Editorial: Shark killing plan out of proportion to the threat

Spotter planes and surf patrols are normally enough to keep bathers reasonably safe. Photo / Thinkstock
Spotter planes and surf patrols are normally enough to keep bathers reasonably safe. Photo / Thinkstock

Shooting sharks does not sound very sensible if the purpose is to make beaches safer for swimming. The one thing everybody hears about the sea's supreme predators is that blood in the water is liable to attract more of them. Presumably the West Australian state Government considered that risk when it decided to set baited lines a kilometre off beaches near Perth and invite commercial fishermen to shoot any great white, bull or tiger shark of more then 3m that might be caught on the lines or be seen inside them.

Despite protests on the beaches last weekend and widespread condemnation, the decision is due to take effect tomorrow. Critics have not raised the question of human safety when the carnage starts, their objection is one of principle. The sea, their placards point out, is the sharks' habitat. If it comes to a contest, the sharks' right to life exceeds humans' right to recreation in the water.

Respect for wildlife has come a long way in recent times. No so long ago, any creature that posed a threat to humans in its own realm was considered fair game. Attitudes began to change with the realisation that many of them could be facing extinction, some as a result of trophy hunting, others because their habitats were shrinking as human activities expanded.

Bears, wolves and other species with a fearsome reputation in fairy tales were, in reality, rarely seen and when they were seen, they were found to be usually wary of human beings. They have become protected in parks and wilderness areas and their survival celebrated, not feared.

Sharks, though, have some way to go. Nature programmes still delight in enticing them to attack cages where divers can photograph their teeth up close. The sight of a fin is, quite properly, enough to clear a beach of bathers. If they bite someone, it is so frightful and often fatal that it is easy to forget how rarely it happens.

The West Australian Government is taking its action after a seventh fatal attack in the region over the past three years. That toll is a tiny fraction of the number of people who have plunged into the surf around southwestern Australia in that time. Most people know the odds of meeting a shark are very low. If it were otherwise, not many people would ever go into the sea.

Quite likely there is a shark in the vicinity more often than swimmers realise but it has no interest in them. The surf lifesaving club captain at Papamoa beach, where a bronze whaler came close to swimmers on Tuesday, said sightings were a daily occurrence.

A marine scientist said bronze whalers can see that we are not fish and their teeth are not designed to eat anything as big as a human. Scuba divers often see sharks that show no particular interest in them.

If sharks posed a greater threat, drastic steps might be justified. Animal rights are not as absolute as some of the Perth protest placards suggest.

Nets would seem more effective than baited hooks and a firing squad, but something could be done so that people could enjoy the water in reasonable safety.

The danger around Western Australia and other places is simply not of a scale that justifies wholesale slaughter. The species in the Government's sights might not be endangered, and only the largest of them might be shot, but this is not the way to deal with one of life's more remote risks.

Spotter planes and surf patrols are normally enough to keep bathers reasonably safe. Bait lines and guns would not stop every big shark that ranges inshore.

People would do better to keep a sense of proportion and enjoy the water.

- NZ Herald

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