other factor – which is often the most difficult one to understand – is just this concept of statistical clustering,” he told the BBC.
“Because you get two events that seem to be close together in time and space, doesn’t mean you’ve got a trend.”
He believes managing people better and using preventive measures, such as restricting certain areas when sharks are present and staying out of the water at hours when sharks are more active, would be more effective at reducing the likelihood of an attack.
If their protected status is lifted it may not result in a cull, but it will allow for commercial and recreational fishermen to kill them. However, even if there isn’t a killing spree, removing even some of these migratory apex-predators could have negative cascading effects on the marine ecosystem.
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