Does Shark Culling for Surfer Safety Make Sense?

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Late last February, Kelly Slater put a popular Indian Ocean surfing spot on notice. A young body boarder was mauled and killed a few days earlier at Reunion Island, marking the 20th such attack in that spot over the last six years, and Slater saw it as a "clear imbalance happening in the ocean there." His solution? "A serious cull on Reunion, and it should happen every day."

Shark culling is a wildlife management concept aimed at systematically reducing a population of sharks in a given area. The thinking goes that if we kill enough of them, especially the biggest among them, there will be less interaction or incident with the public close to shore.

One of the more notable culling efforts occurred in Western Australia from 2010 to 2013. Chris Lowe, head of Cal State Long Beach's Shark Lab, says the program had some measurable success at reducing the number of incidents. But "it's unrealistic to expect that we can reduce attacks to zero," he says. "To make the beaches totally safe, you'd have to cull the sharks into extinction. And we just started getting them back."

To be clear, shark attacks are really rare. The International Shark Attack File Summary for 2016 put the number of verifiable, unprovoked shark attacks at 85 incidents and four deaths. By contrast, horses kill about 20 people per year in the U.S. alone.

The perceived need to mount a counter attack comes from the idea of the killer shark. "Our motions in water give off a similar vibration pattern as that of a distressed marine animal," says James Sulikowski of the marine lab out of the University of New England, but no one really knows why one surfer looks tastier than the next. "Even if they do initially attack because they're looking for food, it's usually a bite and release." Attacking a surfer is a mistake, and when the shark realizes this, it almost always let's go and swims away. Experts agree, most, if not all, human-shark encounters are accidental.

For Lowe, a surfer himself in his younger days, and someone who still enjoys the ocean, culling is beyond the pale. "We are going into their home. They are the apex predators of the ocean, and we are their visitors." He'd prefer if beach-going luminaries like Slater worked to increase awareness and funding for research to promote real solutions, rather than call for an ineffective campaign of shark genocide.