Tide turned: surveys show the public has lost its appetite for shark culls


Christopher Neff, University of Sydney and Thomas Wynter, University of Sydney

A Senate Committee report on shark deterrent measures has, in the words of committee member Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, moved the “shark cull debate into the 21st century”.

The first recommendation of the inquiry is to “immediately replace lethal drum lines” with so-called SMART drum lines and to phase out shark nets.

Yet if the news media are to be believed, these conclusions go against the grain of public opinion, with Western Australia’s spate of shark incidents having spawned previous headlines such as “Calls grow louder for shark culling in WA”. More recently, a series of incidents in Ballina in northern New South Wales prompted our surfing former prime minister Tony Abbott to weigh in, calling on the state government to authorise culls and nets.


Read more: Sharks aren’t criminals, but our fear makes us talk as if they are


The question of how much the public really supports policies that kill sharks has been surprisingly difficult to answer. The Senate inquiry noted that while it had been suggested “that lethal measures such as nets are no longer supported … reliably ascertaining community views on matters such as this could be quite difficult”.

Difficult? Yes. But doable. We have surveyed public opinion in Western Australia and Ballina, following shark bite incidents in each place. In fact, over the past five years we have searched high and low for the type of widespread support for lethal policies that is suggested by the tabloid press. It simply is not there, as our findings in the peer-reviewed journals Conservation Letters and Marine Policy show.

Public opinion in Perth and Ballina

In fieldwork including phone polling in both Perth and Ballina, as well as face-to-face surveys of local residents, beachgoers, and business owners in Ballina, we consistently found levels of support for lethal policies in the 20-25% range.

This is particularly remarkable in the case of Ballina. As the shire’s mayor David Wright told the Senate committee, between 8 February 2015 and July 2016, surfers there “were involved in 9% of the world’s shark attacks and interactions”, with the media dubbing it the “shark attack capital of Australia”.

A large majority of people in both Perth and Ballina viewed shark bites as accidental rather than intentional. While fear of sharks is linked to higher support for lethal policies, fear alone does not cause people to support killing sharks.

Support for lethal policies arises when fear of sharks is combined with the misconceived idea that sharks bite people on purpose. In our surveys, respondents who view shark bites to be intentional were more than 2.5 times as likely to support policies that kill sharks.


Author provided

This is strongly related to the Senate inquiry’s finding that the belief that “killing ‘rogue’ sharks will solve the problem” remains widespread. This is despite a clear expert consensus that there is “no evidence for anything called a rogue shark”.

As the Department of the Environment and Energy says, “No shark is thought to target humans as prey”, and the vast majority of shark bite incidents “can be attributed to the shark confusing us with its normal prey”.

This view was apparent among the relatively few beachgoers in Ballina who reported supporting lethal policies, with several respondents suggesting that they would only support killing sharks that “had gotten a taste for human flesh”.

Many respondents were also unaware that shark nets are lethal to sharks. Indeed, this is their primary purpose, as the Senate inquiry noted: “It is not intended that the nets create an enclosed area: rather, they are a passive fishing device designed to cull sharks in the area.”

Understanding overcomes fear

Our second study looked specifically at the interaction between fear of sharks and the perception that they bite humans intentionally.

We carried out an experiment in the Sydney SEA LIFE Aquarium’s “shark tunnel” – a one-way, U-shaped exhibit that provides perfect conditions for our study. We divided participants into two groups and assigned one group to a treatment to “prime” their emotions at the beginning of the exhibit.

We also surveyed all participants about their feelings about and perceptions of sharks, after viewing the exhibit. This also allowed us to capture both a before and after measurement of fear, from which we could determine whether people’s fear had subsided after seeing sharks’ behaviour at first hand.

We tested two “priming” messages. One called attention to the low probability of being bitten by a shark – we call this our Probability Prime. A second priming message drew “attention to intentionality”. This was our Intentionality Prime and it prompted aquarium visitors to consider sharks’ behaviours.

The Probability Prime, which reflects standard marine education attempts to reduce fear of sharks, failed to do so, consistent with research showing humans overestimate low probability risks. Crucially, considering our findings in Ballina and Perth, the Intentionality Prime successfully reduced the public’s fear of sharks.

shark fear.
Author provided

There are five take-home messages from our research results:

  1. There is little blame on the shark. The tide has turned and the public is sophisticated enough to understand that sharks are not intentionally hurting people.

  2. There is little blame on the government. Governments that feel they need to continue using shark nets or else face the wrath of the public following a shark bite should rework their political calculations.

  3. The public no longer supports policies that kill sharks. In WA, 75% supported non-lethal options, in Ballina the number was 83% and in the Sydney experiment it reached 85%.

  4. A Save the Sharks movement has begun, with the public we have polled consistently voicing greater support for conservation approaches above killing sharks.

  5. Survey respondents believe that governments choose lethal measures to ease public concern, not to make beaches safer. This is a problem for Australia’s democracy; the public believes that policies are being designed to protect governments, not people.

