Shark!

2145763683_873c871ac9I think it would be safe to say there’s been something of a shark frenzy over here in Australia in the past few weeks. Headlines like this surface every now and again and are always worth a few column cm (or whatever the digital equivalent is). The trouble is, they lead on to a set of predictable responses, from both sides of the conservation fence, and I’m not sure that this actually helps understanding or safety. Let’s look at the most recent case.

A person was killed in a (rare) shark attack (for  a timeline, see here). The response of the West Australian Government was to instigate a cull. There has been, and still is, a considerable backlash against this. Interestingly, despite numerous news reports of the cull, the WA government site can’t easily produce details in a search and where material does surface, it is far more measured! The beaches where potential culling might take place are named, but again, when you move away from the surface of headlines, there is little concrete material with that which does exist, often contradictory.

Perhaps it’s time for a little ‘citizen science’ on the issue because it makes a fascinating study not only of shark ecology but pressures on biodiversity and human responses. If we treat this as an exercise in conservation ecology education then we really should be heading down four avenues of research:

  • shark ecology – species, distributions and ecosystem interactions;
  • interactions with people – where and, ideally, why;
  • potential responses with their strengths and weaknesses;
  • best environmental response.

Sharks are well known, and works on shark ecology can be found with a little search effort e.g. Australian Government (and their publications site, here).  There’s much on ecosystem dynamics  and the impact of shark losses (here and here). International conservation sites have detailed resource materials (e.g. SharkMoU) so why is there so little measured reporting on this subject?  When we turn to look at interactions with people it’s obvious that attacks on swimmers are the least of the problems. Overfishing (especially for fins) and habitat alteration come at the top of the list by far. Then there’s shark nets which offer little real protection but do catch numerous sharks (and other species, normally referred to as by-catch i.e. unwanted species). At least these interactions are well documented but against this, one must balance the ecology. Sharks are endangered species not just because of human activity but the time taken to recover from it. If shark populations fall below a minimum viable level, then decline and extinction follows almost inevitably.

Returning to responses to shark attacks, the two fundamental questions are why do they happen and what are the numbers. For the former, there seems to be some agreement around the idea of sharks following food sources with people as “collateral damage” if the two species interact! The numbers of attacks are still very small but seemingly increasing. Are sharks getting more likely to attack or, as some note, there are more “opportunities” as people move into coastal areas in increasing numbers. Responses, including shark nets and drumlines are getting more and more criticism not only because they harm other species but because they don’t work as efficiently as it had been planned. The result is a situation that is far from satisfactory.

What do we do then? Shark culling won’t work and drumlines catch other species. Some writers are suggesting that a great measure of personal responsibility might not hurt i.e. don’t swim where the sharks are!

As an educator this is a great chance to take something of relevance to so many students e.g. swimming at the beach) and turn it into a lesson in human-animal interactions. The level of detail would make a fine case study or student project. As a conservationist it is clear that the situation cannot continue. Losing a few sharks from potentially attacking someone pails into insignificance when faced with the global slaughter of sharks for  soup etc. It’s as if people felt the idea of ecological cascading didn’t apply to them!

 

Photo Credit: Ken Bondy via Compfight cc

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