A Plan to Get Out of the Shark Cull Mess

“The policy will not improve public safety. As a result, bad policy is becoming bad politics”. Expert Christopher Neff offers policy solutions in the wake of Western Australia’s controversial culling of sharks.

Image by Steve Garner

Following the first weeks of drumline use to kill sharks in Western Australia, the photographed shot-gun death of a tiger shark and the largest pro-shark rally ever held anywhere in the world, it may be time for the West Australian Barnett Government to consider new political options.

This is important not simply because it is hurting WA’s reputation around the world, with recent critical articles in The New York Times and The Economist, but because of a more fundamental issue: the policy will not improve public safety. As a result, bad policy is becoming bad politics.

It appears that there is a belief within the WA Government that the public outcry will end. Instead, protests are spreading around the world, with planned events in Cape Town, San Francisco and London against the shark culling policy. In addition, attempts by some to label all protesters as extremists is missing a real debate about conservation and values taking place. Yet, the calculation seems to be that this is popular with enough loyal supporters of the Government that this can continue until its scheduled end in April.

Politically, the issue is that while shark bites are not governable events they can be blameable events. The Government does not want to be seen as having let this happen on it’s watch. I get it. The public gets it. But what we need are policy options to reduce risk not to reduce blame. Here are a few options to get the Government out of this quagmire of a policy:
First, keep the drumlines but change the policy and stop the cull. Scientists use drumlines all the time – to tag and release sharks. Use them for this purpose and provide real risk reduction for bathers. More tagged sharks means a better early detection system. WA can have the best tagging system in the world.

Secondly, call for an international symposium on shark bite prevention to be hosted in WA. Bring in the world’s best scientists and open it to the public. Deliberative democracy works and public education is the best and most effective way to reduce risk. WA can lead the way forward on shark bite prevention and education.

Third, stop throwing good money after bad at this issue. I love money but I’ve got a free tip: manage your beaches more strictly. The problem is not that you need “kill zones,” the problem is that beach goers are swimming outside the flags along an enormous stretch of coast. The public can reduce risk by swimming together.

Fourth, put the responsibility on the public not the government. Mother Nature has a terrible habit of ignoring public policy. These are not governable events so let’s not pretend we can shark-proof Australia. Following a cluster of fatalities in 1929 the New South Wales state Government put a 10 pound fine on people swimming out too far and getting bitten. I am not suggesting a fine. I am saying that since we go into the ocean, and the ocean is the wild, it is our risk and our responsibility.

In closing, there are two last, but important, critiques. The first one is directed at Premier Barnett, who should consider stopping statements that he has the tough job and everyone who favours research and education has the easy bit. With all due respect, Sharon Burden and the other families who have lost loved ones have it hard. Anyone who has lost a child has it hardest. The rest of us have it easy. And, secondly to the protesters against the Premier. Central to this debate is that these issues are hard and neither the sharks nor the politicians should be demonized. Respect for the ocean also means respect for each other and I hope all sides will demonstrate this.

Today, the Barnett Government has a choice to move forward or remain a step behind. I am happy to help and so will many others. WA is a great state with excellent scientists and tremendous and independent people. I hope the Government will consider a new approach and recognise that they still have options.

Christopher Neff is a teacher and PhD student in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. His cutting edge research is the first doctoral study on the politics of shark attacks.