Politicians Ignoring Science: A Shark Culling Example

Sharks in Western Australia (WA) are a hot topic over the web, especially on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. There are numerous petitions going around trying to save the sharks in this part of the world…and it’s not for finning…it’s to protect them from being killed by Australian government contractors because, apparently, they pose a threat to humans…a less than 1% chance of attacking humans.

Politician’s Reason For Shark Cull

If you haven’t heard, the Western Australian government decided to sanction a mass killing (called a cull) of large sharks, sharks over 3 meters in length, because there have been attacks of swimmers this year and last year. The government wants to show the swimmers and tourists that it is safe to use the beaches and water in Western Australia because they are going to kill most of the big sharks that pose a threat.

Does that sound right to you? Well, to me and many other people around the world say it isn’t…as usual, politicians choose to ignore the science only to be replaced by their own personal opinions: Kill the sharks, and no attacks! David Shiffman, a writer from SouhernFriedScience.com wrote a blog post describing why more than 100 shark scientists from around the world disagreed with the culling practice as there is no evidence that shark culls work to decrease attack incidences on people.

Shark Cull Failure

David’s article cites a study in Hawaii where a shark cull took place for more than 15 years DID NOT significantly reduce the number of attacks on humans. I repeat…the study showed it did not significantly reduce the number of attacks on humans. Yet the cull began this past week with the blessings of the Western Australian government and the Australian federal government.

Here is a video of the first shark (a mature tiger shark) caught after the culling policy began…

Great White sharks, Tiger sharks, and Bull sharks are the targeted sharks the fisherman (contracted by the government) will likely catch. The Great White shark is a protected species in Australia as there are fewer than 3,500 individuals left (this is an estimate as of 2010). It makes no sense whatsoever to kill a protected species that is vulnerable to extinction. Especially when there are alternative ways (proven ways) to reduce the risk of shark attacks on humans

Proven Alternative Method

According to Dr. Ryan Kempster, Founder of Support Our Sharks, a study was conducted in Brazil where sharks were captured, tagged, and released offshore in an attempt to reduce shark attacks on swimmers. The study proved to be successful (read more about it). You can also check out a recently released post by, none other than David Shiffman himself, on 7 alternative ways to make beaches safer without killing sharks.

Short-Term Action with Long Term Consequences

Sharks are important apex predators that help balance the food web by feeding on prey. The absence of sharks as an apex predator can throw off the delicate balance of Ocean systems, which are already vulnerable by other human disturbances such as overfishing, finning, water pollution, and climate change. Adding another pressure such as killing indiscriminately, would not be good for Australian waters. Add on top of that the negative effects a changing ecosystem would have on the local economy including fisheries and possibly tourism. Killing sharks would have more long term effects than protecting beach goers in the short term.

At first glance, haste decisions like the decision made by the Western Australian government to kill sharks enrage me, but then some people reminded me why a decision to kill sharks was made in the first place. People got hurt. There may have not been many people that got hurt over the years, or worse died; however, every attack is devastating to the loved ones of the victims.

Politicians’ Actions often against science

Politicians tend to react on emotions based on specific events, which turn into short-term “solutions” with long-term consequences. In this case, the politicians reacted a number of people, over the years, being bitten or killed by sharks during a specific time range. Add to the fact that politicians want to portray strong decision making to their constituents, they tend to make quick decisions without accounting for all of the information and the consequences for their swift action.

The shark cull in Western Australia is a perfect example of a short-sighted decision with a potential for long-term consequences. The politicians in this case seemed to ignore the fact that culling has not proven to be an effective strategy to reduce shark attacks in the past; they ignored a letter sent by over 100 shark scientists explaining why the cull was a bad idea; and, they ignored alternative methods for reducing shark attacks on popular beaches. An endangered shark species (the Great White shark) and other species that have individuals longer than 3 meters will die and reduce their population size every year this cull continues. And there is nothing we can do about it. UNLESS…

Image Source: Facebook

Image Source: Facebook

Keep up the good fight!

We, the people who love sharks and the ocean living around the world continue to speak up about how this cull is a terrible decision. We need to SPEAK UP! It’s obvious that science alone cannot change the mind of these politicians and we may not be able to influence changes in Australian legislation directly, but our collective Ocean Conservation Advocacy efforts can influence the Australian people’s opinions, who in turn, can vote out the current government and vote in a government that can make proper decisions. This advocacy should come in the form of education, protests and perhaps civil disobedience.

