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November 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 37, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Shark Hunt or Witch Hunt?

Aussie dive operators call for shark killing rampages

from the November, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

A fatal shark attack on a scuba diver off Western Australia last month triggered a knee-jerk witch hunt by local authorities. American diver George Thomas Wainwright, 32, was attacked while diving solo off a boat near Rottnest Island. Two friends in a nearby boat noticed a burst of bubbles, followed by a plume of blood, before their friend's lifeless body floated to the surface. They reported that a 10-foot great white shark appeared as they tried to pull Wainwright's body from the water. The same shark reportedly nudged their boat as they headed for shore.

This was the third fatal shark attack off Australia's southwest coast in less than two months. Earlier, a bodyboarder and a swimmer were believed to have been taken by great whites. The former had his legs severed, and only the swimmer's torn trunks were found. Typically, Australia averages a little more than one fatal shark attack a year.

Almost immediately, a local dive operator called on the state government to kill sharks that pose a threat to humans. "The nuisance sharks, the problem sharks that move into an area and are aggressive, should be dispatched to remove the risk of future attack," Rockingham Wild Encounters director Terry Howson told the Associated Press. "It's absolutely hurting the tourist trade. Australia is getting a name for itself as being full of dangerous animals." Howson has been campaigning for government action on sharks since one of his tour guides was attacked last year.

Sounding like an outtake from the movie Jaws, Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett rose to the bait and declared that his government would consider shark culls in the future. Despite the great white's endangered status, state authorities have been allowed to kill sharks that threaten humans since 2000, when a Perth businessman was killed in front of horrified beachgoers.

This legal exemption was exercised for the first time when Department of Fisheries crews set six lines with tuna-baited hooks off Rottnest Island to catch the predatory perpetrator, even while Department Manager Tony Cappelluti acknowledged how illogical this action was. He told the Associated Press, "If the shark's in that vicinity, it may or may not take those baited hooks." Conversely, Cappelluti conceded, "Because the hooks are baited, there is a possibility they might attract a shark back to the area. We don't want to leave them there for a long period of time."

So, why bother? That question was taken up by scientists around the world who warned against overreacting to this unusual spate of attacks. Barbara Weuringer, a University of Western Australia marine zoologist, pointed out that there was no way of telling which shark was the killer without opening its stomach. "It sounds a little bit like taking revenge, and we're talking about an endangered species." She pointed out that the increase in shark attacks could reflect the human population increase in the southwest.

Over 100 international scientists signed a petition against a shark hunt, challenging the notion that targeting an individual shark would enhance human safety and urging state authorities to "realize that a shark cull would be disastrous not only to our marine environment but also Australia's reputation as a world leader in marine conservation." One of the signers was George Burgess, curator of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. He told Undercurrent that the chances of a single shark being involved in all three recent fatalities are "slim to none." He pointed out that Wainwright was diving in a vicinity where sharks are currently following migrating whales, and that most great whites range up to 40 miles in a day. "Culling is folly," says Burgess. "The attackers are long gone." Instead, he suggests greater public education about sharks and safe ocean practices to reduce the risk of further attacks.

Shark conservationists have also waded into this controversy. David McGuire, director of the California-based nonprofit Shark Stewards, wrote Premier Barnett to warn that "Indiscriminate fishing for sharks will result in undesired casualties among other species and sharks that were not responsible for the incidents." Instead, he recommended spotting from the air, beach watches, posting advisories, beach closures if required and educating the public in proper shark avoidance -- all solutions applied successfully in Australia and elsewhere.

If you'd like to protest the shark-culling strategy, you can sign a petition at or a similar petition at:

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