Personal deterrents can reduce the risk of shark bites

19 06 2018
Shak deterrent testing

Photo: Charlie Huveneers

A little over a week ago, shark ecologist, Charlie Huveneers, and I attempted to write an article in The Conversation about a report we co-wrote regarding the effectiveness of personal shark-deterrent devices (see below for more on the report itself). It’s a great little story, with both immediate policy implications for human safety and great, big potential improvements to shark conservation in general (i.e., if sharks kill fewer people, then perhaps governments would be less inclined to invokes stupid laws to kill sharks). Indeed, sharks aren’t doing very well around the world, mainly because of over-harvest and persecution from unfounded fear.

Anyway, all was going swimmingly until our editor at The Conversation suddenly decided that they wouldn’t publish the piece based on the following funding disclaimer that we had submitted with the article:

This project was funded by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Shark Management Strategy Competitive Annual Grants Program, the Government of South Australia, Ocean Guardian Pty Ltd, and the Neiser Foundation. We openly and transparently declare that Ocean Guardian contributed financially to the study, but that Ocean Guardian was not involved in the study design or implementation, nor did they have access to the data post-collection. Nor did Ocean Guardian provide input into data analysis, interpretation, writing of the report, or the conclusions drawn. The study design followed a protocol developed for a previous study, which was not funded by Ocean Guardian. In summary, Ocean Guardian had no opportunity to influence any aspect of the study or its conclusions, apart from providing some financial support to realise the field project (e.g., boat hire, equipment purchase, etc.) in the same manner as the other funding agencies. The South Australian cage-diving industry provided logistical support during the testing of the deterrents.

The long and short of The Conversation‘s negative decision was that one of the companies contributed financially to project. However, as we stated above, they had absolutely no influence in the subsequent experimental design, data collection, analysis, interpretation or report writing.

While normally I’m a big fan of The Conversation, I really think they dropped the ball with this one. Their decision was illogical and unsupported for five main reasons:

  1. There were many funding partners involved, and the Ocean Freedom contribution was in no way the major or even majority share of funding.
  2. Other companies with devices tested could have contributed, but only Ocean Freedom offered.
  3. The study was commissioned by a state government agency (New South Wales Department of Primary Industries), which is not a commercial entity.
  4. As stated in our disclosure, there was no opportunity for manipulating experimental design, data ownership, or post-collection analysis or writing that could have influenced the results, by any funders or contributors.
  5. The disclosure is open, honest, comprehensive and in every way truthful.

So, I’m more than just a little disappointed — and my opinion of the organisation has dropped considerably. That, with the constant barrage of donation requests they send makes me think twice about their journalistic integrity. I challenge others to think carefully before giving them any money.

Regardless, let’s move on to the article itself (which I can publish freely here without the Draconian oversight of The Conversation):

Many things might explain why the number of shark bites appear to be increasing. However, the infrequent occurrence of such events makes it nearly impossible to determine why. Recently, an atypically high rate of shark bites occurred in Western Australia in 2010-2011 and on the north coast of New South Wales in 2015-2016. These highly publicised events — often sensationalised in both traditional and social media — have pressured governments to implement new measures to reduce the risk of shark bites.

The rising pressure to do something to reduce shark bites has prompted the recent development or commercial release of many new personal shark deterrents. Yet, most of these devices lack any rigorous scientific assessment of their effectiveness, meaning that some manufacturers have made unfounded claims about how much their devices dissuade sharks from attacking humans.

However, if a particular type of commercially available shark deterrent happens to be less effective (or completely ineffective) as advertised, it can give users a false sense of security, potentially encouraging some to put themselves at greater risk than is necessary. For example, some surfers and spearfishers probably ignore other mitigation measures, such as beach closures, because they ‘feel safe’ when wearing these products.

Read the rest of this entry »





Predicting sustainable shark harvests when stock assessments are lacking

26 03 2018
srb 1

© Andrew Fox

I love it when a good collaboration bears fruit, and our latest paper is a good demonstration of that principle.

It all started a few years ago with an ARC Linkage Project grant we received to examine how the whaler shark fishing industry in Australia might manage its stocks better.

