The War on Sharks
Credit: Jeff Rotman / Getty Images

One morning, I accompany Peterffy to check drum lines. There's no talk of 50-meter exclusion zones. We go right up to the buoys. Curiously, of the dozen or so lines we check, most have no bait. "Ah yes. The Blowfish have been doing good work," Peterffy says. He's referring to a shadowy group of protesters, named for the species notorious for nibbling bait off hooks, who go on nightly missions to steal hooks and disable drum lines. I'd seen a shark hook dangling like a trophy behind the bar at the Lorax. It's hard not to think Peterffy's got some role coordinating the Blowfish. But he denies this.

In the heated rhetoric between cullers and anti-cullers – state officials even refuse to use the word cull – the former often talk about the importance of valuing "human lives over sharks." But activists like Dicks and Peterffy never suggest to me that they value the opposite, sharks over human lives. Their question is simply: If we can't know definitively that drum lines make beaches safer, as scientists suggest, then aren't we killing sharks for no reason? In her analysis of the Queensland drum lines, Jessica Meeuwig concluded that the ecological cost of that program is significant, especially if it's not protecting people. From 2001 to 2013, the Queensland program caught 6,250 sharks, representing 35 different species, nearly all of which are considered either "endangered," "vulnerable," or "near threatened" by the IUCN. "Humans and sharks alike could benefit from approaches that embrace new ideas," she writes. "There are nonlethal techniques that can potentially achieve better outcomes."

One such approach would be to improve beach safety with more education and faster emergency medical services. In his annual report on shark attacks worldwide, George Burgess notes that while the United States almost always has the most (47 in 2013, 65 percent of the global total, compared with just 10 for Australia), it has by far the lowest percentage of fatal attacks. The U.S. fatality rate typically is around 2 percent, while that of the rest of the world, including Australia, hovers around 30 percent. It could be because the U.S. has invested its resources not in lethal mitigation programs, but in educating the public about the risk of sharks and advancing emergency medical care and medical capabilities.

Western Australia's most notable crusader for nonlethal techniques is Sharon Burden. Confident that her son, Kyle, would never have approved of killing sharks, she and others began staging public forums to discuss alternatives to the drum lines. One morning, she picks me up and we drive to one of these in an auditorium in downtown Perth. "We probably can't stop this by the end of April, when the drum lines come out," she says. "But Barnett wants to put them in again in November. We have six months to change their minds."

At the forum, we hear about a catch-and-release program in Recife, Brazil, where sharks caught near shore are released far out at sea; tagging data suggests they subsequently migrate elsewhere. We hear about the Shark Spotters of Cape Town, South Africa, 26 individuals who monitor the sea with binoculars seven days a week from elevated platforms at eight area beaches. Shark sightings – 1,600 since the program began in 2004 – are reported through the use of colored flags, a siren, and Twitter.

Burden takes the stage and talks about the need for an attitude change about sharks. "We're never going to be 100 percent safe in the wilderness," she says. "We need to move away from the fear, acknowledge the risk, and then know how to manage the risk." She also says – and this is something coming from her – that people need to embrace sharks. Why not shark eco-tourism? she asks. Why not let kids tag sharks with scientists? "If Kyle had had the opportunity to tag a shark and follow it on his computer, he would have done it," she says. Someone in the audience asks her, "You had the ultimate anti-shark experience. When did your attitude change?" She says it never changed. She's always loved nature. "When something like this happens, you can't give up everything you believe in," she says. "You would lose your soul."

Afterward, I ask her what she thinks about the methods of others in the anti-drum-line movement. "Personally, I think our energy is best spent showing that there are alternatives," she says. "But it's brilliant they're still getting media attention. You have to appreciate their passion." When I'd asked fisheries minister Baston the same question, he had expressed less enthusiasm. "There's nothing wrong with some protest," he said. "But when people interfere with infrastructure, I have a problem with that. That's when the law steps in."

It didn't take him long to make good on that promise. One morning, I receive an urgent call from Peterffy. The Lorax had just been raided. A mob of cops and Fisheries officials had stormed in, search warrants blazing. They'd taken everything – laptops, hard drives, cameras, phones. They took the shark hook hanging behind the bar. They'd even confiscated the mermaid costumes.

I rush right over. "Welcome to fascist Western Australia!" Peterffy announces. He shows me the Property Seizure Report. They'd confiscated 26 items. "The cameras are especially important," he says. "We've got footage of sharks dying. That's the key part of this campaign, showing this footage to the world. This amounts to censorship." The authorities had also been to the marina and taken his Zodiac. They only thing they hadn't done was arrest him, but they assured him they would, in due time.

By the end of April, the state had caught 172 sharks; 50 of them were larger than three meters and were killed, and 18 smaller sharks died after being caught on drum lines. The drum lines were pulled, and Baston declared the program a success. The mass slaughter of bycatch predicted by protesters hadn't materialized (only eight non-sharks were hooked, none of them marine mammals), and beach closures due to shark sightings were fewer than the previous year. Most important, nobody had been attacked by a shark. Of course, whether that had anything to do with the drum lines was anyone's guess. Even Baston seemingly acknowledged this by saying, "We will never know if any of the sharks caught would have harmed a person." Nonetheless, officials have applied to the federal government for a three-year extension of the program, starting in November.

Still, anti-cullers remained hopeful. An extension hinges on reviews by federal and state environmental agencies, and Western Australia's Environmental Protection Authority acknowledged it was reviewing the program, partly because more than 30,000 citizens had filed applications requesting that they do so. Also, in April, voters in the state elected a senator from the Green Party, a result attributed to anti-cull sentiment.

Ultimately, the anti-cullers were hoping for something like a repeat of what had happened a few weeks earlier, the day when all those people jumped off the observer boats and spent a morning swimming with that injured tiger shark. Dicks, Eller, and I had returned to that scene with heavy hearts, having just witnessed the shooting of the larger tiger shark. The swimmers quickly gave us the news. After doing laps with the unresponsive animal for more than an hour, they'd given up and let her go. She drifted downward. But right before she hit bottom, her tail wiggled. Then it kicked. The shark began swimming, slowly at first but picking up steam. She headed for the safety of the open ocean. She never looked back.