Conservationists ready to fight Australia shark cull
Seven fatal attacks in three years has pushed the authorities on Australia's west coast into going after big sharks, setting the stage for a confrontation with campaigners vowing to stop the cull.
The authorities say they will shoot dead any sharks over three metres long that get caught on baited hooks set a kilometre off eight popular beaches.
The carcasses would be thrown in open water.
Last week the federal government gave permission for the cull to begin by granting Western Australia state a temporary exemption from national legislation that protects great whites.
Concern over the safety of bathers and economic damage from shark attacks meant the cull was in the "national interest," the government said.
"I know that many West Australians who love to use the ocean - divers, surfers, swimmers and families - want increased protection from dangerous sharks at these beaches," state premier Colin Barnett said.
Many do, but many others are appalled at what they see as revenge attacks rather than a strategy that will deliver results.
Some, labelled as "fanatics" by the authorities, have pledged to disrupt the baiting programme that was set to get started this week.
"We're prepared to do whatever it takes within peaceful ways to stop this hunt," said Simon Peterffy, spokesman for volunteer group The Marine Response Unit.
"If there's any animal out there that needs rescuing, we'll be right out there and releasing it from the lines."
Peterffy, a veteran eco-warrior who has boarded a Japanese whaling vessel and been imprisoned over anti-logging protests, said he had a fleet of about 20 boats ready to rescue animals caught on the hooks.
The Marine Response Unit and other protest outfits have already frightened off contractors who were going to do the killing.
Undeterred, the government pledged it would itself set the 72 baited lines.
A wider backlash appears to be building against the cull, with British comedian and television star Ricky Gervais among those campaigning to stop the hunt.
Another Briton, business tycoon Sir Richard Branson, said the lifting of protection for the sharks "should be condemned around the world."
Over the past 50 years, shark have killed an average of one person per year in Australia.
Experience suggests that the success of the cull in stopping the recent spike in attacks is not guaranteed. Studies of a shark culling programme in the US state of Hawaii that ran intermittently in the 1980 and 1990s showed that despite the killing of 4 500 sharks, there was no change in the attack rate there.
"White sharks and tiger sharks are both highly mobile species, so limited culling is unlikely to demonstrably change the already incredibly low risk of being bitten by them," Carl Meyer of Hawaii University told national broadcaster ABC.
"It's not that (people) don't want shark attacks to stop, but that these meat curtains - hooks with big chunks of meat off the coast - may increase the risk of shark attack,"
Peterffy said. Peterffy and others worry that the bait will attract big schools of fish, and with them more sharks that could then swim towards the coast's most popular beaches.
Damon Kendrick, an academic and champion ocean swimmer in Australia despite losing a leg to a bull shark when he was a 14-year-old in South Africa, is against the cull in Western Australia because of its likely disturbance to the natural order in the ocean.
"I've never blamed the shark," he said. "At the time there was a population explosion of bull sharks. Part of the reason was that great white sharks were actively hunted and removing the top predator caused an ecological vacuum which was filled by bull sharks."