Right or Wrong? Australia's Shocking Plan to Kill Sharks

After seven fatal shark attacks over three years, officials in Western Australia are fighting back—but will their controversial plan work?

(Photo: Julian Cohen/Getty Images)


Jan 17, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

On a Saturday morning six weeks ago, Chris Boyd, a 35-year-old father of two, was surfing the break off Gracetown in Western Australia. A shark, presumed to be a great white, bounced off the board of a nearby surfer first before tearing into Boyd. "The shark bit him and held him for about a minute,” said another surfer, who witnessed the attack from the beach. “He was dead before the shark let go."

It was the third fatal shark attack on a surfer at Gracetown in the past decade and the seventh fatality from a shark attack in Western Australia in just three years. Predictably, local politicians reacted by pushing for immediate action on a shark mitigation scheme first proposed in September 2012.

Their plan, due to go into effect this month, calls for placing drumlines—buoys rigged with large baited hooks—a little more than a half mile off popular beaches, at an immediate cost of about U.S. $900,000. The same amount would go to fishermen hired to track and kill sharks more than three meters, about 10 feet, in length.

Critics immediately labeled it a cull and said it would take a heavy bycatch toll on dolphins and other marine species drawn to the hooks. Four thousand people attended a beachfront protest, and twice as many signed a petition addressed to Colin Barnett, premier of Western Australia and chief instigator of the proposal.

The mother of a 21-year-old shark attack victim has called for others to mount a legal challenge to Barnett’s plan, which she called “bait and kill.” Paul de Gelder, a former army diver who lost an arm and a leg in a 2009 shark attack in Sydney Harbor, also objected and delivered a precise account of what happens when top predators vanish: Studies and history, he wrote, have shown “that removing an apex predator from an eco system will systematically affect the whole balance, disrupting the food chains below them.” He noted that humans are among the ultimate victims of “this disrupting ripple effect.” De Gelder concluded that “the ocean is not our back yard swimming pool and we shouldn't expect it to be one. It's a wondrous, beautiful, dangerous place that provides our planet with all life.”

In late December, Western Australia deployed one sensible measure to help swimmers feel safe: It placed transmitters in 326 larger sharks, mostly tigers and great whites, which automatically announce their presence via Twitter whenever they pass receivers placed strategically along beaches.

“Fisheries advise 4m White shark sighted 4 nautical miles north of the west end of Rottnest Island at: 1240 pm today,” said one such tweet earlier this week. More practically, the same Twitter feed alerts swimmers to the hazards they are far more likely to encounter—for instance, “Two people have already left the beach in ambulances with possible spinal injuries. Please take extra care body surfing today.”

Will Barnett’s drumline plan make swimmers any safer? At the business news site Quartz, journalist Gwynn Guilford put together a detailed analysis of shark attack prevention programs in other Australian states, New Zealand, and South Africa. Nets don’t work because they tend to have gaps at the top and bottom, with the result, she writes, that “around 40 percent of sharks ensnared in safety nets turn up on the beach side of the net.”

But “there are problems with drumlines too,” she writes. Sharks that have recently eaten may swim right past, or there may not be any bait left to attract them. “One Queensland study found dolphins stealing the bait within 90 seconds of its being placed in the water, on average. For reasons unclear, drumlines also seem lousy at catching bull sharks, a highly aggressive, pack-traveling species known to attack in water as shallow as 1 meter,” she adds. Some critics worry that baited hooks might attract more sharks to beach areas.

Guilford concludes that “giant, terrifying sharks are clearly swimming past all of these traps set for them and cruising beneath humans all the time, with the shark control programs none the wiser.” The swimmers are unaware too, she suggests, perhaps “because sharks simply don’t attack people very often.”

So far, Barnett remains publicly committed to his plan. In a 2012 radio interview that angered critics, he declared, "We will always put the lives and safety of beachgoers ahead of the shark. This is, after all, a fish—let's keep it in perspective." More recently, he posed for the cameras with a big hook in hand. It made him look a bit like a button-down wannabe Captain Quint, the shark-obsessed charter skipper in Jaws.

Somebody may need to remind him: That film’s vendetta against sharks also played to the emotions but did not end well for anyone—including Quint.