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What is the RSPCA position on the culling of sharks to reduce shark attacks?

Article ID: 561
Last updated: 10 Jan, 2019
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The RSPCA does not support the culling of sharks as a response to public concern over shark attacks on humans. This approach causes unnecessary animal suffering to protected and vulnerable wildlife species including the targeted great white shark and non-target species such as the grey nurse shark and disturbs marine ecosystems. The available scientific evidence to support the claim that killing sharks will reduce the risk to public safety is also not convincing. The RSPCA only accepts the management of wild animals where it is justified, effective and humane: the culling of sharks does not adequately satisfy these criteria.

How and why are sharks culled?

In response to a spike in shark fatalities over the past few years, state governments have been considering a range of policies to attempt to reduce the threat of shark attacks. These policies involve catching, trapping and/or killing sharks off the coast near popular beaches at risk of shark attack.

Drumlines

A drumline is consists of a floating drum (a barrel) with one line attached to an anchor on the sea floor, while a second line features a large baited shark hook to lure, catch and ultimate death of sharks.

In 2014, in Western Australia a trial was introduced where drumlines with baited hooks were set approximately 1km from the coast in designated ‘marine monitored areas’. When any great white, tiger or bull shark larger than three metres in length was caught, it was shot and killed. Other marine animals caught on the hooks (including sharks under three metres) were required to be set free unless the hook injuries were severe enough to threaten survival. Commercial fishers were contracted to inspect the drumlines and kill target sharks when caught. They were also required to kill any great white, tiger or bull shark larger than three metres seen within the monitored area.

Over the 13-week trial, 68 sharks were caught by the drumlines and shot: none of them were great white sharks. An evaluation by the state's Environmental Protection Authority recommended that the drumlines be abandoned as it was not effective in achieving its objectives. It has not been re-introduced in WA. 

Shark nets

A shark net is a submerged net placed around swimming beaches to reduce shark attacks by entanglement and drowning. In Queensland and New South Wales, where shark nets have been used for many years, the evidence shows that they result in indiscriminate trapping and death of non-target species, including endangered hammerhead sharks, and are ineffective as only 3% of the species caught were target species. In 2016/17, it was reported that of the 373 animals entangled in nets in NSW 81% were either threatened, protected or non-target species [1]. It has also been reported that shark nets may create a false sense of security for swimmers as they do not provide a complete barrier against sharks.

New technologies

In 2017, a federal government senate inquiry recommended that traditional drumlines be replaced with SMART (Shark Management Alert Real Time) drumlines, and that shark netting programs be phased out [2]. SMART drumlines emit an alert when a shark is captured so that a response team can tag and safely relocate the shark immediately to avoid sharks dying due to capture. 

Are shark attacks increasing?

Although the average number of unprovoked shark attacks has increased in Australia over recent decades – during the 1990s the national average was 6.5 unprovoked attacks per year but this has risen to 12.5 in this last decade [3] – the risk of human injury or death from a shark attack is still very low. There is no evidence that recent increases in shark attacks is a result of increasing shark numbers. Rather, it is consistent with a changing population and human behaviour.

The Australian Shark Attack File reports that in the last 50 years there have been 50 unprovoked fatalities (average of one per year) from shark encounters in Australian waters. Some years there are no fatalities recorded and in other years there have been up to five, but the average remains around one per year.

The International Shark Attack File reports that with great white sharks, the increase in attacks is a reflection of increased numbers of people using the ocean, as well as enhanced media coverage over the last century. The statistics on shark attacks does not support an increase in the ‘per capita attack rate’ by great white sharks. Furthermore, the percentage of fatalities has decreased due to the establishment of better emergency medical services, greater public knowledge of basic first aid and resuscitation, and increased education about shark attack. 

Is shark culling effective?

