Long Read: On The Ethics Of Shark Control
The 25th August near-fatal mauling of Toby Begg at Port Macquarie as well as the seasonal re-instatement of shark control nets at 51 beaches between Wollongong and Newcastle has once again raised the issue of shark control methods. Mostly, their effectiveness and the deleterious effects on other marine creatures. I wish to make a contribution to the debate, after giving the matter much thought and having personal experiences of the impacts of both white shark attacks amongst my surfing community and innovations in shark mitigation methods.
The aim is not to introduce anymore dogmatic thinking but to open up further avenues of debate, to show that surfers as the primary targets of shark attack are being poorly served by the media discourse and current orthodoxies around this issue and, finally, to aim for a pathway towards mutual co-existence with apex, oceanic predators whose populations are likely to rise under a regime of legislated protection.
These are very thorny issues so let's tread carefully.
First, a quick survey of shark control programs. The three largest and most well studied are the Queensland Shark Control Program (QSCP), New South Wales Shark Meshing Program (SMP) and the South African KwaZulu-Natal Shark Board program (KZNSB). The QSCP uses nets and drumlines at 86 beaches along the Queensland Coast and was instigated in 1962. The SMP was introduced in 1937 and currently nets 51 beaches between Wollongong and Newcastle between September and April. In addition, there are now 305 SMART Drumlines located along the NSW Coast. The KZNSB program consists of nets and drumlines and was introduced in 1952. It now covers 37 beaches along the KwaZulu coastline north and south of Durban.
The aim of all three programs is to reduce shark attacks and the method is very simple. It's called the fishing effect and relies on removing target sharks from selected beaches and thus reducing the potential for interactions. According to the fishing effect it doesn't matter whether a shark is caught on the ocean or landward side of a net. As an example of the fishing effect, 18 white sharks were caught by the SMP in the last netting season (2022/23).
The nets don't span a whole beach, nor reach from surface to ocean floor. They likely work as a deterrent, interrupting the shark's natural behaviour of cruising behind the surf zone where the nets are located, however the fishing effect is of primary importance. Some evidence exists there may be a chemical repellent effect from netted, decaying sharks and rays.
Our first question: Do shark control programs work?
The evidence for their effectiveness across all three domains is incredibly powerful. At Durban, from 1943 until the installation of nets in 1952, there were seven fatal attacks. Since the installation of nets there have been no fatalities at Durban and no incidents resulting in serious injury. At KwaZulu-Natal's other protected beaches, from 1940 until most of those beaches were first netted in the 1960s, there were 16 fatal attacks and 11 resulting in serious injury. In the three decades since nets were installed there were no fatal attacks at those beaches and only four resulting in serious injury. In the period 1990 to 1998 there were seven shark attacks (one fatal on a spearfisherman) in KwaZulu Natal's meshed beaches compared to 46 (five fatal) in South Africa’s Eastern and Western Cape provinces where no protective measures are in place.
In Queensland, before the program was put in place, there were 36 shark attacks, resulting in 19 fatalities from 1916 to 1962. Since the QSCP was implemented in 1962, there has only been two fatal shark attacks. One at Amity Point in 2007 via bullsharks and one white shark attack at Greenmount in September 2020.
The New South Wales SMP record is equally impressive. Across NSW's most heavily populated coastal area with beach visitations in the millions every year (4.3 million estimated in 2022/23), there's been one fatality since 1937, and 12 interactions with target sharks (11 white shark bites, 1 Tiger).
12 interactions in 86 years..? I can name 12 bites in 2 years within a 50 kilometre radius of my Northern Rivers home.
Overall, the reduction in shark interactions has been estimated to be in the vicinity of 90% across all three jurisdictions. Claims that shark control programs are not effective can only be justified by advocacy and motivated reasoning, not a sober scientific assessment of the evidence.
Having established the proposition that it is possible to reduce the risk of shark attack (i.e it is a governable issue) it's incumbent on us as surfers to then ask a second question: Do we have the right to utilise shark control methods?
This is a much knottier ethical issue. Shark control is not a free pass to safe surfing. The cost is in marine life; in our fellow creatures with whom we share the ocean.
The bycatch is significant. 204 non-target animals were caught by the SMP last year, including 14 turtles, 8 dolphins and 2 seals.
