by Natalie Banks, Sea Shepherd Western Australian Shark Campaign Coordinator
Recently, the Western Australian drum line policy was halted due, largely in part, by the State’s Environmental Protection Authority recommending that because of an uncertain impact the policy would have on the marine environment; the program ceases. Based on this recommendation, the State and Federal Environmental Ministers were required to make a final decision on the program. However, at the last hour (no doubt after robust conversations between WA and Federal Departments) the Western Australian Government withdrew its application to have the program considered.
The public would learn hours afterwards, that the main reason that the application was withdrawn, was because a closed-door agreement had been reached to allow the Western Australian Government to exclusively, without Federal input, catch and kill protected and vulnerable shark species as part of an imminent threat policy. What defines an imminent threat though is yet to be defined, however, based on previous guidelines, the policy can be used when a shark is sighted near the shore or after a human-shark incident; whether it be a shark bite or a shark bite fatality. To do this, the Federal Government has had to provide the Western Australian Government an exemption to catch and kill protected Great White Sharks. The Great White Shark is and IUCN red listed protected species, listed as vulnerable to extinction. This exemption is provided due to it being in Australia’s “national interests” despite a year old White Shark Recovery Plan in place.
In what can only be described as a trying to have their cake and eat it too, the Federal Government has ignored the reasons for having the 2013 White Shark Recovery Plan which largely revolves around declining populations due to low levels of reproduction and significant pressure from the Australian commercial fishing industry. It has instead said, that despite the fact that there are only approximately 700 breeding individual Great White sharks in the southwest and an estimated 100 Great White sharks caught per year through commercial fishing, it is in Australia’s national interests to kill more, knowing that shark control activities are one of the top two reasons for the Great White decline.
But what has been conveniently left out of this debate is why it is in Australia’s national interests to protect the Great White shark. As an apex predator, Great Whites remove the sick, weak and diseased marine life from the ocean, ensuring a healthy, robust marine environment.
The loss of sharks in the North Atlantic in the early 2000’s resulted in an increase of rays and skates by as much as ten-fold, which consumed an abundance of scallops, clams and oysters to the point that the century-old scallop fishery completely collapsed. Shellfish filtrate our ocean by feeding on phytoplankton that they filter from the water column and which helps maintain a high level of water quality.
Further decreasing white shark numbers could increase seal populations, which could place pressure on fisheries. Would there then be a call for a culling of seals? Let sharks look after maintaining the balance and health of our oceans, as they have done so for 450 million years, not the government.
The absence of Great Whites and other sharks in an area, will change the behaviours of marine creatures such as rays, seals, dugongs and turtles which consume fish, shellfish and seagrass gardens. Flow on affects could wipe out entire marine ecosystems. By keeping these systems in check, these sharks are in fact controlling algal blooms, dead zones and coral reef health as part of the marine ecosystem.
So the question must be asked, how is removing sharks in Australia’s national interest, particularly when an imminent threat can be removed by closing the beach as they do in New South Wales and in Cape Town, South Africa? Wouldn’t it be in the country’s national interest to adhere to the White Shark recovery plan, ensuring healthy oceans instead? This mentality of a quick fix over and above long-term solutions has to stop. Government policy needs to go back to its roots whereby a holistic approach is considered and science-based solutions are implemented. After all, the Western Australian Premier is the State’s Science Minister and the role of the Environment Minister is to protect our environment for future generations.