As I’m sure many are aware, sharks around the world aren’t doing terribly well (surprise, surprise — yet another taxon suffering at the hands of humankind). And while some populations (‘stocks’, in the dissociative parlance of the fishing industry) are doing better than others, and some countries have a better track record in managing these stocks than others, the overall outlook is grim.

One of the main reasons sharks tend to fair worse than bony fishes (teleosts) for the same fishing effort is their ‘slow’ life histories. It doesn’t take an advanced quantitative ecology degree to understand that growing slowly, breeding late, and producing few offspring is a good indication that a species can’t handle too much killing before populations start to dwindle. As is the case for most large shark species, I tend to think of them in a life-history sense as similar to large terrestrial mammals.

Now, you’d figure that a taxon with intrinsic susceptibility to fishing would have heaps of good data with which managers could monitor catches and quotas so that declines could be avoided. However, the reality is generally the inverse, with many populations having poor information regarding vital rates (e.g., survival, fertility), age structure, density feedback characteristics, and even simple estimates of abundance. Without such key information, management tends to be ad hoc and often not very effective. Read the rest of this entry »





More species = more resilience

8 01 2014

reef fishWhile still ostensibly ‘on leave’ (side note: Does any scientist really ever take a proper holiday? Perhaps a subject for a future blog post), I cannot resist the temptation to blog about our lab’s latest paper that just came online today. In particular, I am particularly proud of Dr Camille Mellin, lead author of the study and all-round kick-arse quantitative ecologist, who has outdone herself on this one.

Today’s subject is one I’ve touched on before, but to my knowledge, the relationship between ‘diversity’ (simply put, ‘more species’) and ecosystem resilience (i.e., resisting extinction) has never been demonstrated so elegantly. Not only is the study elegant (admission: I am a co-author and therefore my opinion is likely to be biased toward the positive), it demonstrates the biodiversity-stability hypothesis in a natural setting (not experimental) over a range of thousands of kilometres. Finally, there’s an interesting little twist at the end demonstrating yet again that ecology is more complex than rocket science.

Despite a legacy of debate, the so-called diversity-stability hypothesis is now a widely used rule of thumb, and its even implicit in most conservation planning tools (i.e., set aside areas with more species because we assume more is better). Why should ‘more’ be ‘better’? Well, when a lot of species are interacting and competing in an ecosystem, the ‘average’ interactions that any one species experiences are likely to be weaker than in a simpler, less diverse system. When there are a lot of different niches occupied by different species, we also expect different responses to environmental fluctuations among the community, meaning that some species inherently do better than others depending on the specific disturbance. Species-rich systems also tend to have more of what we call ‘functional redundancy‘, meaning that if one species providing an essential ecosystem function (e.g., like predation) goes extinct, there’s another, similar species ready to take its place. Read the rest of this entry »





Shrinking global range projected for the world’s largest fish

7 08 2013
© W. Osborn (AIMS)

© W. Osborn (AIMS)

My recently finished PhD student, Ana Sequeira, has not only just had a superb paper just accepted in Global Change Biology, she’s recently been offered (and accepted) a postdoctoral position based at the University of Western Australia‘s Oceans Institute (in partnership with AIMS and CSIRO). As any supervisor, I’m certainly pleased when a student completes her PhD, but my pride as an academic papa truly soars when she gets her first job. Well done, Ana. This post by Ana is about her latest paper.

Following our previous whale shark work (see herehereherehere, here, here and here), especially the recent review where we inferred global connectivity and suggest possible pathways for their migration, we have now gone a step further and modelled the habitat suitability for the species at at global scale. This paper sets a nice scene regarding current habitat suitability, which also demonstrates the potential connectivity pathways we hypothesised previously. But the paper goes much further; we extend our predictions to a future scenario for 2070 when water temperatures are expected to increase on average by 2 °C.

Sequeira et al_GCB_Figure 3

Global predictions of current seasonal habitat suitability for whale sharks. Black triangles indicate known aggregation locations. Solid line delineates areas where habitat suitability > 0.1 was predicted.

Regarding the current range of whale sharks (i.e., its currently suitable habitat), we already know that whale sharks span latitudes between about 35 º North to South. We also know that this geographical range has been exceeded on several occasions. What we did not know was whether conditions were suitable enough for whale sharks to cross from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean – in other words, whether they could travel between ocean basins south of South Africa. Our global model results demonstrate that suitable habitat in this region does exist at least during the summer, thus supporting our hypotheses regarding global connectivity!