The first year of a two-year net trial on the North Coast (Lennox to Evans Head) caught 266 non-target animals including 1 Grey Nurse shark, 1 Manta Ray, 11 turtles, 4 dolphins, and 4 longtail Tuna. The story is no different in Queensland or South Africa. Nets are non-selective fishing devices that will catch any and all animals of a sufficient size to become entangled. Efforts have been made to reduce this bycatch by setting the nets seasonally or less often, or removing them during whale migrations and sardine runs, but the fundamental problem of bycatch can never be overcome.
What do we owe other creatures? What do we owe the biosphere? Species extinction has been a fundamental property of all life on Earth but the human record, under any political system, is appalling. According to English philosopher John Gray in his book Straw Dogs: “The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, ‘Western civilisation’ or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation”.
The implications of that world view have been taken to their logical extremes by American philosopher Kristine Korsgaard who stated in her 2018 book Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to Other Animals that “nothing has ever been as bad for the biotic community as unhindered human reproduction. Shouldn’t it follow that it is wrong for humans to reproduce, and right for us to stop reproducing and let ourselves go extinct?”
It's a seductive way of thinking and echoes of it appear in every iteration of the shark debate, especially in below the line comments. White shark attacks seen through that prism take on a peculiar type of moral certitude with the shark as avenging angel getting one back for Mother Nature against humanity.
I admit to falling under its sway myself. But my position has changed. Primarily from proximity to the attack clusters that occurred here from 2015 onwards and the media response to them.
A lot of the media and even scientific discourse is just absolute gaslighting nonsense for us surfers. Chiefly, that shark attacks are vanishingly rare and we have more chance of drowning, or being killed by a cow, or hit by a falling coconut etc etc. The names of people attacked around here come straight to my mind: Jabez Reitman, Tadashi Nakahara (RIP), Matt Lee, Craig Ison, Cooper Allen, Jade Fitzpatrick, Sam Edwardes, Lee Johnson, Seneca Rus, Abe McGrath, Mani Hart-Deville (RIP). If not direct pals, work colleagues, or surfing buddies then friends of friends, sons or parents of my kid's friends in school.
Take the circle out to first responders and witnesses, and it expands by a factor of three at least. Add to that an almost uncountably high number of swoopings, bumpings, circlings. Social science research by the DPI around the aforementioned two-year net trial for Lennox-Ballina revealed 45% of respondents indicated they, a family member, or close friend had been involved in a shark/human interaction, including being bitten, approached or bumped by a shark, or being involved in the rescue and treatment of shark-bite victims.
Ignorance of this data and the actual risk profile makes reading most media reporting on the “shark issue” a forehead slapping exercise for North Coast surfers.
Having to reckon with this human suffering and trauma created a dissonance that persists to this day. On the one hand was fellowship with the community of marine animals we share the ocean with, and on the other was an increasing level of injury, death, and suffering amongst my surfing community from predation and attempted predation from a species of the marine community.
Again, media and academic discourse became a nonsense. As a counter to the perception disseminated by the movie Jaws, a story was crafted of white sharks as a gentle creature uninterested in human beings. This Disney-fication of shark behaviour was gobbled up and repeated ad nauseum, including by many academics who should have known better.
Science proceeds according to the falsifiable hypothesis. A hypothesis needs to have predictive power and accord with the empirical data. If the data is at odds with the hypothesis then the hypothesis needs to be altered or ditched. Hypotheses that sharks always have an “exploratory bite” then disappear or that human beings were never predated on were falsified a long time ago and should have been discarded by the weight of evidence. We still hear them repeated today. It seems a very hard truth to accept that white sharks are apex, opportunistic, ambush predators, and that occasionally human beings in the inshore zone will be subjected to that predation. No-one knows why but the answer may be as simple as it is an evolutionary advantage to investigate every item in their habitat as a potential food source.
