Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Western Oz Great White Sharks: Conservation overkill?

It's not unusual that I get wound up by something I read in the paper (ask my family how many angry letters I've written to the Essex Chronicle), but The Guardian usually has a reasonably acceptable way of communicating news and so they should as self-proclaimed liberalists. I've always found this to be the case with conservation issues, which is why I read The Guardian throughout University and why they are the only newspaper I've bothered to bookmark.

So when I stumbled across the infuriating topic of the following article, I was relieved that a Google search would lead the majority of browsers to The Guardian website.

Although this particular article is fairly well balanced, the gist of 'local official' opinion is basically that there have been an increase in shark attacks in Western Australia, fatal ones specifically, so there must be a dangerously large increase in population numbers due to all those pesky conservation efforts. Better remove them from the protected species list and start fishing, I mean culling, them immediately.

I really didn't want to sound ignorantly sarcastic about this, because it isn't a completely ludicrous theory; we've seen incorrectly managed conservation projects create conflicts between humans and wildlife in the recent past. Remember the RSPB and Natural England captive breeding and reintroduction of Red Kites into the Chilterns? Yeah, fair point.. but I'm gonna leave my rant in because I'm not willing to cover up my radical feelings about this issue because it all comes from my passion for it.
There have been four fatal shark attacks in Western Australia in the last year, gruesomely, the last victim was apparently witnessed being bitten in half. Of course this kind of tragedy is going to encourage everybody to start talking... loudly... and a response is going to be demanded from conservationists and officials alike, but why does the initial response always have to be so radical? If you want radical, has anyone considered that we have a Jaws situation at hand and one particularly hungry shark with a vendetta against humans is stalking the waters of Western Australia? We are perfectly capable of approaching these issues logically aren't we? So, lets do that.

So, an increase in local populations attributed to conservation efforts was my initial thought too, but funnily enough the thought of devaluing this stunning species with our conservation labels, encouraged me to think outside the box and consider natural explanations, rather than blaming the "interfering conservationists" (and not just because I am one).

With very basic (self-taught) knowledge of marine ecosystems and great white ecology, the first idea I considered was the relationship between any apex predator and its prey. Great whites are primitive, they live to hunt and eat and, in a roundabout way, they've spent 16 million years perfecting it. This aside, call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure the evolutionary path for a marine mammal does not lead to bipedal, terrestrial mammals as an alternative source of prey, even if they do occasionally wander into shark territory and look all vulnerable. I am, and always have been, a firm believer in mistaken identity when it comes to shark attacks. So, if great whites don't just fancy a change, what are the possible food chain issues?

Sharks are well documented feeding on whale carcasses, in fact people find it quite fascinating (You Tube it!). There have been reports of an increase in the humpback whale population, leading to an increased frequency in presence, and in turn deaths, along the annual migration route in Western Australia. Whale carcasses bloat and float inland, attracting all manner of scavengers closer to shore and human activity, including sharks. 

Seal populations, increasing or decreasing, are inevitably going to have an effect on shark behaviour too. An increase in prey is logically going to lead to the possibility of an initial predatory increase, not necessarily in population size, but also in distribution. If this is a natural process, that will inevitably increase human-shark encounters, we can look to population ecology for an equally natural solution. Rosenzweig's paradox of enrichment suggests that increasing prey populations can cause the predator population to grow unsustainably large, resulting in a natural decrease. 

Surely it's equally plausible that the increase in attacks is due to human population growth and the increase in recreational use of the ocean? Maybe we're venturing into areas we haven't before? Occupying more beaches across the great white range? If we choose swimming and surfing as part of a recreational lifestyle we have a responsibility to recognise the risks; the ocean is shark territory, how can we criticise a display of natural behaviour because it's inconvenient for us indulging in an entirely unnatural one?

Though all this could be interpreted essentially as a 'get out' for conservation by attributing increased human and shark encounters to natural population increases, the real point is that though very possible, an increase in the great white population has not even been proven. What studies have ONLY shown so far is an increase in shark sightings and attacks, highlighting the need for extensive research beautifully:
"According to records kept by Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney, 194 people have been killed by sharks in Australia over the past 200 years – an average of about one each year. Western Australia alone has seen four fatal attacks and three other near-fatal encounters in the past 18 months, and a more recent study published by the CSIRO found the number of shark attacks in Australia had risen from an average of 6.5 incidents per year in the decade 1990-2000 to 15 incidents per year in the past decade."
Solutions? Research. Plain and simple. It is our responsibility to find the facts before making any long-term decisions. This was the case in conserving the species and so it should be at the suggestion of destroying it. Yes, tagging and tracking great whites is difficult, but so is everything that is worth doing. Now is the time to embrace the challenge, for the good of the species. Education is the second wave. Providing local people with an unbiased interpretation of the issue and educating them in how to use the ocean safely whilst respecting the elements that make it so appealing in the first place.. including the sharks.

After my rant about this on Facebook, a fellow conservationist friend (just completed his MSc at UKC) posted this video response, sums it all up perfectly for me. A radical response to a radical "solution" if that's how they want to play it. Thanks Rich.

So, logically, if we decrease the great white's conservation status we'd also better start curbing the production of toasters? No? Exactly.

In a nutshell, if the explanation for this increase in shark attacks is even partly due to an increase in the population of an endangered species, that's surely a positive conclusion, albeit it on the back of consecutive tragedy. Even the consideration of a decrease in great white conservation status is at least decade of research away. I guarantee the outcome of this research (if communicated truthfully and isn't silenced to morally justify the allowance of fishing and preservation of tourism for economic gain) will attribute the increase in shark attacks to a number of causes, including all of which I've discussed. If this is the case, this only highlights the need for effective management, education and finally taking responsibility for our actions, all of them.

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