It’s true that the extensive dataset we used (30 years’ worth of whale shark sightings collected by tuna purse seiners in the three major oceans – data provided by the IRD, IOTC and SPC) has many caveats (as do all opportunistically collected data), but we went to great trouble to deal with them in this paper (you can request a copy here or access it directly here). And the overall result: the current global habitat suitability for whale sharks does agree well with current locations of whale shark occurrence, with the exception of the Eastern Pacific for where we did not have enough data to validate. Read the rest of this entry »





Empty seas coming to a shore near you

12 07 2012

Last week I had the pleasure of entertaining some old friends and colleagues for a writing workshop in Adelaide (don’t worry – they all came from southern Australia locations, so no massive carbon footprints for overseas travel). I’m happy to report it was a productive (and epicurean) week, but that’s not really the point of today’s post.

One of those participants was long-time colleague, Dr. Rik Buckworth. Rik and I first met in Darwin back in the early 2000s when he was lead fisheries scientist for Northern Territory Fisheries; this collaboration and friendship blossomed into an ARC Linkage Project (with Dr. Mark Meekan of AIMS) on shark fisheries (see some of the scientific outputs from that here, here, here and here). Rik has since moved to CSIRO in Brisbane, but keeps a hand in NT fisheries’ affairs. Incidentally, Rik trained under one of the most well-known fisheries modellers in the world – Carl Walters – when he did his PhD at the University of British Columbia back in the early 1990s.

During our workshop, Rik pointed out a paper he had co-authored back in 2009 in Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries that had completely escaped my attention – it’s a frightening and apocalyptic view of the Australasian marine tropics that seems to confirm our predictions about northern Australia’s marine future. Just take a look at the following two figures from their paper (Elasmobranchs in southern Indonesian fisheries: the fisheries, the status of the stocks and management options): Read the rest of this entry »





Sharks: the world’s custodians of fisheries

5 05 2012

Today’s post comes from Salvador Herrando-Pérez (who, incidentally, recently submitted his excellent PhD thesis).

Three species co-occurring in the Gulf of Mexico and involved in the trophic cascade examined by Myers et al. (8). [1] Black-tips (Carcharhinus limbatus) are pelagic sharks in warm and tropical waters worldwide; they reach < 3 m in length, 125 kg in weight, with a maximum longevity in the wild of ~ 12 years; a viviparous species, with females delivering up to 10 offspring per parturition. [2] The cownose ray (Rhinoptera bonasus) is a tropical species from the western Atlantic (USA to Brazil); up to 2 m wide, 50 kg in weight, and 18 years of age; gregarious, migratory and viviparous, with one single offspring per litter. [3] The bay scallop (Agropecten irradians) is a protandric (hermaphrodite) mollusc, with sperm being released a few days before the (> 1 million) eggs; commonly associated with seagrasses in the north-western Atlantic; shells can reach up to 10 cm and individuals live for < 2 years. In the photos, a black-tip angled in a bottom long-line off Alabama (USA), a school of cownose rays swimming along Fort Walton Beach (Florida, USA), and a bay scallop among fronds of turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) off Hernando County (Florida, USA). Photos by Marcus Drymon, Dorothy Birch and Janessa Cobb, respectively.

The hips of John Travolta, the sword of Luke Skywalker, and the teeth of Jaws marked an era. I still get goose pimples with the movie soundtrack (bass, tuba, orchestra… silence) solemnizing each of the big shark’s attacks. The media and cinema have created the myth of man’s worst friend. This partly explains why shark fishing does not trigger the same societal rejection as the hunting of other colossuses such as whales or elephants. Some authors contend that we currently live in the sixth massive extinction event of planet Earth (1) 75 % of which is strongly driven by one species, humans, and characterized by the systematic disappearance of mega-animals in general (e.g., mammoths, Steller’s seacow), and predators in particular, e.g., sharks (2, 3).

The selective extirpation of apex predators, recently coined as ‘trophic downgrading’, is transforming habitat structure and species composition of many ecosystems worldwide (4). In the marine realm, over the last half a century, the main target of the world’s fisheries has turned from (oft-large body-sized) piscivorous to planctivorous fish and invertebrates, indicating that fishery fleets are exploiting a trophic level down to collapse, then harvesting the next lower trophic level (5-7).

