The War on Sharks

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All at once, a half-dozen people in masks and fins leap into the ocean and surround the tiger shark. They grab her pectoral fins and hold her snout. Someone tickles her chin. They swim in circles like this for 15 minutes, then 30, with backup swimmers relieving the weary. “Amazing,” says Mike Dicks, recording the scene from his boat with a GoPro. “This will go viral.”

Luke Eller swims over and climbs back aboard. “She’s in bad shape,” Eller says. “There’s a hole in her head. Her gills are torn up. She’s not responding.” It’s probably a lost cause, but a shark expert on one of the other boats has insisted that if they “swim” the animal long enough – prop up her head, channel water through her mouth and gills – she might survive. “Come on, little sharky,” Dicks mutters. “Swim!”

We’re bobbing in slight chop off Trigg Beach, near Perth, Australia. Our boat, the Bruce, is one of three “observer boats” that are monitoring the activities of a much larger vessel, the PV Hamelin, a 72-foot cutter operated by the Western Australia Department of Fisheries. Moments earlier, Fisheries employees in blue jumpsuits had hauled this shark onto their deck to remove a massive hook from her mouth. The baited hook had been dangling beneath three orange buoys, a contraption known as a drum line. Such devices have been positioned off beaches along the coast as part of a shark-mitigation policy designed to protect beachgoers from three predators – great white, tiger, and bull sharks. According to department policies, only sharks in excess of three meters long can be killed. But the drum lines have been snaring a lot of smaller sharks, such as this one fighting for her life. She had probably hung on the hook all night. When the blue jumpsuits released her, she’d left a bloody smear down the metal ramp off the back of their boat before hitting the water and sinking like a Buick.

That’s when everyone from the observer boats jumped in and attempted to revive the animal.

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The Fisheries employees watch the shark-swimmers in tense, stony silence, until the Hamelin finally motors off. The observers confer. Dicks, who pilots the Bruce on behalf of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, decides to leave two of his crew swimming with the shark and chase the Hamelin, which is heading north to check more drum lines. He guns the engine, and we fly across the water. His 21-foot hard-bottomed inflatable (named for the shark in Finding Nemo) can’t match the Hamelin, but we arrive off Mullaloo Beach in time to see the Fisheries workers plucking another shark from the sea. We maneuver in close, but that only irritates them. “Back off!” one of the men snarls. “Fifty meters! That’s the law!”

There’s no question about this tiger. She’s huge. They lasso her tail, and while two of them steady her with the rope at the water’s surface, another lowers what looks like a long pole over the side of the Hamelin until it touches the shark’s head. “That’s a powerhead,” Eller tells me, sighing. “That’s what they use.” There’s a loud pop! Then another. Two rounds, blasting the animal’s head wide open.

Our boat goes quiet. We watch the guys in jumpsuits winch the shark tail-first up the ramp, and we watch the ramp flow red with blood. Then the Hamelin turns and heads out to sea. Normally, Dicks would give chase and video them dumping the carcass. That would play well on social media. Local TV news might even want it. But finally he says, “Let’s go get our swimmers.” He hopes they’ve been able to revive the smaller shark released earlier. Eller shakes his head. “That shark’s not going to make it.”

Between 2011 and 2013, half a dozen people were killed in shark attacks in Western Australia. Globally, this is not a unique phenomenon. During the same period, there were 10 attacks off France’s Réunion island, in the Indian Ocean. In 2010, there were six attacks off Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Over the past six years at a single beach in Port St. Johns, South Africa, seven people were killed by sharks. “If you look at the statistics, the number of attacks has increased,” says George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. To protect beachgoers, governments have been experimenting with everything from banning surfing to building artificial reefs offshore to lure sharks away from beaches.

Here in Western Australia, it’s drum lines. By the time I arrived at the end of March, the state’s shark-mitigation program was two months old and had caught 133 sharks and killed 56. Opponents of the program were destroying drum lines and liberating sharks. Authorities were hitting back with open-water, high-speed chases and strip searches of activists in marina parking lots. You were either pro-cull or anti-cull, and either way, all hell had broken loose. I’d come to witness the spectacle.

