To Cull Or Not To Cull?
More than any time in history, sharks have surfers on the NSW North Coast rattled, but is killing them off really the answer?
Story by Jed Smith for Surfing World Magazine
What do you do? Your beloved past-time, the thing that has defined your entire life, indeed your entire lifestyle - where you live, what you do, what your children do - it’s done. Over. The rare moments you are brave enough to venture into the water, you can’t shake the fear and paranoia from your head enough to enjoy it. What do you do?
“You used to brush it off. A mate would get knocked off his board and you’d be like yeah, yeah another one, and it’s just built up over a period of years, and the last few months it’s just gotten ridiculous, and it’s affecting people’s morale. Our kids are stressing about going in the water, there are the social and economic ramifications, I have a wetsuit company, sales are dropping, at Emery (surfboards) they are quieter, so its social and economic and it’s gotten so frustrating. We’re not getting any real information out of the council and what have you, so that was making us even more pissed off,” says Don Munro, president of Le-Ba (Lennox-Ballina) Boardriders, the surfing community in the eye of the storm.
Twelve attacks in 12 months, including two fatalities, has seen shark hysteria grip the North Coast. Just prior to going to print the community had taken the unprecedented step of calling a meeting to discuss it. The media, the mayor and representatives from the police force were invited, along with every boardriders club in the region. “The mayor and police came along to tell us what they were going to do, which is basically no action until the international shark conference in October,” relays Don.
"Twelve attacks in 12 months, including two fatalities, has seen shark hysteria grip the North Coast."
“It was like, you’ve gotta be kidding! We’ve got 200 nippers about to go back in the water, school holidays are coming up. What do we do? We can’t do anything. We’re waiting for the NSW government to do something,” says Don.
They might be waiting a while. NSW Premier, Mike Baird, an avid surfer himself, who claims to have been circled and chased by a shark at Crescent Head, expressed his sympathies to surfers but says there’s not much he can do.
“Animal rights issues aside, it isn’t certain that shark culling even works,” said Baird, citing the mixed results of the Western Australian shark cull in which a 13 week trial using drum-lines, or what some local surfers referred to as a giant ‘meat curtain,’ caught and killed 68 sharks, none of which were of the problematic Great White species.
“Although we are going to look into expanding the nets, it may not be as easy as rolling more out,” he continued. “We are having an international summit on sharks next month and we are seeking all ideas from the best minds to ensure we are doing all we can… In the immediate term, we are spending $250,000 ahead of spring and summer to increase surveillance and shark tagging to try and reduce the risk of further attacks.”
Don has surfed this stretch of coast since 1962. He moved to the Lennox-Ballina area 30 years ago, where he raised three children, all in and around the water, including his son, former World Tour surfer, Shawn Munro. He knows this coastline like few others and still gets in the water every day, though admits, “I’m not surfing as much anymore.” He bristles at the line that the ‘ocean belongs to sharks.’
“I can get really off my bike on this one. We all have to be open minded with everything we fricken do in our lives. To be narrow minded is not the way the world is going to progress, it’s just not realistic. The hypocrisy side of it; Gunther (Rohn, shaper) was telling me at Sanctuary Cove they culled 100 kangaroos because they were bothering golfers. Where was the media on that one? Do these greenies eat fish? And crocodiles in Northern Qld, they kill them. A dog bites someone, they have to put them down. They single out sharks for whatever reason. I don’t believe you should cull anything but if there is a rogue one killing people what price do you put on a human life?” he says.
Great Whites have been protected since as early as 1982 in South Australia and 1998 on the east coast. Yet the data used to put them there remains questionable to say the least.
“Study into Great White Shark populations is very difficult given the uncertainty about their movements, the uncertainty about rates of emigration and immigration from certain areas and the difficulty in estimating the rates of natural or fishing mortality,” explains the Australian Department of Environment, adding, “Accurate population assessments are not yet possible for any region.”
Given the surge in attacks on both east and west coasts over the past two years, it would seem like the perfect time for the government to invest in some actual science.
How they came to be on the endangered list was due to nothing more than anecdotal evidence from fisherman; game-fishing statistics, commercial by-catch and capture rates in shark nets. None of which even vaguely rates at scientific. There are countless variables and unknowns which could have skewed the findings. While even more confusing was the contradictory anecdotal evidence presented during the same government investigations that suggested the juvenile Great White population was on the increase in certain places, such as Victoria. If the fishermen’s word was good enough to put Great Whites on the endangered list, maybe surfer’s can at the very least bring about a reassessment. Given the surge in attacks on both east and west coasts over the past two years, it would seem like the perfect time for the government to invest in some actual science. Which still might seem like 20 years too late for some surfers.
