Every year, between 5 and 15 people are killed by sharks world wide. For their part, human beings kill more than 100 million sharks, world wide, every year. Three quarters of these deaths are due to commodity killing, particularly ‘finning’. This is the cruel practice of cutting the fin off the shark and, often, throwing the shark back into the ocean to die a lingering death as it is unable to swim properly. One quarter of the deaths are ‘by-catch’, meaning that they are the collateral damage of other fishing practices.
This is the context in which the Western Australian government is ‘culling’ sharks, in spite of protests in WA and around the world. Let’s be clear: this means killing. The method is to set out baited hooks and wait for sharks to come and get caught. They are then killed (if not already dead), and the bodies are towed out to sea. Only three species are meant to be killed: great white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks. Only animals over two meters in length are meant to be killed. The great white shark is protected by both state and federal legislation as an endangered species. Already the hooks are catching individuals that are smaller than can be killed. There appears to be no monitoring of the effects of this method on the individuals of these beleaguered species.
Once again I am reminded of the zombie politics that seeks to display power through killing. The discourse may be managerial (a problem to be solved), but the underlying logic is not. Zombie politics seek power through the demonisation and death of unwanted others. Such politics, which should have died out centuries ago, remain with us even today in this time when the rapid degradation of the ecological webs of life would inspire any thoughtful person to develop a politics of care. And yet, this politics of death-making seems to be thriving. It suppresses ethics and compassion, and refuses to engage in a reasoned understanding of ecosystems. This is the politics that is driving so much of the damage that is unmaking planet earth today.
Our standard discourse often inadvertently feeds into the politics of death-making. In an earlier post, I objected to the idea that ‘both sides’ of every story should be told. My point was that every story has more than two sides. In that post, I offered eleven sides to the story of the cruel persecution of flying-foxes in Charters Towers, Queensland. There’s no fixed number. The significant point is that good ecological thought involves exploring numerous sides to any story. I came up with 13 sides to the current shark kill, and I am sure other people will be able to add more.
In contrast to ecological thinking, the decision to kill sharks is based on a simple oppositional binary: which is more important, the lives of humans or the lives of sharks? Politicians are of course saying the lives of humans are more important.
Almost everyone else, though, is refusing to play the binary game. They are saying it doesn’t have to be ‘either-or’. There are many ways to achieve co-existence, they are saying, and killing gets in the way of better solutions. These are people who are able to think with sharks, to see the commonalities of our creaturely lives rather than sliding into vilification and killing.
Interesting as these human sides of the story are, the issue is even more fascinating when ecological thinking starts outside and away from the noisy human sphere. Stories of ecological functioning are usually win-win at the level of populations. That is, big fish eat smaller fish, and so on through the food web, so that when systems are functioning well, populations benefit from the interactions. Sharks are top predators (also called apex predators). The only creature that regularly preys on them is the human.
Here are thirteen sides to the culling frenzy:
1) The sharks themselves. Those who die did not choose to die. Some will have died painful deaths, caught on hooks, and unable to free themselves. Others who were not meant to be targeted will also suffer, and some will die.
2) The species. While a species can’t be said to have a ‘perspective’, it does have a history, and unless extinction takes over, it has a future. That great lineage is not ours to destroy.
3) Turtles, dugongs and seagrass. As top predators sharks exert pressure on the ways in which turtles and dugongs graze on the seagrass. That pressure is good for the health of all three kinds of beings, as well as for sharks.
4) Coral reefs. In order for coral to continue to grow, algae has to be kept in check. Small herbivorous fish do this. Sharks have a positive effect on small fish by keeping in check the mid-size fish that feed on the small ones.
5) Bivalves (scallops, oysters, clams). This story is known in detail because it is happening along the east coast of the USA at this moment. The large sharks of this region have been so reduced in number that they are functionally extinct. The waves of disaster that follow from this functional extinction tell the terrible story of extinction cascades. Loss of sharks meant that certain other marine animal populations increased enormously. One creature is the ‘cownose ray’ which migrates up and down the coast eating scallops, clams and oysters. The scallop population has collapsed, and the scallop fishing industry is suffering. The rays are now expected to turn to clams and oysters.
