The Australian state of Western Australia has approved an unprecedented set of new measures aimed at protecting beachgoers from sharks after six attacks were recorded in the state this year alone, reports the BBC. Sharks deemed to “pose an imminent threat” to beachgoers will now be systematically caught and possibly killed.
The actions have understandably raised significant concerns from environmentalists and animal activists. How will the threat of shark attack be adequately assessed? How will this effect the local ecosystems? Could this endanger the population numbers of certain targeted species? Will catching and killing select sharks even be effective at reducing the risk of attack? There’s also the question of whether the peace of mind of beachgoers is worth the lives of sharks that, in many cases, are protected species.
For instance, great white sharks are the most obvious targets of the new laws, but they are considered a protected species. Previously killing them was only allowed in response to an attack. But now fisheries authorities will be allowed to act preemptively– a sort of ‘Bush doctrine,’ if you will, only applied to sharks instead of to terrorists.
Government officials are responding to criticisms by arguing that the new laws may actually aid in shark conservation and research.
“These new measures will not only help us to understand the behavior of sharks but also offer beachgoers greater protection and confidence as we head into summer,” State Premier Colin Barnett said in the statement.
It’s true that the new law also includes funding for tagging systems that utilize real-time GPS tracking, as well as for community awareness programs.
The statement is a far cry from Barnett’s previous position on the matter. Just last March, he doubted the effectiveness of legislating a cull, saying it was impossible to protect all people at all times.
Of the six attacks recorded in Western Australia so far this year, five have been fatal. That’s an unusually high percentage of fatalities, though also a rather small sample size. According to the International Shark Attack File, only 19 percent of shark attacks recorded since the year 1580 have been fatal. It’s also worth considering that the percentage of shark attacks per year compared to the number of beachgoers is staggeringly low. In other words, beachgoers carry a very small risk of being attacked overall.
That said, Australia is the highest ranked nation in terms of fatal shark attacks, with 217 deaths since 1580. This year’s fatalities have also given Western Australia the undesirable title of being the deadliest place in the world for shark attacks. Even so, Australia averages less than 1 fatal shark attack per year. By contrast, there are about 87 drownings per year on Australia’s beaches.
It’s probably also worth noting that humans pose a significantly higher threat to sharks than sharks do to humans. Research indicates that about 100 million sharks are killed each year by humans. That’s roughly 11,000 sharks every hour.