Myers et al. (8) illustrate the problem with the fisheries of apex-predator sharks in the northeastern coast of the USA. Those Atlantic waters are rife with many species of shark (> 2 m), whose main prey are smaller chondrichthyans (skates, rays, catsharks, sharks), which in turn prey on bottom fishes and bivalves. Myers et al. (8) found that, over the last three decades, the abundance of seven species of large sharks declined by ~ 90 %, coinciding with the crash of a centenary fishery of bay scallops (Agropecten irradians). Conversely, the abundance of 12 smaller chondrichthyes increased dramatically over the same period of time. In particular, the cownose ray (Rhinoptera bonasus), the principal predator of bay scallops, might today exceed > 40 million individuals in some bays, and consume up to ~ 840,000 tonnes of scallops annually. The obvious hypothesis is that the reduction of apex sharks triggers the boom of small chondrichthyans, hence leading to the break-down of scallop stocks. Read the rest of this entry »





Where are they? Finding (and conserving) the biggest fish in the sea

16 11 2011

A post from my PhD student, Ana Sequeira, on her latest paper just out in Diversity and DistributionsOcean-scale prediction of whale shark distribution.

© W Osborn (AIMS)

The ocean is our major source of water, it stabilises our breathable atmosphere and provides many supplies such as medicines (e.g., anti-cancer therapy drugs1) and food. Despite its the importance for human life, many marine species are now at a high risk of extinction owing to human changes to the oceans.

The whale shark (Rhincodon typus, Smith 1828) – an icon of the oceans of a spectacularly huge size and docile character – is just one of those species.

Despite being a fish that many people (mainly in Southeast Asia) are happy to have on their plate, whale sharks are worth millions of dollars every year in the ecotourism industry worldwide. One would then expect that being such a profitable species, their ecology would be well known and thoroughly studied.

The reality is quite different.

Basic information on whale sharks such as the whereabouts of their breeding areas, the average number of offspring per female, or even how many individuals still exist, is not currently known. Moreover, despite the genetic evidence that whale sharks worldwide are connected among different oceans, it is unclear if they move from places where they are protected to places where they are still illegally fished.

Information on distribution and patterns of occurrence in space and time is essential for conservation, and can help to save entire ecosystems if used correctly, for example: to isolate important mating and breeding areas.

To identify the whale shark’s seasonal distribution patterns in the Indian Ocean, to test if records follow a decreasing trend over time, and if occurrence is related to variation in climatic signals, we used multivariate distribution models of seasonal and inter-annual whale shark sightings opportunistically collected over 17 years by the tuna purse-seine fishery. Read the rest of this entry »





Global erosion of ecosystem services

14 09 2010

A few months ago I was asked to give a lecture about erosion of ecosystem services to students in the University of Adelaide‘s Issues in Sustainable Environments unit. I gave that lecture last week and just uploaded a slidecast of the presentation (with audio) today.

I’ve reproduced the lecture here for your viewing pleasure. I hope you find the 45-minute presentation useful. Note that the first few minutes cover me referring to the Biodiversity film short that I posted not too long ago.

CJA Bradshaw





Classics: Mesopredator Release

17 03 2010

© J. Short

Although popularised by Crooks & Soulé (1999), Soulé et al. (1988) first gave us the term that described how entire ecosystems can become unbalanced by a reduction of a higher trophic-level predator exerting so-called ‘top-down’ control on the abundance of species occupying lower trophic levels.

The idea had theoretical support in ecology (Wright et al. 1994; Litvaitis & Villafuerte 1996), but it was not until Soulé and colleagues described how the decline of dominant predators combines with habitat fragmentation to release top-down pressure on smaller predators, thereby increasing predation rates on prey lower down the trophic web.

Crooks & Soulé (1999) described an example where the decline in coyotes (Canis latrans) in combination with urbanisation-driven habitat fragmentation led to an increase in cat (Felis catus) densities and the subsequent decline in scrub-breeding birds. More recent examples attest to the importance of the mesopredator release phenomenon: Myers et al. (2007) described how the decline in large coastal shark species has allowed mesopredator cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus) to increase, leading to a reduction in commercially important shellfish densities; and Johnson et al. (2007) showed how dingoes (Canis lupus dingo) in Australia suppress populations of exotic predators such as cats and foxes, leading to more locally abundant populations of native marsupials (see previous post).