6) The ocean itself. Bivalves are the ‘filtration system’ for the ocean, according to the Oceana report. Their decline means that ‘already stressed coastal areas could experience additional uncontrolled algal blooms and dead zones…’
Turning now to humans:
7) Activists. Most of these people also swim, surf and dive. They are turning out by the thousands, with support from around the world, to say that co-existence is possible.
8) The Aboriginal people of the Perth area. The Noongar people, led by their Elders, are taking a leading role in opposing the killing. Their long-term co-existence with sharks has involved cultural relationships which remain private.
9) Scientists who are carrying out research into shark life and behaviour. ABC Radio’s Bush Telegraph program on the shark issue gave space to marine neuroecologist Ryan Kempster. He drew on evidence from shark control around the world, and said that the best approach is to capture and tag sharks, and take them further out to sea. In this way the ‘problem’ is taken away, and the sharks can be monitored. Both science and surfers benefit by knowing more about sharks and by identifying individuals.
10) People concerned with the legal implications of these exemptions. The same radio program brought in Green MP Lynn MacLaren; she expressed concern about the legalities of the process, and indicated that legal challenges might be forthcoming, perhaps from the Environmental Defender’s Office. The bottom line is that state and federal legislation, most significantly the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, has as its main aim the protection of endangered species. It isn’t a luxury to be dispensed with whenever politicians decide on a bout of death-work.
11) Surfers themselves who oppose the killing. A particularly articulate statement was put forward by Jack Serong. He writes: ‘On average, 87 people drown at Australian beaches every year. These are preventable deaths. On average one person will die by shark attack in the same period. And it probably won’t be preventable. His conclusion: ‘For the cost of a national shark cull, for the environmental damage it would do, how many sharks could we tag? How many kids could we teach to swim? How many more beaches could we patrol? This is the delicate dance of numbers, so easily skewed by fear.’
12) WA surfers who may support the killing. Kevin Merriman spoke on the Bush Telegraph program. He acknowledged the fact that surfing is risky, and described surfers as people who are at one with mother nature. He thought that human lives should take precedence over shark lives, but after hearing about the possibility of capture, tagging and removal, he acknowledged that it seemed like a reasonable option.
13) The WA government, led by premier Colin Barnett. As far as can be determined, Mr Barnett is unwilling to consider alternatives to killing. He managed the exemptions from the WA legislation that is supposed to protect the great white whale, and he asked for, and received, federal exemption, granted by the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt. The Minister, it may be noted, is making a name for himself as the honcho with the most destructive approach to the environment that Australia has ever known.
The most stunning thing about looking at so many sides of the story is that the proponents of killing are so few.
As I was considering the 13 sides to this story, I was struck by the diversity not only of human sides but also of ways of expressing those sides. There have been inspiring photos, and there have been wretchedly vivid ones. There have been some wonderfully pointed comments as well.