The ConversationThis last point is arguably the most serious flaw of all in these policies: the continued killing of sharks for political gain.

Christopher Neff, Lecturer in Public Policy, University of Sydney and Thomas Wynter, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Electoral Integrity Project, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why do shark bites seem to be more deadly in Australia than elsewhere?



File 20171031 18735 19idlu0.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
White sharks’ ability to stay warm in cold water makes them efficient long-range hunters.
Denice Askebrink

Blake Chapman, The University of Queensland

The first thing to say about shark attack deaths is that they are very rare, with only about two per year in Australia. But still, every year without fail, people die from shark bites, both here and around the world.

According to official statistics, the United States records by far the most unprovoked shark bites – an average of 45 per year over the past decade. However, only 1.3% of these incidents were fatal – 0.6 deaths per year.

Australia records fewer bites than the US (an average of 14 per year), but a much greater proportion of them are deadly: (1.5 per year, or close to 11%). So what is it that (relatively speaking) makes Australia more prone to deadly shark attacks?


Read more: Not just nets: how to stop shark attacks without killing sharks


My new book Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fear addresses this and other questions about sharks, with the aim of dispelling common myths and providing the knowledge needed for decisions made on science rather than fear and emotion.

A perfect storm

In a way, Australia has a “perfect storm” of conditions for serious shark attacks. The first reason is that Australians (and visitors to Australia) love the ocean. Some 85% of Australians live within 50km of the coast, and Australian coastal areas account for the most prominent growth outside of capital cities. Beaches are also favoured recreational destinations in Australia and coastal locations are heavily targeted in tourism, attracting nearly 60% of international tourists.

Next, the sharks themselves. Australia has the world’s highest diversity of sharks and rays, including roughly 180 of the 509 known shark species.

But neither of these factors, even taken together, is enough to explain why deaths are more prevalent in Australia. What we really need to look at is dangerous sharks.

Only 26 shark species have been definitively identified as biting humans without provocation, although the true number is likely to be somewhat higher. Of these 26 species, 22 (85%) are found in Australian waters.

All 11 of the species known to have caused fatal unprovoked bites on humans can be found in Australian waters. And crucially, Australia’s coastal waters are home to all of the “big three” deadly species: white sharks, tiger sharks, and bull sharks.

Australia’s waters are home to all three of the ‘big three’ shark species.
Denice Askebrink

These species account for all but three of the 27 fatal shark attacks worldwide from 1982-2011. All of the big three species are inquisitive, regularly frequent coastal environments, and are formidably big and strong.

They also have complex, unpredictable behaviour. But despite this difficulty, we can identify factors that make them more likely to swim in areas routinely used by humans.

Warming to it

White sharks have a physiological adaptation that allows them to maintain a vast global distribution, and hence are responsible for the northernmost and southernmost recorded shark bites on humans.

Most fish are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, with body temperatures very close to that of the surrounding water. This restricts their range to places where the water temperature is optimal.

In contrast, white sharks and a few other related species can retain the heat generated by their muscles predominantly during swimming, enabling them to be swift and agile predators even in cold water. They do this with the help of bunches of parallel arteries and veins in their brains, eyes, muscles and stomachs that function as “heat exchangers” between incoming and outgoing blood, allowing them to keep these crucial organs warm.

White sharks are so good at retaining heat that their core body temperature can be up to 14.3℃ above the surrounding water temperature. This allows them to move seasonally up and down Australia’s east and west coasts, presumably following migrating prey species.

Getting salty

Bull sharks, meanwhile, are the only sharks known to withstand wide variations in water salinity. This means they can easily move from salty oceans to brackish estuaries and even travel thousands of kilometres up river systems. As a result they can overlap with human use areas such as canals, estuaries, rivers and even some lakes. One female bull shark was observed making a 4,000km round-trip to give birth in a secluded Madagascan estuary rather than the open ocean.

As a result, most bull sharks found in river systems are juveniles, but these areas may also be home to large, pregnant females who need to eat more prey to sustain themselves. As rivers are often clouded by sediment, there is an increased risk that a human may be mistaken for prey in this low-visibility environment.

Bull sharks can roam in rivers as well as oceans.
Albert Kok/Wikimedia Commons

Opportunistic tigers

Tiger sharks mainly stay in coastal waters, although they also venture into the open ocean. Their movements are unpredictable, they eat a wide range of prey, are naturally curious and opportunistic, and can be aggressive to humans.

Tiger sharks are clever too – they are thought to use “cognitive maps” to navigate between distant foraging areas, and have hunting ranges that span hundreds of thousands of square kilometres so as to maintain the element of surprise. As a result, tiger sharks’ distribution in Australian waters covers all but the country’s southern coast.

Tiger sharks like to keep their prey guessing.
Albert Kok/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Read more: Finally, a proven way to keep great white sharks at arm’s length


Taken together, it’s clear that Australia’s waters are home to three predators that can pose a real danger, even if only an accidental one, to humans.