Conservation biologists have benefited from this knowledge because we’ve realised that top-order predators affect far more than their immediate prey. These examples really hit home how a fully functional community is required for ecosystem stability, so we should strive to preserve complete complements of communities, not just our favourite species.

CJA Bradshaw

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Susceptibility of sharks, rays and chimaeras to global extinction

10 11 2009
tiger shark

© R. Harcourt

Quite some time ago my colleague and (now former) postdoctoral fellow, Iain Field, and I sat down to examine in gory detail the extent of the threat to global populations of sharks, rays and chimaeras (chondrichthyans). I don’t think we quite realised the mammoth task we had set ourselves. Several years and nearly a hundred pages later, we have finally achieved our goal.

Introducing the new paper in Advances in Marine Biology entitled Susceptibility of sharks, rays and chimaeras to global extinction by Iain Field, Mark Meekan, Rik Buckworth and Corey Bradshaw.

The paper covers the following topics:

  • Chondrichthyan Life Historyangel shark
  • Niche breadth
  • Age and growth
  • Reproduction and survival
  • Past and Present Threats
  • Fishing
  • Beach meshing
  • Habitat loss
  • Pollution and non-indigenous species
  • Chondrichthyan Extinction Risk
  • Drivers of threat risk in chondrichthyans and teleosts
  • Global distribution of threatened chondrichthyan taxa
  • Ecological, life history and human-relationship attributes
  • Threat risk analysis
  • Relative threat risk of chondrichthyans and teleosts
  • Implications of Chondrichthyan Species Loss on Ecosystem Structure, Function and Stability
  • Ecosystem roles of predators
  • Predator loss in the marine realm
  • Ecosystem roles of chondrichthyans
  • Synthesis and Knowledge Gaps
  • Role of fisheries in future chondrichthyan extinctions
  • Climate change
  • Extinction synergies
  • Research needs

common skateAs mentioned, quite a long analysis of the state of sharks worldwide. Bottom line? Well, as most of you might already know sharks aren’t doing too well worldwide, with around 52 % listed on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. This compares interestingly to bony fishes (teleosts) that, although having only 8 % of all species Red-Listed, are generally in higher-threat Red List categories. We found that body size (positively) and geographic range (negatively) correlated with threat risk in both groups, but Red-Listed bony fishes were still more likely to be categorised as threatened after controlling for these effects.

blue sharkIn some ways this sort of goes against the notion that sharks are inherently more extinction-prone than other fish – a common motherhood statement seen at the beginning of almost all papers dealing with shark threats. What it does say though is that because sharks are on average larger and less fecund than your average fish, they tend to bounce back from declines more slowly, so they are more susceptible to rapid environmental change than your average fish. Guess what? We’re changing the environment pretty rapidly.

We also determined the spatial distribution of threat, and found that Red-Listed species are clustered mainly in (1) south-eastern South America; (2) western Europe and the Mediterranean; (3) western Africa; (4) South China Sea and South East Asia and (5) south-eastern Australia.

shark market, Indonesia

© W. White

Now, what are the implications for the loss of these species? As I’ve blogged recently, the reduction in predators in general can be a bad thing for ecosystems, and sharks are probably some of the best examples of ecosystem structural engineers we know (i.e., eating herbivores; ‘controlling’ prey densities, etc.). So, we should be worried when sharks start to disappear. One thing we also discovered is that we still have a rudimentary understanding of how climate change will affect sharks, the ways in which they structure ecosystems, and how they respond to coastal development. Suffice it to say though that generally speaking, things are not rosy if you’re a shark.

We end off with a recommendation we’ve been promoting elsewhere – we should be managing populations using the minimum viable population (MVP) size concept. Making sure that there are a lot of large, well-connected populations around will be the best insurance against extinction.

CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.orgI.C. Field, M.G. Meekan, R.C. Buckworth, & C.J.A. Bradshaw (2009). Susceptibility of Sharks, Rays and Chimaeras to Global Extinction Advances in Marine Biology, 56, 275-363 : 10.1016/S0065-2881(09)56004-X





Shark tags

19 05 2009

I have no real reason for posting this, other than I found it amusing. I do not know to whom I should attribute the cartoon, so apologies to the author. Click for a larger version if you find this too small to read.





