Governments around the world have been debating -- and experimenting with -- shark culling to mitigate shark attacks.
Culling is basically organized mass hunting. Governments sanction the killing of a certain number of sharks with the hope of stopping rampant attacks.
But it is unclear whether these methods work, and some find the practice environmentally reprehensible.
Between 1959 and 1976, Hawaii culled over 4,500 sharks around the islands. According to the Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology, however, the program made no difference in the number of shark attacks that occurred.
Now that Maui has suffered an unprecedented eight attacks this year alone (thirteen total in Hawaii), the state is reconsidering the culling option. But killing sharks is an especially complicated prospect in Hawaii, where Native Hawaiian culture traditionally revered sharks as aumakua, or personal/family gods.
State Representative Joe Souki actually proposed killing sea turtles, which are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act, instead in an effort to remove the shark’s food sources close to shore.
A more prominent politician, Australian Premier Colin Barnett, has been quite vocal about his openness to culling. In Sept. 2012, Barnett told reporters, "We will always put the lives and safety of beachgoers ahead of the shark. This is, after all, a fish - let's keep it in perspective."
In light of two fatal attacks in his country this month, Barnett said that culling was still an option. “If there are repeated sightings of a large shark in an area where people swim or surf, to me that is an imminent threat, and I think we take a tougher line of what is an imminent threat, and if that means destroying the shark so be it.”
This summer, the French government imposed a culling program on Reunion Island after several deadly and particularly gruesome attacks. (The government also temporarily banned surfing in the shark-infested waters -- to the outrage of many locals.) The government had already killed 24 sharks, but instituted a plan to cull 90 more45 bull sharks and 45 tiger sharks.
Those against culling scoff at the option as a desperate and ineffective practice. In an op-ed last week, two scientists from the University of Western Australia wrote: "Pre-emptively killing sharks is a response based on emotion rather than on scientific data. So often the argument in favour of a cull comes down to the emotional question of who is more important: a human or a shark. Rather, we need to ask the question, will culling sharks actually reduce the risk of an attack? The answer is no.”
But others think it does come down to who is more important -- in the water at least -- a human or a shark. Carl Meyer of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology calls it a “philosophical” debate, about “whether it is ethical to kill large predators in order to make the natural environment a safer playground for humans.” Shark author and diver Hugh Edwards told ABC Australia, “It makes no sense to catch sharks that are quite innocent of the crime – and when I say crime, that’s a crime in our eyes. In fact we’re the intruders in the ocean and the sharks have got a perfect right to be there.”
What seems to be little discussed in the public debate is what collateral damage occurs from culling programs. Meyer says that culling “runs the risk of ecosystem-level cascade effects where a general lack of sharks results in boom or bust in populations of species further down the food chain.”
This is perhaps the most pressing issue. After all, if we mess with sharks’ food, it seems, sharks mess with us.