This is a difficult question to answer. Historical records from NSW, QLD and South Africa show that regular and consistent shark management using both baited hooks and shark nets is related to a reduction in the number of shark attacks, but these data may not tell the full story. Other factors such as changes in the pattern of recreational water activities or changes in shark food sources may also explain these reductions. Also, only using drumlines off a small number of popular beaches may not have a similar effect as the larger and longer-term programs that also use shark netting. Other data indicate that only counting the number of sharks killed cannot assess the effectiveness of culling. For example, during the 1960s and 70s, shark control programs in Hawaii killed 4,668 sharks but failed to produce measurable decreases in shark attacks.

The 2017 federal government senate inquiry of shark mitigation and deterrent measures concluded that lethal methods are not proven to improve public safety, and that new and emerging technologies have been shown to provide effective protection without causing negative environmental impacts.

Whatever approach is taken, for shark management programs to be effective at reducing shark attacks, they must be based on the best available scientific evidence.

It is legal to kill protected sharks?

Normally, a permit to harm protected wildlife under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) must be obtained prior to killing any protected wildlife. In 2014, the WA government was granted an exemption from gaining this permit by the federal environment minister. In both QLD and NSW a full assessment was performed before a permit to harm protected species of shark was issued. However, the 2017 federal senate inquiry of shark mitigation and deterrent measures recommended that no further exemptions be granted until a review of the EPBC Act is undertaken.  

The RSPCA believes that proper assessment processes must be followed when any proposal is put forward to kill or otherwise harm wildlife, and especially so when one of the target species is vulnerable to extinction. These processes are crucial to ensure that decisions are based on the available science and that conditions are in place to ensure any control measures are carried out in the most appropriate way.

Is shark culling humane?

The humaneness of shark culling is also questionable. Drumlines with baited hooks can cause considerable suffering, especially when sharks are caught for extended periods of time. Non–target sharks as well as other marine animals such as seals, turtles and dolphins can also be caught by the hooks and are likely to be injured and many will die from drowning. If they are found alive but badly injured, they will need to be euthanased rather than released. Operators must therefore have sufficient knowledge to assess injuries and determine the survival prospect of caught non-target animals.

Where target sharks are caught on traditional drumlines they are then shot (rather than being released). The shark brain is a relatively small target, thus to kill them with a firearm the shooter must know the position of the brain in the head. To humanely kill a shark using shooting, the most suitable firearm and ammunition must be used in combination with the correct point of aim to achieve a quick and painless death. Only trained operators with knowledge and experience in killing sharks should be used and it is likely that there are limited numbers of personnel with the relevant experience.

What can be done instead of culling?

The RSPCA supports the implementation of justified, humane and effective methods to prevent shark attacks. In addition to environmental assessment, welfare aspects relating to target and non-target species must also be considered when evaluating potential mitigation methods. It is recommended to further develop and implement non-lethal methods that are informed by an understanding of shark biology, behaviour and ecology, including (but not limited to) tagging and tracking alert systems, patrols and surveillance, active and passive electrical repellents [4], innovative sonar systems and eco-barriers. Shark mitigation strategies such as ‘shark spotting’ using beach surveillance [5] and shark awareness programs [6] that educate the public about risk factors that can potentially influence the likelihood of being attacked by sharks [7] also play an important role. 

References

  1. NSW DPI (2017) NSW Shark Meshing (Bather Protection) Program 2016/2017 Annual Performance Report.
  2. Environment and Communications Reference Committee (2017) Report of Senate Inquiry Shark Mitigation and Deterrent Measures.  Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.
  3. West JG (2011) Changing patterns of shark attacks in Australian waters. Marine and Freshwater Research, 62(6):744–754.
  4. Hart NS and Collin SP (2015) Shark senses and shark repellents. Integrative Zoology 10:38-64
  5. Kock AA, Titley S, Petersen W et al. (2012) Shark Spotters: A pioneering shark safety programme in Cape Town, South Africa. In: Domeier ML (ed) Global perspectives on the biology and life history of the great white shark. CRC Press, p 447–466.
  6. For example, see NSW DPI Shark Smart program
  7. WA Government Fisheries Research Division (2012) A correlation study of the potential risk factors associated with white shark attacks in Western Australian waters.
     

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