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss IV

15 04 2009

And the most degraded and self-flagellating humour on Earth continues (see also previous instalments here, here and here) …

cartoonenvironment_cartoon_7030

hourglass-earth

5765_shark_cartoon

CJA Bradshaw

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Protein mining the world’s oceans

31 03 2009

Last month David Agnew and colleagues published a paper in PLoS One examining the global extent of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing (Estimating the worldwide extent of illegal fishing), estimating its value from US$10-23.5 billion and representing between 11 and 26 million tonnes of fish annually. The value is roughly the same as that lost from illegal logging each year. Wow.

Of perhaps most interest is that Agnew and colleagues found evidence for a negative relationship between IUU fishing as a proportion of total catch and an international (World Bank) governance quality index. This suggests that improving governance and eradicating corruption may be the best way to curtail the extent of the illegal harvest.

We have just published a paper online in Fish and Fisheries about the extent and impact of IUU fishing in northern Australia. Entitled Protein mining the world’s oceans: Australasia as an example of illegal expansion-and-displacement fishing, the paper by Iain Field and colleagues advocates a multi-lateral response to a problem that has grown out of control in recent decades.

IUU fishing is devastating delicate ecosystems and fish breeding grounds in waters to Australia’s north, and can no longer be managed effectively by individual nations. The problem now requires an urgent regional solution if food security into the future is to be maintained.

The paper is the first big-picture account of the problem from Australia’s perspective. Although there had been a decline in IUU fishing in Australian waters over the past two years, possibly linked to large Australian government expenditure on enforcement and rising fuel prices, the forces driving illegal fishing have not gone away and are likely to resurface in our waters.

We expect that the small-scale illegal fishers will be back to prey on other species such as snapper, trochus and trepang as soon as it is economically viable for them to do so. To date, these IUU fishers have focused mostly on high-value sharks mainly for the fin trade, to the extent that the abundance of some shark species has dropped precipitously. IUU fishing, which has devastated fish resources and their associated ecosystems throughout Southeast Asian waters, is driven by deep economic and societal forces. For example, the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s drove a large number of people out of cities and into illegal fishing.

It is not enough to maintain just a national response as the problem crosses national maritime zones, and it poses one of the biggest threats known to marine ecosystems throughout the region. These IUU fishers are mining protein, and there is no suggestion of sustainability or factoring in fish breeding or ecosystem protection into the equation. They just come into a fishing area and strip-mine it, leaving it bare.

Illegal fishing in Australian waters started increasing steeply about 10 years ago, largely because of over-exploitation of waters farther north, peaking in 2005-06 then falling away just as steeply. There are three factors behind the recent downturn: Australian government enforcement measures estimated to have cost at least AU$240 million since 2006; the high price of fuel for the fishing boats; and, most importantly, the fact that the high-value species may have been fished out and are now economically and ecologically extinct.

The $240 million has funded surveillance, apprehension, transportation, processing and accommodation of the several thousand illegal foreign fishermen detained each year since 2006. These activities have been successful, but it is doubtful whether they can hold back the IUU tide indefinitely – the benefits to the illegal fishers of their activities far outweigh the penalties if caught.

With increasing human populations in the region, the pressure to fish illegally is likely to increase. Regional responses are required to deter and monitor the illegal over-exploitation of fisheries resources, which is critical to secure ecosystem stability as climate change and other destructive human activities threaten food security.

CJA Bradshaw (with IC Field, MG Meekan and RC Buckworth)

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Man bites shark

7 01 2009

cut-shark-finYesterday I had a comment piece of the same title posted on the ABC‘s Unleashed site. I have permission to reproduce it here on ConservationBytes.com.

The silly season is upon us again, and I don’t mean the commercial frenzy, the bizarre fascination with a white-bearded man or a Middle-Eastern baby, the over-indulgence at the barbie or hangovers persisting several days into the New Year. I mean it’s the time of year when beach-goers, surfers, and municipal and state policy makers go a bit ga-ga over sharks.