This one particularly appealed to me:
Along with visual imagery, there are forms of writing that are more poetic and more personal. My friend Kim Satchell is a poet, philosopher, teacher, and life-long surfer. I asked him if he had any poetry on surfing and sharks, and he sent me this poetic essay:
There is an eerie calm that accompanies the murky Saturday afternoon—the brown sea is a jumbled mess. An onshore wind is ripping the surface to shreds. Little waves fall apart on the shore. While news of a nearby shark attack spreads a contagion of fear and anxiety. Each person who knows, seems compelled to tell someone else. I am checking the surf and a man I know drives up, winds down his window and blurts out the gruesome facts, relieving himself in auto-absolution. The radio and television get in on the act, by Sunday morning its front page headlines and photographs in both papers. The death is brutal, a young body-boarder’s legs torn from him, bleeds toward death, while his mates wrest him from the troubled sea. On the beach CPR cannot avert a shocking cardiac arrest. The bravery, the tragedy, and the utter helplessness meld together as shock gives way to grief. Experts are called in to identify the teeth marks, names are bandied about—tiger, bull, great white. Cold comfort for those already gripped by the psycho-socio phobia, of panic around sharks. A frenzy feeding on human frailty and the vulnerability that is exposed by the deep blue sea. Talk inevitably turns to all too human concerns of patrols, nets, a vendetta kill and more broadly the question of culls. Ah the taste of blood in the water. Straying far from common sense, the sacred balance of the more-than human world and its complex relations seem implausible, alas, and the reality of mass destruction of habitat as inconceivable to the narrow mind; whose sense of rights and territory are bound and bonded by a human exceptionalism, vouchsafed by the misguided progress of the dominant species. Whose built environment supersedes the necessity of the wild and untamed or the god of industry forbid, a thriving ecology. The irony of rhyming slang, the shark—Noah’s Ark or maligned doubly in the euphemism, as the men in grey suits. I know sharks not only belong in the sea, they are integrally woven into the fabric of all marine life, to the health of the ocean. To be honest they are woven into the fabric of my life, not through fear or mistrust but through presence and respect. When people seek to needlessly destroy them, they hurt us (living organisms and sentient life) all and all we rely on is further compromised. (© Kim Satchell, 2014)
The great shark lineage has been swimming the oceans for about 400 million years . As a lineage they have survived four of the five previous mass extinction events. Perhaps some members of the lineage will make it through the extinction event that is now occurring, perhaps not. But it isn’t only a question of numbers, or of time, or of survival. It is for us today a question of how we take a stand for the lives and deaths of others. The threats to sharks go way beyond the WA kill, and our activism is needed everywhere. At the same time, these deaths are caused specifically in our name, and it is our responsibility to bring them to a speedy and lasting halt.
After completing this post, I came across an article discussing research that shows that many sharks practice ‘natal philopatry’, meaning that females return to their own place of birth in order to give birth to their own offspring. Whether or not these findings are applicable to sharks in WA is unknown, but the authors conclude that ‘our findings support the emerging paradigm that natal philopatry is widespread in mobile marine vertebrates’. Somehow, when I think of mums going home to have their babies, sharks don’t seem quite so remote from us humans! And I would like to know: have any of the sharks that have been killed in this latest assault been pregnant?
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)
Postscript: this just came in – an update on the drum lines, and a chance to voice your oppostion!
It’s sickening. More than 100 sharks have now been caught and many killed or found dead on the drum lines under Western Australia’s terrible bait-and-kill policy.There’s still no evidence that the program improves the safety of beach swimmers, yet now it could be extended for another THREE years.
WA Premier Colin Barnett is trying to seek approval to continue the shark slaughter until April 2017. But Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt is reviewing the ‘trial’ policy and has the power to end it for good. He’s accepting public submissions right now, and a huge public outcry could tip the balance at this critical moment.
Then there’s the cost: since 26 January, one man has been paid a whopping $5,705 per day to catch and kill innocent sharks . What’s more, the drum lines strung out at sea have been known to catch protected species, including dusky whaler and mako sharks.
Whatever way you look at it, this shark cull is a dead-end waste of time and money that could be otherwise spent providing real solutions to protect beach swimmers. The millions of dollars being diverted to this program could be spent on more and better scientific research into shark behaviours, or trialing tracking devices and sonar beacon repellents.
Of course no one wants to see any more people injured by sharks at sea. I regularly visit Sydney’s beautiful beaches with my wife, six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. We’re truly lucky to have beautiful beaches so close to our homes. But the oceans are there to share.
I know I’d regret giving the next generation the impression other living creatures should be simply killed if they caused an ‘inconvenience’ or fear. If you feel the same way, please consider sending an urgent email to Minister Greg Hunt today.
With hope for a humane solution,