The story of nature is the story of predation; what behavioural ecologist Fred Provenza described as an “unending game of attack and counter-attack”. Even those prepared to countenance a nihilistic vision of humanity like Korsgaard believe we are basically entitled to preserve our species, presumably from predation. Like white sharks, we too are rooted in our place, our place in the marine ecology, and have been for millenia. The archaeological traces of the first human aquatic exploitation date back to over two million years ago, initially freshwater, then moving to coastal habitats. All the evidence shows that, after modern humans were birthed in Africa, we adaptated to the marine environments during our migration north to Europe and east to Asia. Food, tools, ornaments, all utilised in the coastal, marine environments. A fundamental part of our human story.
It follows from the evolutionary success of our species that the spectre of predation is now remote for vast sectors of the Earth's population. We are removed from food chains, by and large, other than our position as consumers. Most human/predator interactions occur well away from urban conglomerations, in places such as Africa (lions), India (tigers) and Northern Australia (crocodiles). Since the 1999 decision to protect white sharks, its range and potential recovery into heavily populated coastal areas of south-east Australia offers up unique ethical considerations absent from these less populous environs. A common response to the increasing shark attack rate is to simply stay out of the water because it's the shark's domain. There is reason to dismiss this based on our human history of coastal habitation as illustrated above. The stronger reason to reject it is because it does not work. We have a data set for that exact response in the case of Reunion Island.
As a consequence of several attacks on the French Island surfing was banned. The ban was ineffective and the attacks continued. Innovations in shark control methods were then trialed with much better results. We'll get to that in a moment.
Shark control of any variety will inevitably carry with it costs to marine life. The desire to enact it is fundamentally a question of values. Pioneer of the St-Leu water patrol on Reunion Island Christophe Mulquin frames it in stark terms. “In the end,” he says in a recent The Surfer's Journal article, “you're choosing the life of a fish, or you're choosing the life of a kid”. If I honestly reflect on whether I would be prepared to sacrifice the white sharks that fatally attacked Tadashi or Mani I would have to agree. Their lives mean more to me, to their friends and family and reflect what philosopher Roger Scruton termed "the great differences between creatures”. We all acknowledge the “hierarchy of mental capacities”. It's there for everyone, no matter where you draw the line: sharks, rats, bacteria, or ticks for example. At a certain point in that hierarchy you will privilege your own and your loved ones existence over that of the animal kingdom. Their dreams, hopes, relationships, and potentials will mean more.
What we owe to our fellow creatures and the biosphere under this viewpoint then is not fidelity to the individual but to their species, and to the health of the ecosystem as a whole. As the local shark contractor has explained to me regarding white sharks caught on the SMART drumlines, “they deserve their chance at life”. If human ingenuity can find a middle path where predation can be minimised (not eliminated, that would be impossible) while predators have their “chance at life” and fulfil their ecological function, that should be our very strong aim as participants in our marine communities.
There is no return to unspoiled nature or some kind of pre-human state of grace. According to Provenza, nature is changing “relentlessly, remorselessly, and stochastically”, with humans “co-creating nature's dynamism and unpredictability”. We encounter that every time we enter the ocean. Humans can only mitigate our impacts using the reason which separates us from the animal kingdom. It's a narrow path with no guarantees of success.
There have been advances. While the surfing ban on Reunion was a complete failure, the spate of shark attacks led to the development of the SMART drumline, which enabled contractors to be notified immediately by hooked animals. Importantly, that allows for the possibility of tagging and releasing the animal alive. NSW DPI trialed the SMART drumlines from December 2016 on the North Coast (Lennox-Ballina and Evans Head) before other trials across NSW. What is indisputable about SMART drumlines is the selectivity (almost no bycatch), their non-lethal nature (predators get their chance at life) and the enormous amounts of data it generates. There is a short-term fishing effect (target sharks are removed from the area) and there has been a reduction in shark attacks and shark encounters in the Lennox-Evans corridor.
SMART drumlines were set in Port Macquarie when Toby Begg was attacked which constitutes the first failure of the deterrence, but the system, like shark nets, can never be foolproof. For now, if we accept we have a moral right to protect ourselves and our fellow surfers while doing the least harm, it might be the best option we have.
// STEVE SHEARER
- Shark control programs work.
- White sharks as opportunistic, apex, ambush predators that frequent inshore zones pose a risk, likely to increase, to surfers.
- Human beings have a right to defend themselves from predation.
- As primary ocean users, surfers have a moral obligation to minimise harm to other marine life when determining the method, if any, of shark mitigation.