There are few more polite pleasures than heading down to the beach during the holidays for a surf, quick dip or just a laze under the brolly. Some would argue it’s an inalienable Australian right and that anything getting in our way should be condemned to no less than severe retribution. Well, in the case of sharks, that’s exactly what’s happened.

Apart from a good number of adrenalin-addicted surfers and mad marine scientists, most people are scared shitless by the prospect of even seeing a shark near the beach, let alone being bitten or eaten by one. I won’t bore you with some ill-advised, pseudo-psycho-analytical rant about how it’s all the fault of some dodgy 1970s film featuring a hypertrophied American shark; the simple fact is that putative prey don’t relish the thought of becoming a predator’s dinner.

So, Australia is famous for its nearly 100-year-old pioneering attempt to protect marine bathers from shark attack by setting an elaborate array of shark nets around the country’s more frequented beaches. Great, you say? Well, it’s actually not that nice.

Between December 1990 and April 2005, nearly 3500 sharks and rays were caught in NSW beach nets alone, of which 72 per cent were found dead. Shark spearing was a favourite past-time in the 1960s and 1970s, with at least one high-profile species, the grey nurse shark, gaining the dubious classification of Critically Endangered as a result. Over-fishing of reef sharks has absolutely hammered two formerly common species in the Great Barrier Reef, the whitetip and grey reef sharks (See the Ongoing Collapse of Coral-Reef Shark Populations report). And illegal Indonesian fishing in northern Australia is slowly depleting many shark species in a wave of protein mining that has now penetrated the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone.

Despite the gloomy outlook for sharks, I’m happy to say today that we are a little more aware of their plight and are making baby steps toward addressing the problems. Australia has generally fared better in shark conservation than most other parts of the world, even though we still have a lot of educating to do at home. Over 50 per cent of all chondrichthyans (i.e., sharks, rays and chimaeras) are threatened worldwide, with some of the largest and most wide-ranging species being hardest hit, including white sharks. The most common threat is over-fishing, but this is largely seen by the lay person as of little import simply because of the persistent attitude that “the only good shark is a dead shark”.

The attitude is, however, based on a complete furphy. I’m sure many readers would have seen some statistics like the following before, but let’s go through the motions just to be clear. Dying from or even being injured by a shark is utterly negligible. Based on the International Shark Attack File data for Australia, there were 110 confirmed (unprovoked) shark attacks in Australian waters between 1990 and 2007, of which 19 were fatal. Using Australian Bureau of Statistics human population data over the same period, this equates to an average of 0.032 attacks and 0.006 fatalities per 100,000 people, with no apparent trend over the last two decades.

Now let’s contrast. I won’t patronise you with strange comparative statistics like the probability of being killed by a (provoked) vending machine or by being hit by a bus, they are both substantially greater, but I will relate these figures to water-based activities. Drowning statistics for Australia (1992-1997) show that there were around 1.44 deaths per 100,000 people per year, or approximately 0.95 if just marine-related drownings are considered. These values are 240 (158 for marine-only) times higher than those arising from shark attack.

It’s just plainly, and mathematically, ridiculous to be worried about being eaten by a shark when swimming in Australia, whether or not there’s a beach net in place. The effort made, money spent and anxiety arising from the illogical fear that a shark will consider your sunburnt flesh a tasty alternative to its fishier sustenance is not only regrettable, it’s an outright crime against marine biodiversity. Of course, if you see a big shark lurking around your favourite beach, I wouldn’t recommend swimming over and giving it a friendly pat on the dorsal fin, but I wouldn’t recommend screaming that the marine equivalent of the apocalypse has just arrived either.

You may not be fussed either way, but consider this – the massive reduction in sharks worldwide is having a cascading effect on many of the ocean’s complex marine ecosystems. Being largely carnivorous, sharks are the ecological equivalent of community planners. Without them, herbivorous or coral-eating fish can quickly get out of control and literally destroy the food web. A great example comes from the Gulf of Mexico where the serial depletion of 14 species of large sharks has caused an explosion of the smaller cownose ray that formerly was kept in check by its bigger and hungrier cousins. The result: commercially harvested scallops in the region have now collapsed because of the hordes of shellfish-eating rays.

The day you fail to find sharks cruising your favourite beach is the day you should really start to worry.

CJA Bradshaw

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