“It’s the perfect time for the government to step in and do a proper study. They will get a lot of support from both sides of the spectrum,” says Russell Ord, a surfer and water photographer from the shark attack capital of the world, South West Australia (specifically Margaret River though he travels up and down the coast).
When shark hysteria raged along his stretch of coast back in 2012, following a string of four deaths in a horror seven month period, Ordy didn’t change a thing. He still surfed and he still shot photos from the water.
“I don’t even think about them. I’m in there territory. I’ve probably swum with a few sharks now and then and, it’s a hard one, but you go into the jungle and there’re lions and you go into the ocean and there’re sharks. It’s unfortunate people lose their lives but I’d rather be living my life and enjoying the ocean than not,” he says.
As a fireman by trade, Ordy also sees the threat of sharks for what it is: barely rating a mention on the scale of ways to die.
“I’ve cut that many dead people out of cars. There will be kids in the car and their dad will be dead because he got drunk or was on drugs and it wouldn’t even make the newspapers,” he says.
Helicopter pilots along the North Coast have consistently spotted what they believe is the same seven plus-sized sharks patrolling the region. One of the few things we do know about sharks is that they will remain in a place if they are being continually fed there. The North Coast is flush with river run-off and a thriving aquatic eco-system. The area stretching from Belongil, to Byron’s north, all the way to Lennox Head, has even been turned into marine sanctuary meaning recreational fishing close to shore is forbidden allowing marine life in swimming areas to flourish. Commercial fishing operations, meanwhile, run as efficiently as ever just off the coast.
When Don put it to the community what should be done, it was unanimous. “A partial cull of one or two or all of them,” he says, though adds, “I’m not into culling generally but I voiced the opinion of the majority. It turns out really none of us want the cull. Most believe we need to co-exist and I’d rather we relied on technology where we can have preventative devices in the water that repel sharks without harm, monitoring systems, stuff like that.”
"I grew up with a great respect for sharks not a fear of them like our kids,”
While they nervously await the outcome of the October shark conference, Don is pushing ahead with the creation of a boardriding alliance comprising clubs from New Brighton to Angourie. He hopes it will keep the discussion going and ensure the interests of surfers, the surf industry and general ocean-goers is looked after. “This is not a beat up mate, it is a real scenario. I grew up with a great respect for sharks not a fear of them like our kids,” he says.
Any meaningful solution could take months, even years. So in the meantime, what do you do? What if your livelihood depended on time spent in the ocean? What if you’d dedicated your entire life to mastering it, to understanding its rhythms, its curves, contours, and predators? What if the coastline around your home was among the best in the world, flush with point breaks, pits, wedges, ramps and every other kind of aquatic punch? You love the ocean, feel lost without it. You consider yourself its protector but does that mean you are not allowed to object to being eaten alive?
“I tried to relate it to someone who didn’t surf the other day and I was like imagine if you’re snowboarding and you’re bombing a hill and a big Yeti just runs out from the forest and tackles you and eats you alive,” laughs Byron Pro, Ellis Ericson.
The paranoia at home has become crippling. He won’t even check beaches in Ballina these days, no matter how good it gets (and it gets real good down there). Even Lennox is quiet following an attack and a couple of bumps. Venture into the lineup and prepare to have it ruined by the endless chit chat about what may or may not be swimming beneath your legs.
“There’s so much chirp about in the lineup. Everyone’s like, ‘how was that attack a kilometre away from where we are surfing?’ I surfed Lennox the other day and no one’s talking about the waves they’ve been getting. It’s all about the attack at Boulders (the next bay around). I’m like, I’m surfing Lennox! Shut up!” says Ellis.
With hysteria at its peak, Ellis sought the advice of the Oracle himself, George Greenough. “He reckons it’s the most he’s seen around since the sixties,” says Ellis, though adds, “I’m not into culling or anything like that. I don’t even have an answer. The culling thing sounds way too gnarly. I’m just riding it out until everything settles down. I’ll take my chances and if I’m still here in a couple of years, great. If I’m not that sucks but it was time to go, I guess.”
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