Thinking seriously about the long-term consequences of culling sharks reveals the immorality of the practice. Clive Phillips explains why.
Culling sharks is unnecessarily harmful, disproportionate and will do little to protect humans.
The question of whether we should protect humans by culling sharks is not new. There are many parallels to the problems posed by land-based apex predators like lions and tigers. The solutions we have adopted on land – including widespread culling – are unlikely to be either ethical or effective in dealing with shark attacks.
We must consider whether sharks offer humans indirect benefits. For example, sharks help control the seal population who eat the fish we rely on for food and trade. Last winter, fishermen called for seal culls in South Australia because of the healthy fur seal population there.
People enjoy observing sharks in the ocean either directly through “shark tourism” or on televisions. Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” has become a cultural phenomenon in many nations. Apex predators hold a certain fascination – we marvel at their control of their territory. The awe we feel when viewing sharks is itself an indirect, unquantifiable benefit.
Even if these indirect benefits did not outweigh the risks to swimmers and surfers, this alone would not justify culling. We would have to consider whether the harms involved in controlling sharks are greater than the harms shark attacks cause to humans.
The numbers of sharks we would need to control for effective protection far exceeds the number of humans who benefit from controlling shark populations. Less aggressive forms of land-based controls for apex predators – for example, excluding lions from agricultural areas – are unlikely to work in the marine environment.
The numbers of sharks we would need to control for effective protection far exceeds the number of humans who benefit from controlling shark populations.
The practical outcome of this is means many more sharks are killed than humans. In Queensland alone about 700 sharks die per year in the culling program. By comparison, only one human has been killed – in an unbaited region.
In addition, baiting – a key tactic in the culling process – generates unintended harms like “bycatching”. Baiting works on more than just sharks. It also lures turtles, whales and dolphins – who pose no threat to anyone. They are collateral damage in the war against sharks.
Netting beaches has been presented as a viable alternative to culling but here too there is risk of bycatch. Furthermore, netting leaves sharks to suffer and die slowly – giving rise to another raft of ethical concerns.
If culling is to be justifiable we need to consider the steps being taken to minimise shark suffering. Sharks captured on baited hooks suffer extensively, even when patrols detect and shoot injured sharks.
Let us suppose we could eventually devise ways of effectively stopping sharks entering the littoral zone by culling them in a way that minimised suffering. We would still have to consider the desirability of interfering in this way.
The long-term ethical consequences of destroying or reducing the population of an apex predator are considerable. The absence of apex predators in Australia has allowed an enormous kangaroo population to thrive. This population has had to be culled due to the competition they pose to domestic herbivores.
What’s more, the huge population means kangaroos face widespread starvation during droughts. The existence of apex predators may be bad for those caught in their path, but it is good for the entire ecosystem.
Human culling works contrary to the ‘natural’ culling apex predators perform. Whilst predators prey on the weak and elderly, human culling targets the fittest or those with others dependent on them. As such it challenges the continuity of the entire species.
Many will argue that sharks have a right to occupy the territory in which they evolved over millions of years. And this right trumps humans’ alleged right to utilise territory they are ill-suited to and gain little significant benefit from. Certainly, many surfers respect these rights – acknowledging sharks as fellows in the ocean rather than threats or enemies.
The shark cull may in fact be exacerbating the shark problem in a cruel and ironic circle.
The sharks’ right is enshrined in our law. Great Whites are an endangered species and therefore enjoy legal protection. Given the legal status sharks enjoy, the benefits to humans would have to be especially high to justify culling as an ethical option.
Surfers can adopt another sport if they are unwilling to assume the risk of shark attacks – and many are. This is particularly true if they are unwilling to explore cheaper, more reasonable ways of protecting themselves.
The shark cull may in fact be exacerbating the shark problem in a cruel and ironic circle. Sharks may be driven to attack humans because of the damage we have done to their environment. Shark experts argue that injured sharks on baited hooks attract other sharks to the area.
The elimination of apex predators like Great Whites destroys millions of years of slow evolutionary adaptation. The ethical risks and costs of controlling the environment in this way are rarely contemplated in the face of tragic but rare fatal attacks. Instead of balanced reflection we see knee-jerk responses that fail to adequately address the broad range of ethical issues.
Clive Phillips is Chair of Animal Welfare and Director of the Centre for Animal Welfare Ethics at the University of Queensland. Image by Elias Levy.