But remember that shark attacks are incredibly rare events, and fatal ones even rarer still. There are also lots of tips we can use to minimise the risk of having a negative encounter with a shark.

The ConversationDon’t swim in murky, turbid or dimly lit water, as sharks may not be able to see you properly (and you may not be able to see them). Avoid swimming in canals, or far from the shore, or along dropoffs. Swim in designated areas and with others, and avoid swimming where baitfish (or bait) may be present. And of course, always trust your instincts.

Blake Chapman, Adjunct Research Fellow, Science Communicator, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Can buying up fishing licences save Australia’s sharks?


Christopher Brown, Griffith University and Samantha Munroe, Griffith University

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recently raised over A$200,000 to buy shark fishing licences in Queensland’s waters. They estimate the licences, for operating nets in and around the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, could have been used to catch 10,000 sharks each year.

Retiring these licences is a new development in Australian shark conservation, but may also limit locally caught seafood.

But do Australia’s sharks need saving, or can we eat them? It depends on where you look.

Sustainable sharks

Sharks in general are much more vulnerable to overfishing than other fish. Compared to most fish, sharks have far fewer offspring over their lifetimes. As a result, shark populations cannot tolerate the same levels of fishing that fish can sustain.

Globally, there is great reason for concern over the status of sharks. About a quarter of all sharks and rays are threatened with extinction. The high value of shark fins in Asian markets drives a large and often unsustainable shark fishery that reaches across the globe.

Australia has an important role to play in combating this trend. Many species that are globally threatened can find refuge in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which has an extensive system of protected areas and comparatively low fishing effort. Despite this potential safe haven, some species in Australia still rest on an ecological knife edge.

A white-tip reef shark in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Christopher Brown

For example, the great and scalloped hammerheads (which the WWF says will benefit from the licence purchase) are both by-catch species in the Australian fishery and are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered.

Australian fishermen don’t head out to catch hammerheads intentionally; most people do not consider the meat palatable. However, their hammer-shaped head is easily entangled in nets. Therefore hammerheads may be highly susceptible to any increase in fishing pressure.

Commercial fishers are legally required to have a licence. By buying the licences, WWF can limit the number of active nets in the water.

However, not all shark species are as vulnerable to fishing as the iconic hammerhead. Several shark species in Australia are well-managed. For instance, the spot tail shark is fast-growing and has many young, making it relatively resilient to fishing pressure. Many Australians regularly enjoy these species with a side of chips.

Species targeted by Queensland’s shark fishery are likely sustainable. The latest fishery assessment published by the Queensland government in 2014 found that catches of most shark species were well within safe limits.

Supporting our local shark fisheries is therefore far better than importing shark from overseas where fisheries may be poorly managed.

But it is not all good news in Australia. Both the assessment and an independent review found that while Queensland’s shark catch likely is sustainable, we need to be cautious about allowing any increases.

Importantly, Queensland’s 2014 shark assessment relies on very limited data. A crucial fishery observer program was cut in 2012. The limited data mean that regulations for Queensland’s shark catches are set conservatively low. Any increase in catch is risky without an assessment based on higher-quality data.

Scientists use tag-and-release programs to track the movements and population size of sharks. But more direct fisheries data are needed.
Samantha Munroe

A win for fishers and fish

Buying up licences in an uncertain fishery may be an effective way to prevent the decline of vulnerable species. Although buying licences is a new move for marine conservation groups in Australia, elsewhere it has proven an effective strategy for conservation and fisheries.

For instance, in California the conservation group Nature Conservancy bought fishing licences for rockfish, some species of which are endangered.

The Nature Conservancy now leases those licences back to fishers that promote sustainable fishing methods. The fishers themselves can charge a higher price for sustainable local catches of fish. What started as a move purely for conservation has had benefits for those employed in fisheries.

The lesson here is that conservation organisations can be the most productive when they work with, not against, fisheries. The recent shark licence purchase in Australia could be a great opportunity for fishers and conservation organisations to work together to maintain healthy ecosystems and fisheries.

But if Australians are serious about protecting sharks, there are other steps we still need to take. Queensland should reinstate the fishery observer program so we have reliable data to assess shark populations. For instance, currently we don’t know how many sharks are caught as by-catch in other fisheries.

A lemon shark seeks its fish prey in the shallow waters on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Lemon sharks are caught by our fisheries, but are not a target species.
Megan Saunders

Shark control programs designed to protect bathers are also a threat to endangered shark populations. However, data on deaths from shark control in Queensland were not accounted for in the government’s catch limits.

Accounting for these missing deaths could make a serious dent in our sustainable catch, an independent review found.

There is an opportunity to address these issues in Queensland’s upcoming fisheries management reform. Have your say here.

If conservation groups can work with fisheries, a more consistent and sustainable shark-fishing strategy may emerge. Australians can continue to be proud of our efforts to protect marine life, but can still enjoy shark for dinner.

The Conversation

Christopher Brown, Research Fellow, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University and Samantha Munroe, Postdoctoral research fellow, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.