Flat White

Beaches, blood and the balance of nature: the great white debate

29 September 2017

2:00 PM

29 September 2017

2:00 PM

Environmentalists probably don’t realise that they anthropomorphise nature. But academics like Christopher Neff should know better. He designed a survey, which asked people how they would describe the mentality of a shark biting a person. He found that people who viewed shark bites as accidental were more likely to value shark conservation, while those who viewed shark bites as intentional were more likely to endorse policies aimed at reducing shark numbers. Based on these results, Neff suggests that shark conservation could gain greater acceptance by helping the latter group view shark bites as unintentional.

Applying the notion of intent to shark attacks is a sleight of hand, because it characterises the shark issue in terms of justice, as though it concerns a shark’s personal responsibility. Since it is silly to blame a shark for being a shark, the notion of justice implies that it be set free. But, it never was a question of justice. The policy to reduce the population of sharks is not punishment. It is just the most direct way to reduce the frequency of shark attacks. Thinking about a shark’s intentions makes them seem like people, which is a tricky way of getting people to support shark conservation. A different set of questions could produce the opposite result by dehumanising sharks — not as monsters, but as fish.

Neff presented his research at the Senate inquiry into shark mitigation and deterrent measures, confident that the vast majority of Ballina’s population favoured non-lethal methods of shark mitigation. But, he also remarked that surfers; “would be crazy not to be concerned after seven shark bites in Ballina”. As a member of Ballina’s surfing community, I have difficulty accepting the results of the survey, because I know that most of us favour lethal methods of shark mitigation. He did note, however, that fear diminishes with distance. So, the disparity might simply reflect our being on the frontline, where the fear of attack is visceral.

According to the survey, almost nobody blames the government for shark attacks, despite most of us knowing full well that the government has played a key role in creating this problem. It is not hard to see that surfers are the victims of an injustice resulting from government policy. About twenty years ago, a bunch of boneheaded bureaucrats decided to list great whites as endangered, without considering how their protection might result in more shark attacks.

Dr Barry Bruce denies that protecting great whites has increased the frequency of attacks. He has used sophisticated models to prove that the population has only grown by around 10 per cent. Of course, it is impossible for non-mathematicians to criticise the modelling, except to point out that the upper limit of ten pups per cycle might fall short of reality. According to retired shark fisherman David Woods, great whites can carry more than 20 pups. But, even a 20 per cent increase is at odds with all the anecdotal evidence; not to mention the unusually high rate of shark attacks.


The decision to protect great whites depended on a legal contrivance called the “precautionary principle”, whereby species can be listed as ‘endangered’ without solid evidence. Nobody knew how many great whites were out there in 1997. But, the precautionary principle allowed them to make a judgement based essentially on gut feeling.

It is curious that an equivalent allowance is not made for the protection of people. As Senator Whish-Wilson explained the government’s predicament “It eventually may come down to a precautionary principle decision either way: a precautionary principle to protect human life and take a wild stab in the dark [at predicting shark numbers] or a precautionary principle to protect the conservation [status] of a shark.”

Luckily, Whish-Wilson is a surfer, but as a Greens Senator, he established the inquiry to challenge the Federal Government’s justification for suspending the protection of great whites, so that shark nets and drumlines could be deployed off Ballina. This was only possible because a clause in the Act allows for consideration of matters of national security. The Senator does not think that shark attacks threaten national security and he has a point, but that argument was the only way that shark nets and drumlines could be deployed off Ballina without breaking a law that inadvertently values sharks above humans.

So, the pretext for the inquiry was really just a legal issue. But, the terms of reference were formulated to address the core issue of shark attacks, which is surprisingly complicated. As Dr Leah Gibbs explained to the inquiry, there are; “numerous complex social and ecological factors … that interact in very complex ways”. It will be an interesting report if they can unravel all the different threads. But, there is no denying that the risk of shark attack can be reduced by reducing the number of sharks. That part is not complicated. All the government has to do is de-list great whites, so that fishermen can catch them again.

The Greens are mainly concerned about shark nets. The most likely outcome of the inquiry is a recommendation to gradually remove all shark nets from Australian waters. The problem with shark nets is that they catch a lot of other sea creatures. The quantity of bycatch is insignificant compared to commercial fishing. But, they’ll persevere because it is an achievable goal. Drumlines are more targeted than nets and the SMART drumline system allows for the shark to be released further out to sea with a monitoring tag attached. As one local environmentalist confided: “I have totally changed my mind in light of the SMART drumline trial. We were totally opposed and now although it’s not perfect it’s looking a lot better than the nets as a viable option for beach safety.”

It is hard to say if the shark situation actually represents a threat to national security. The state government’s request highlighted the adverse effect that shark attacks have on tourism. Obviously, the vast majority of people have nothing to fear going into the ocean. An education campaign could probably counter the sensational reporting that Neff has dubbed the Jaws Effect. However, there is a subset of ocean users who spend enough time in the ocean to have a genuine concern for their safety. Some people can block out the fear, but many suffer anxiety every time they hear of another attack. You feel like your time is almost up. The issue of psychological trauma was neglected by the government, explaining its rationale for shark nets; probably because economic outcomes are easier to discuss. But, it is seriously undermining our ability to flourish in the way that we like to live. So, it is bound to have an effect on productivity.

Surfing is therapeutic in essence. So, I would happily argue that it is in everyone’s interest to jump in the ocean every day. But, it is such an intangible benefit that policymakers can’t see its value to society. Another way that surfing contributes to society is by maintaining a last line of defence protecting swimmers, often tourists, caught in rips. It has been estimated that surfers save just as many people as trained lifesavers. Most surfers have saved at least one person from drowning. So, it was disappointing to hear Senator Whish-Wilson draw attention to the higher rate of drownings compared to shark attacks. But, the comparison is hardly relevant, since drowning victims tend to be poor swimmers, whose risk can be reduced with more exposure, not less, as is the case with shark attacks. The more time you spend in the water the better you get at swimming.

It really is a complicated issue and not a lot of people care enough to unravel all the lies, confused thinking and outright deception. Most of the conversation online is either venting, virtue signalling or a hideous combination of the two.

The best way I can describe the difference between what motivates me and what motivates eco-warriors is that I don’t want to be in this debate, I have to be; they don’t have to be, they want to be. They are primarily motivated by a desire to appear virtuous to the environmental community. So, they are really just protecting their identity, which is a pathetic excuse when you consider that we are trying to save lives.

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