Western Australia in uproar over shark cull after rise in attacks

Animal rights activists and scientists united in anger over controversial response to big rise in attacks off Western Australia in last three years

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 4:39am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 6:37am

Chris Boyd was surfing at a secluded beach on Australia's western coast when he was attacked by a great white shark in November.

It severed his left arm and ripped off part of his right leg. The 35-year-old died in its jaws.

The Australian plumber's gruesome death was part of an increase in shark attacks that has terrified swimmers and triggered a deeply emotional debate in a country where the ocean is considered the national playground.

In response to the panic over the attacks, the government of Western Australia state last month began a cull of great white, tiger and bull sharks more than nine feet long.

The move has outraged environmentalists and animal rights activists and some scientists are also concerned.

"We are never going to stop shark attacks," said Colin Simpfendorfer, who has studied sharks for 28 years and is director of the Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland. "Science doesn't support the cull."

The chances of being taken by a shark in Western Australia state are remote, but they appear to be rising. Of the 20 people killed by sharks in the state over the past century, seven died in the past three years, according to the state government, which has found a statistically significant increase in attacks since 1995.

With its long coastline and swimmer-friendly warm weather, Australia reports the second-highest number of shark attacks after the United States.

Last year, 15 per cent of all reported attacks took place in Australian waters, compared with 52 per cent in US waters. But Australia has one-thirteenth the population of the US.

West Australia's tourism industry is concerned about the long-term consequences of the rise in attacks.

More than 60 per cent of foreign tourists visit a beach, but there is anecdotal evidence some businesses are already being hurt, according to the federal government.

One of the state's prettiest beaches, Cottesloe, in Perth, used to be packed every holiday season. Now, towards the end of the southern hemisphere summer, the water is almost empty.

"It's hard to convey to outsiders the impact in our community of these shark attacks," said Jane Marwick, a radio broadcaster.

"People on the beach talk about sharks, people in shops talk about sharks, patients and staff at the doctor's surgery talk about sharks. But few are sure of just what should be done."

To cull the shark population, state employees have hung large, baited hooks by chains from buoys floating about a mile from popular beaches, including Cottesloe. The government wanted to pay professional fishermen to set the bait and kill or release the fish trapped on the hooks, but few offered their services after activists threatened to disrupt the process.

The day after the cull was announced, a man barged into one of the governor's offices, smashed several windows and threatened two staff members with a hammer.

Some marine experts say it might be better to use nets to kill the sharks, as is done in eastern Australia, where the number of shark-attack deaths is lower.

The nets are suspended in the ocean, extending from just below the surface half way to the sea floor. Sharks that try to swim through them drown.

But the nets also kill dolphins and other sea life.