By: Grace Suriel
An Open letter to Colin Barnett, Premier of Western Australia
By Jeremy Wade, Host of Animal Planet’s River Monsters
In the last couple of weeks, I have been contacted by several people in Western Australia, asking me to say something about your government’s recently introduced policy of killing of sharks off the Western Australian coast.
They have contacted me because I host Animal Planet’s most popular television series, RIVER MONSTERS, watched throughout the world, on the subject of fish that are potentially dangerous to humans. All the episodes of RIVER MONSTERS have one thing in common, which at first seems counter-intuitive: having found the fish in question and shown it to the camera, I return it alive to the water.
In the five years since RIVER MONSTERS launched, about three people have asked me why I do this. Everybody else understands the implicit message.
And the message is very simple. The way that humans should deal with the existence of potentially dangerous animals is not to try and wipe them out – or expect others to do this for us. Instead, we should take responsibility for our own safety by attempting to understand the behavior of these animals, thereby minimizing the chances that we’ll ever be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In the case of sharks, a good proportion of the injuries and fatalities that I have looked into could have been prevented by taking basic precautions. For example, to avoid the attention of bull sharks (one of the three species targeted by your policy), don’t bathe near river mouths, in water clouded by sediment, where baitfish are jumping out of the water, or at dusk and dawn. As for great whites, they tend to congregate on humpback whale migration routes. The information is out there, but giving it more prominence is one area where money could be usefully spent.
I appreciate that in politics there is often pressure to be seen to be “doing something”, partly in case somebody comes along later, after something bad has happened, which in reality would have happened anyway, and claims it is a consequence of your inaction. The good old confusion of correlation and causality.
But it’s not just inaction that carries possible consequences. I should also mention that setting baits near the shore could help to cause the very thing this policy is claimed to prevent. Sharks are more intelligent than is commonly imagined, on the level of associative learning, and arousing their suspicions about their natural food could nudge them in the direction of being more opportunistic.
Of course taking better care won’t mean that nobody will ever get bitten by a shark again. But, while this is undeniably a horrific way to go, the numbers are tiny in comparison to, say, the number of people killed by motor vehicles.
So why isn’t the government of Western Australia also destroying motor vehicles? Because people have collectively decided that this is a risk they’re prepared to take.
Well, people in Western Australia are saying the same thing about the sharks off their coastline. Please listen to them.