Wild Things

A Perversion of Science

People across Australia protested against the shark cull.

Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Two years ago, Western Australia announced a plan to indiscriminately kill large sharks in an attempt to make beaches safer. This shark cull was widely condemned by scientists and inspired Western Australia’s largest-ever public protest. Many species of large sharks are listed as threatened with extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. The best available scientific evidence suggests that culls like this do not significantly lessen the risk of sharks biting swimmers. And there are many less environmentally destructive ways to actually make the beach safer for swimmers, such as aerial patrols that alert people when a shark is nearby. The indiscriminate cull policy was abandoned last fall under pressure from the national government, but the Western Australian government reserved the right to kill specific sharks believed to pose an “imminent threat.”

A few weeks ago, one of the first sharks was targeted under this imminent-threat policy. It was identified based on data from a scientific telemetry tag that revealed that the shark was near a popular tourist spot called Warnbro Sound. Although a shark whose exact location is known poses no risk whatsoever to beachgoers—because you can simply not go into the water near where the shark is—the government decided to try and kill the shark.

These telemetry tags are a critical tool of scientific research. They help protect both people and threatened species of sharks by revealing how sharks use the available habitat. The tags are also used to study other important aspects of shark biology, including digestive physiology, three-dimensional habitat use, and the sounds found in their environment.

These tags are not designed to help fishermen or anyone else track and kill sharks (despite conspiracy theories from some fringe environmental activists). In fact, the data they collect is invaluable for conservation efforts. Using a tool designed for scientific understanding of a threatened species to track and kill that species is a perversion that infuriated scientists and conservationists. Researcher Andrew Fox of the Fox Shark Research Foundation told the Guardian that this “goes against everything we stand for,” and is a “complete waste of money, resources and time.” Fox is considering keeping the data from his tags secret if the government continues to abuse scientific tools in this manner.

Perhaps worst of all, the Western Australian government blatantly lied to concerned scientists about how these telemetry tags would be used. “There was concern amongst scientists from the first announcement of the imminent-threat policy that scientific tags would be used to help track and kill sharks,” Christopher Neff of Sydney University told me. He was explicitly told by a government official that telemetry tags would not be used in this manner, a lie that officials have continued to tell even after they were observed using tags to track and attempt to kill a shark. “It is clear that this is a system where scientific tags are being used destructively—to specifically track and kill great white sharks,” Neff said. “These actions take a step backwards in beach safety by killing sharks who are part of an early warning system and they take a step backwards in shark conservation by suggesting that we cannot share the ocean with sharks.”

After days of trying and failing to kill it, Western Australia Fisheries officers abandoned the search for this tagged shark in Warnbro Sound. The imminent-threat policy, however, remains in effect.