(Grant Faint / Getty Images)

I had also come seeking answers to a simple question: Why, in 2014, is a conservation-minded nation like Australia destroying sharks? Isn’t the global plight of sharks obvious at this point? After all, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies a quarter of all shark species, including tiger and bull sharks, as “threatened” and 25 species as “critically endangered.” Great whites, considered “vulnerable” by the IUCN, have long had a champion in one particular country – Australia. The Australians run a nationwide White Shark Recovery Program, and the species receives both federal and state legal protection. A cull seems to make little sense, and Western Australia had been informed of this – loudly and often – by the world’s shark scientists, environmental groups, and all manner of celebrities, from Ricky Gervais to Richard Branson to Kelly Slater. “If I got eaten by a shark, I’d be honored,” Slater said.

To understand how things had come to this, I traveled three hours south of Perth to an idyllic spot called Bunker Bay. There, in the dunes behind a surf break known as Boneyards, stands a sculpture dedicated to a young man named Kyle Burden. In blue and red wrought iron, it playfully depicts a surfer shooting through a tube.

Burden had arrived here in 2008 at age 18. He and his girlfriend were from Sydney, but they’d bought a van, traveled the country, and landed in Margaret River, a stone’s throw from Bunker Bay and the center of a region known for two things: world-class wines and world-class waves. Margaret River sits halfway between two capes on an anvil-shaped chunk of coast that juts into the ocean and forms what surfers call the perfect “swell magnet.” Building momentum over the endless Southern Ocean, monster swells arrive daily and, shaped by offshore desert winds and limestone reefs, become the longest, roomiest tubes on the planet. “It’s just so consistent,” says Jason Rhodes, a friend of Burden’s. “It’s nonstop.”

Burden took a job as a dishwasher – or, as he preferred, “an underwater ceramics technician.” That’s what people loved about the guy, his sense of humor and relentless cheeriness. “Kyle was always up,” says Rhodes. “It was like he was on permanent vacation. It was all about the waves.”

On September 4, 2011, Burden arrived at Bunker Bay to find the waves at Boneyards head-high and clean. He paddled out. There were four others in the lineup, including a kid he knew, Sollee Morris. At 1 pm, Morris grabbed a wave and rode in. When he turned back around, surfers were paddling frantically to shore. The water had turned red. Burden was nowhere in sight. Morris swam back out and found Burden – but only half of him. He somehow mustered the courage to pull Burden to shore.

Nobody saw what happened to Burden, but judging from his lacerations, authorities concluded he’d been attacked by a 16-foot-long great white. They closed the beach for 36 hours. Four days later, 40 of Burden’s friends paddled out and tossed flowers into Bunker Bay. Sharon Burden, Kyle’s mother, read a statement thanking Sollee Morris and Kyle’s friends. “There’s no real explanation for the randomness of Mother Nature,” she read. “Kyle loved the environment; he loved the ocean and all the creatures that go with it.”

Burden’s death terrified Margaret River. “People stopped surfing alone,” says Rhodes. “There are so many waves, and you want to surf every one. But you can’t paddle out by yourself, because of the sharks. You see every other animal, but not the sharks. It’s a weird, scary feeling.”

Then things got weirder and scarier.

On October 9, five weeks after Burden’s death, a shark took a 64-year-old swimmer off Cottesloe Beach in Perth. Three weeks later, off Rottnest Island, also near Perth, a shark killed a 32-year-old scuba diver. That totaled three fatal attacks in seven weeks. It didn’t stop there. On March 31, 2012, a shark took another scuba diver near Margaret River, off Stratham Beach. And on July 14, a surfer was killed by a shark off Wedge Island north of Perth. Five fatal attacks in less than a year, along a 260-mile stretch of coast. Every attack was attributed to a great white and accompanied by a media frenzy.

There had been fatal attacks in Western Australia before Burden’s death – 18 of them going back to 1882. But there’d never been a spate like this. “Attitudes in the community started changing,” says Max Clifford, a friend of Burden’s. “People said, ‘There are way too many sharks. They’ve been protected for too long. Let’s cull them.’ ”

Scientists, by and large, oppose culling, mostly because so little is known about great whites. Beyond longevity (up to 70 years) and swimming prowess (one tagged specimen swam from South Africa to Australia and back), everything else is guesswork. Knowledge about the shark’s diet, for example, is obscured by the fact that they’re easiest to tag near seal colonies. Scientists aren’t even sure why the species ventures into Western Australian waters. Australia has two resident great white populations, one on the east coast, one on the south. Starting in September, sharks from South Australia journey up the west coast, and many speculate that they’re after the migrating humpbacks. But there’s no evidence for this.

