Controversy Rages Amid Calls For Great White Shark Cull In Australia

Residents of Australia’s New South Wales have good reason to feel deeply uneasy about the region’s population of great white sharks following a widely reported spike in attacks this year, but controversy continues to rage amid calls for a protective cull to be implemented against the predators.

New South Wales’ northern coast has seen a dramatic spike in white shark attacks this year, as the Guardian points out. No fewer than 13 incidents have transpired in the region, leading to one fatality, yet public opinion remains divided regarding whether or not there is a shark “problem” developing off the coast. Metropolitan media in New South Wales have reported the “spate” of incidents in a fashion that recently inspired the editor of the Northern Star to take issue, while the tourism industry of areas like Ballina Shire have seen notable impacts from negative press.

According to researchers, however, the number of attacks that have taken place this year do not in any way reflect an increase in shark populations. The NSW Department of Primary Industries asserts on its website that no scientific evidence exists to support the claim that shark populations are increasing. Rather, the data surrounding shark attacks show that their increase closely correlates with an uptick in the number of people taking to the sea for recreational activities. These numbers follow larger trends observable worldwide over the last two decades.

While researchers have speculated that there may be a unique set of environmental conditions that have caused sharks to aggregate along the coast of New South Wales this year, the Guardian points out that many beachgoers do not understand that local shark populations are not static. Simply put, sharks of all species travel great distances compared to other predators, and their presence in a region is largely non-permanent. Through the use of tagging programs, scientists have only begun to understand the complexity of their migration patterns, as well as the staggering distances that sharks will travel, at times into the open ocean. While alarms have been raised regarding white sharks along the northern coast of New South Wales, in just a few short months those predators could be half a world away.

The current situation in New South Wales is hardly the first time that Australians have found themselves worried regarding a rash of shark incidents off their coastline. In late 2011 and early 2012, five fatal shark attacks took place in Western Australia. Despite widespread media attention, that cluster of attacks proved to be nothing more than a statistical spike, and in the ensuing years, the number of incidents has returned to normal levels.

Western Australia’s policies regarding sharks (particularly great whites) have come under widespread criticism. Last year, some researchers threatened to withhold tagging data after it was used in an attempt to preemptively kill a white shark. A series of baited drum lines deployed in response to the 2012 attacks resulted in the deaths of 163 tiger sharks, even though no fatalities had been attributed to that species in the area since the 1920s.

Despite widespread calls for action regarding the region’s white sharks, there is little that can be done to make beaches perfectly safe, as James Woodford points out in a column for the Guardian. These predators exist as part of the complex and at times dangerous ecosystem that characterizes the oceans, yet it remains highly unlikely that most beachgoers will ever face a great white shark.

[Photo by Ryan Pierse / Getty Images]