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Australia's barbaric slaughter of sharks is based on irrational fear

When a shark mauled two young British backpackers in Queensland, the clamour for retribution was insistent. But a landmark court ruling may make that difficult.

Nothing terrifies Australians quite like sharks. In a land of killers, crocodiles come close. So do lethal snakes and the nastiest spiders. Cassowaries – ostrich-sized birds – roam the north Queensland rainforests. They have killed humans with their murderously sharp toes. But sharks, in the minds of most Aussies, are the top predators.

Unsurprisingly, when a shark mauled two young British backpackers late last month in Queensland’s Whitsunday Islands, the clamour for retribution was insistent. Though both men survived – one lost a foot – Queensland politicians and many in the jittery Great Barrier Reef tourism industry demanded blood.

Bob Katter, the 74-year-old whimsical rogue who represents a far north electorate more than twice the size of New Zealand, spoke for many Queenslanders when he said: “The problem is no one has told sharks not to kill human beings. Now, when you can assure me that sharks have been told and understand that they’re not to kill humans, then I will agree that we humans [should] not kill sharks.”

The hurdle for Queenslanders who wish to declare renewed war on sharks is that the predators have just had a spectacular legal victory. In late September, a court ended almost 60 years of government-sanctioned mass slaughter of big sharks hooked on 173 baited drum lines placed near beaches, diving and snorkelling spots within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. From 2001 to 2018, more than 10,000 sharks were caught and killed in Queensland. Those found still writhing on the hooks were shot dead.

Auckland-educated barrister Saul Holt QC, a former senior crown counsel in New Zealand, led the case for the sharks. Appearing for the Humane Society International, he argued that Queensland should no longer be the last place on Earth where mass shark culling was condoned by the state.

The sharks’ victory provided a fascinating insight into the daftness of Queensland’s decades of vengeance against the ocean predators. Among the expert scientific evidence that persuaded both a tribunal and, later, the court to spare the sharks: Australians are more likely to be killed by a cow than a shark. Sharks, on average, kill one to two people a year.

At first glance, the Queensland state government’s case for keeping up the mass slaughter of sharks seemed compelling; in the 56 years it has been killing sharks around the Great Barrier reef, no human has died from a shark attack at a protected beach. Yet, in unprotected parts of the barrier reef – that is, most of its 900 islands spread along 2300km – there have been 60 shark attacks and 11 deaths.

The last to die was a 33-year-old Melbourne medical researcher, Daniel Christidis, mauled a year ago just 15km from the attack on the British backpackers. Those three attacks all occurred in remote parts of the barrier reef that have never had lethal shark protection measures such as baited drum lines.

What many proponents of killing sharks ignore is the barrier reef’s size: it has 27,000 beaches, yet only 173 had shark-protection measures. Shark attacks have never been recorded at most of those thousands of unprotected beaches.

Further weakening the state government’s case was this: at more than 80% of the shark-protected beaches, no one had died from shark attacks in the 110 years before protection measures were put in place, in 1962.

As the ruling said, there is an understandable public desire to want government protection from sharks but killing them no longer makes sense. Justice for jaws, you might say.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the November 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.