There’s also no evidence to explain why sharks attack people. None of the theories raging through Margaret River’s surf community – a single geriatric shark feeding on slow-moving humans, or sharks mistaking surfers for seals, or exploding populations of sharks – is supported by empirical data. Some scientists wonder about the effects of global warming, noting that increasing water temperatures off Western Australia had strengthened the Leeuwin Current. Has this altered shark behavior? No one knows.

The one thing scientists generally agree on is that shark attacks are completely random events, and that the chances of a bite increase with more people in the water more of the time. “The number of shark-human interactions occurring in a given year is directly correlated with the amount of time humans spend in the sea,” says George Burgess. Shark attacks globally (there were 72 in 2013, 10 fatal) have steadily increased each decade since 1900, a trend Burgess attributes to the exploding human population and the skyrocketing interest in aquatic recreation worldwide.

Nowhere do these trends merge more perfectly than in Western Australia. With a population of about 2 million, Perth is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the world, and the culture revolves completely around sand and surf. It was not unreasonable, then, to suggest the spike in attacks is caused by changes in human behavior, not shark behavior.

The state commissioned a report on whether to adopt a shark-mitigation strategy using drum lines or shark nets. Other places had such programs, but the report ultimately concluded that their effectiveness was impossible to evaluate. It advised against such measures for Western Australia, citing their devastating impacts on both target and nontarget species, including dolphins, dugongs, and turtles.

Instead, the government increased helicopter patrols. It funded research into shark repellents. It enhanced an existing shark-tagging program. When a satellite-tagged shark swims near an array of coastal receivers, beach patrols are notified and word goes out on Twitter. By 2013, Western Australia had tagged hundreds of sharks, including 144 great whites, and developed the world’s best shark-monitoring system.

But none of that mattered on November 23, 2013, when what was thought to be a great white killed yet another surfer off Gracetown. It was the sixth fatal attack in two years. It changed everything.

A delegation of surfers and business owners from Margaret River began lobbying intensely for drum lines. Officials moved swiftly. On December 10, Colin Barnett, the state’s premier, announced that drum lines would be set off state beaches in a trial program from January through April 2014. All great white, tiger, and bull sharks longer than three meters caught would be destroyed. Federal officials had granted Barnett an exemption from national laws protecting great whites. “I get no pleasure from seeing sharks killed,” Barnett said. “But I have an overriding responsibility to protect the people of Western Australia.”

Until this point, there had been just three places in the world with active lethal shark-mitigation programs – the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland, and South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, where efforts started in 1937, 1962, and 1952, respectively. New South Wales and KwaZulu-Natal protect their beaches with large-mesh gill nets that catch and kill great numbers of sharks. But Western Australia’s swell made nets untenable, so Barnett looked to Queensland, the only place using drum lines. People often pointed to a single, powerful statistic as proof that Queensland’s program worked: Since 1853, the state has had 71 fatal shark attacks but just one since the mitigation program started in 1962. “We didn’t reinvent the wheel,” says Western Australia fisheries minister Ken Baston. “Since 1962, Queensland has used drum lines successfully.”

But many scientists are dubious about drum lines. In an analysis of Queensland’s program, Jessica Meeuwig, director of the Center for Marine Futures at the University of Western Australia, noted that fatalities have declined in areas both with and without drum lines, and that 83 percent of drum lines are deployed at locations where a fatal attack has never occurred. Another concern for scientists about nets and drum lines is that, regardless of their effectiveness, once installed, they become politically very difficult to remove. “If you’re the politician who removes the nets, and then there’s an attack, that’s on you,” says Burgess, of the International Shark Attack File.

None of this swayed Barnett. Drum lines were installed in late January. If officials had any inkling of the three-ring circus that was about to ensue, they only hinted at it. Fisheries staff, while formulating the policy, acknowledged that the state’s own commissioned report had advised against a lethal mitigation program, with one official noting, “We will likely cop some criticism if the new policy involves drum lining.”

They had no idea.

Every morning before sunrise, Mike Dicks and his crew fire up the Bruce and motor out to the drum lines for another day of jousting with the Hamelin. The way these guys see it, what choice do they have? Everything else the anti-drum-line movement has tried has failed. A judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by a conservation group and later joined by Sharon Burden, Kyle’s mother and the movement’s most compelling advocate. Officials ignored two giant protest rallies at Cottesloe Beach, the first drawing 4,000 people, the second 6,000, unheard-of numbers for Perth. Then there was the guy who smashed the front windows of Barnett’s office with a hammer, terrifying his staff. The premier responded by increasing security and insisting he wouldn’t be cowed by “extreme elements.”