We, as Ocean Leaders, have the power of technology to reach far and beyond our own borders to educate people across the world on bad decision making by politicians. I am not saying Australian’s make bad decisions…I am Canadian so I completely understand the frustration that comes with a government constantly making poor decisions against the environment in order to protect an industry. I fully expect the same pressure of the global Ocean Leader community to come down hard on my own government as I would my own and theirs.

It is extremely frustrating to constantly see politicians making rash decisions with long term consequences, especially when it comes to nature. I just hope that you, the Ocean Leader community, realize that we can make a change by speaking up and educating people about information that is presented to governments to help in decision making, especially scientific information.

The Public are not Scientifically Literate

Perhaps that problem doesn’t lie with just the politicians. The latest international exams show that the US ranked 21st and 26th in science and math, respectively. A trend that started in the 1960s. An articles from IndyStar.com stated 28% of Americans are scientifically literate and it is far better than China (3%). How can we expect politicians to acknowledge scientific information when the people who elected them do not understand science?

It is our jobs as Ocean Leaders (scientists and conservationists) to ensure the proper science is not only disseminated to the public, but understood by the public…no easy task believe me I know! The web can be a great tool to share scientific information and it can also be used to share false scientific information. For instance, Deep Sea News bloggers (and Ocean Scientists) recently posted a number of posts busting myths perpetuated over the Fukushima disaster. One article in particular explained that a viral image of a map depicting the dangerous amount of radiation that was travelling across the Pacific was indeed a map of wave height during the Japanese Tsunami. Websites like Deep Sea News and Southern Fried Science need to be read by more people and their articles need to be shared more often to ensure TRUE scientific articles get out to the public.

Of course, the public are not the only people to blame…We still have politicians in the world like Michele Bachmann who perpetuate idiotic statements and misinformation to her followers all the time. The latest statement is a doozy. Michele Bachmann stated that since Stephen Hawking said that there were no such thing as black holes, then things like climate change and evolution must also be untrue (I’m paraphrasing, but I am not off her statement by that much). Her statement is ridiculous, that is pretty much obvious. In fact, her statement is wrong. Stephen Hawking did not say that black holes don’t exist, he wrote a paper changing his theory in relation to the gravitational pull of the black holes.

It’s fair to say that Michele Bachmann is a bad example to use as a politician that ignores science because she is not a politician that any of us should take seriously; however, her statement may have had some influence over US Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the Chairman of the House Science Committee, who said “Going forward, members of the House Science Committee will do our best to avoid listening to scientists People, I couldn’t make this up if I wanted to!

Perhaps we should deal with politicians that don’t listen to scientists like this:

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  • Joshua says:

    Culling of large predatory sharks over three meters in length is a good thing. It is a credit to the WA Government that they are doing this. It should also be used around the nation by all states.

    The biggest majority of people that protest about culling of large sharks do not know the full story and that in STOPPING this culling will cause damage to not only humans but also to the marine environment.

    Years ago netting and other methods where used to protect our beaches. However apart from not only large sharks but smaller harmless sharks along with turtles, young seals and small dolphins would get caught in these lines or nets and die an agonising death.

    Back in the 1960’s I used to hunt sharks underwater for a living along the Northern NSW coast. Since then most sharks have become a protected species. I fully agree that some of our smaller sharks such as the Wobbegong whom I call the “guardian of the reef” need continued protection. However as larger predatory sharks have been protected over the years their numbers have increased substantially and will continue to rise.

    So shark culling targets only predatory sharks. Thus leaving the smaller harmless sharks along with turtles, young seals and small dolphins safe.

    Also take this into consideration, apart from humans being attacked on occasions by these large sharks, how many innocent marine creatures such as smaller harmless sharks along with turtles, young seals and small dolphins get ripped to pieces and eaten by these hunters of the deep in their lifetime.

  • Yani says:

    Dear Joshua,
    I certainly don’t want to spoil your enthusiastic view on shark culling. But first of all the whole point of balance, is that predator sharks kill small dolphins and seals. Predation is normal and we shouldn’t “side” with the “small, cute and harmless” animals. Predators keep the numbers of those animals under check. Which is a good thing, otherwise the initial balance wouldn’t be. There is the possibility that a predator is’t indigenous and kills everything, but that’s an other problem, often caused (indirectly) by humans. Australia is a good example of how humans can mess up ecosystems by trying to create balance. (If anything I have written here suggests that nature is an intelligent and planning entity, this would be entirely coincidental)
    Second, why should we kill sharks, if you go through the list of alternatives, you can see that there are other ways to prevent shark attacks. And if it has been proven scientifically that culling doesn’t help, why continue ?

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