At this point, the Bruce crew and other high-seas observers can only continue what they’ve done from the start: document the Hamelin killings, post the grisly images on social media, and hope that the public – 67 percent of whom oppose drum lines, according to a recent poll – chases Barnett from office.

Pulling out of the marina, we receive a call from another observer boat. There’s a shark on the line at Port Beach. Roger that. Dicks throws the hammer down, and we’re flying. Our black Sea Shepherd flag, white skull over crossed trident and shepherd’s crook, ripples in the wind.

We arrive at the drum line and find its three orange buoys bunched together, a sign that a shark likely hangs below. The Hamelin arrives, and its crew begins pulling the shark up. We move in close, cameras firing. “Fifty meters!” one of them yells. That’s the game. When the buoys are in the water, there’s a legal 50-meter “exclusion zone” around drum lines. We violate that at the risk of being fined.

The shark they finally haul up is well under three meters. They lasso the tail, drop the ramp and hoist it onto the deck. Since they’ll be releasing this shark, they employ several trauma-alleviating techniques. One man covers the shark with a black tarp. Another hoses water through its mouth to aerate the gills. A third man works near the head, no doubt fiddling with the hook.

On our boat, Rohan Sibon readies her mask and fins. Her job, when they release the shark, will be to dive in and video it underwater. If it swims off, great. But if it sinks, that’s prime footage. Someone notices that the Hamelin is slowly turning its bow west. In an instant, it shoots out to sea, with the shark still on its deck. Dicks guns the Bruce, and we try like hell to keep up. After a minute of this, Sibon explodes. “Release it already!” she screams. When the Hamelin finally stops, there’s some distance between us. We see them release the shark, but Sibon is in no position to dive. Almost in admiration, Eller concedes: “Their tactics are improving.”

We chase the Hamelin around for hours. Its crew does not look happy. It’s understandable. They kill sharks all day and receive unrelenting shit for it. (My request to do a ride-along with them, to get their perspective, had been denied by Fisheries.) Out on the water, I meet another observer, Shayne Thomson, a former Fisheries staffer who knows the Hamelin’s crew. The cull, Thomson says, has split the department. “I know one skipper really well,” he says. “He knows sharks and has an affinity for the ocean. He’s hurting.”

The anti-culling movement is not particularly harmonious, either. The most polarizing figure is an activist named Simon Peterffy. One guy refers to Peterffy’s group, the Marine Response Unit, as the “Marine Retard Unit,” explaining that “everything he does is negative. It doesn’t help the campaign.” Take what happened on February 1, when a woman on Peterffy’s team “thumb-locked” herself to the docked Hamelin. The stunt wound up delaying the boat’s departure while officials worked to cut her free. It was later speculated that a shark found dead on a line might have survived had the Hamelin arrived earlier to release it. “People were mad,” says Eller. “Simon can jump in with all his passion without thinking.”

When I meet Peterffy, he’s on edge. “Something’s going to happen, any day now,” he says. “We have someone inside Fisheries. He says they’re about to move on us. They need a big arrest.”

Peterffy comes with all the accoutrements you’d expect – patchy beard, dirty bare feet, Earth First tattoo, girlfriend named Panda. His approach is to be as outrageous as possible, grab headlines, and keep the cull in the news. A couple of weeks ago, for example, during an international art exhibition called “Sculpture by the Sea” on Cottesloe Beach, Peterffy’s team painted themselves blue, donned mermaid costumes, and towed a drum line onto the beach in broad daylight. Flanked by a banner reading healthy oceans need sharks, the mermaids posed amid the hooks, chains, and buoys.

Peterffy and I arrive at his headquarters, an encampment called the Lorax, which is best described as Occupy meets Burning Man. The structures here – a bar, a kitchen, a living room – have been fashioned from an eclectic mix of tin, corrugated plastic, plywood, and adobe. A shipping container serves as a storage closet. An ancient Toyota van overgrown with weeds acts as Peterffy’s command post.

Peterffy honed his protest chops in the forests of Western Australia, often locking himself on to heavy equipment in a drive to prevent logging. The anti-cull movement, his first maritime campaign, took some getting used to. “Initially, we employed methods that work great in forest settings, but not so much in a marine setting,” he says, by way of explaining the Hamelin-lock-on-shark-death fiasco. Still, he insists, these glitches shouldn’t detract from the real target – Barnett and his political cronies. “Their attitude is revenge: ‘The sharks killed one of ours, so we’re going to kill the shark,’ ” he says. “There’s no science. It’s all politics.”

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.

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