Report from Western Australia on The Shark Cull - Part 1/3

This is the First of a Three-part Field Report on the Shark Cull in Western Australia


Four months having passed since the scheduled hiatus of the controversial shark cull in Western Australia, and with deadline looming on whether or not to extend, amend, or simply end what protest groups have called “despicable and highly illegal,” it seems appropriate to weigh in on the significance of this controversial state action. Having just returned from a self-guided tour of the Western Australia that spanned three weeks and led me to the sites of the seven most recent attacks, I will attempt here to shed some light on the complexity of this political-ecological conflict. This is by no means a thorough treatment of the issue, but merely my own interpretation garnered from informal conversations with members of the public in coffee shops, surf shops, wineries, airports, car rental agencies, and hostels.

I decided to go to Western Australia this year for one reason alone:  I, like most other ocean advocates, am outraged by the cull.  I wanted to know how something so destructive is still going on, and if anyone beyond the government and a few highly paid fishermen actually approved of this thing.  Prior to my trip, I had read innumerable blog posts and newspaper articles in which conservation groups like Western Australians for Shark Conservation (WASC) and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) rightly condemned the actions of the state. But curiously, I had seen nothing at all reflecting public support of it. Did these pro-cull opinions not exist, or did they simply fail to make the 20,000-mile journey through cyberspace to my laptop in New York? If there really are two sides to every story, what was the other one? Certainly this multimillion-dollar Fisheries program came about for some reason, and I reckoned that being on the ground in the heart of the conflict was the only way to hear this information. So, in early June I packed a sleeping bag, a bedroll, two t-shirts, a dive mask, and a camera into a large backpack and boarded a Qantas 747 in New York bound for Perth, the capital of Western Australia.

WA Shark Cull

WA Shark Cull

Before proceeding with my account of this whirlwind voyage, allow me to clarify my motive in writing this piece. While I am completely against the shark cull (or "drum-line deployment" as it is officially called) and the killing of sharks by wealthy governments, sport fishermen, and especially industrial fishing operations, I think a reflexive examination of global shark conservation strategy is long overdue. To make shark conservation more effective, we should not only seek to deconstruct the arguments of those killing the sharks out of profit, tradition, or public safety, but we should also look inside the conservation community itself to see our own contradictions, inconsistencies, and biases. By looking inward from time to time, we can do a better job at preserving the lives of sharks while allowing room for human difference.  That, I think, is the goal.  To borrow a quote from Chinese political strategist Sun Tzu, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting."

With that said, here are my two concerns with the way the shark cull is being handled by shark advocate groups in Western Australia: Firstly, in newspapers, public protests, and social media, Sea Shepherd and WASC have placed much of the blame for the deaths of over 100 sharks on the ego and the ineptitude of the state’s premier, Colin Barnett. I am not satisfied with the long-term effects of such finger-pointing for two reasons. First, the attribution of cause toward the ill will or ineptitude of one specific person postpones a more thorough analysis of the situation.  And second, this blame game actually deflects public scrutiny away from actual policies, beliefs, or circumstances that have the potential for revision and are thus more worthy targets of protest.

One example that comes to mind is the online circulation of a photo of Barnett holding a massive fishing hook that is undoubtedly intended to provoke repulsion and anger from those who have not yet made up their mind about the cull. While such imagery might sway a few people to the side of shark conservation, it largely serves to indoctrinate the Premier into the villainous cult of personality—something for which this man is hardly worthy.

shark hook, shark cull

shark hook, shark cull

This effectively alienates the citizens of Western Australia from their state.  Seeing this image of Barnett standing with a razor sharp weapon of destruction, one thinks, what can I possibly do about a guy like this? Should I wait until the next election cycle and vote him out of office? How many sharks will his contracted fishermen kill in the meantime? Such appeal to evil does more harm than good, for it delays possible action, widens the gap between the citizens and their state, and leaves the voter with no foothold on which to effect true political change.  Even worse, it sets a bad example for young protesters who truly love sharks and feel they need to do something drastic to stop the cull.  It is not sympathy for Australian citizens or Barnett himself that is needed here, but rather an effort to bring the two onto the same political playing field.  This effort only delayed by the continual reference to the evilness of the Premier.

My second concern with the strategic direction of the shark cull protest is the reference to “public misconception” of sharks as the underlying cause of this obviously destructive and wasteful state action. “Public misconception”—the idea that public opinion is fundamentally wrong—not only places scientific knowledge above and beyond emotion and affect in political process (which it rarely, if ever, is), but such argument in reference to sharks holds less and less weight as we move further away from the summer of 1975. The shark no longer lurks in the shadows as it did when Jaws scared everyone out of the water that fateful summer; the shark is everywhere now, from cartoons and children’s books to beautiful artwork and thrilling open-water encounters. To put this growing “shark culture” into perspective, consider the duration of The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. It has dominated television ratings for twenty-six consecutive years. Such heightened exposure to the shark—whether scientifically accurate or not—has rendered public fear of this animal into a far less potent, even absurd form.

The monsters of our time are no longer wild beasts threatening the integrity of our individual bodies, but social threats like climate change, drug-resistant diseases, and acts of violence that pose an imminent danger to the existence of our species. Unlike Bruce the Shark, which Steven Spielberg bolted together with rubber and steel, these present threats are beyond representation and thus present a far greater challenge to public education. With this in mind and in the spirit of constructive critique, neither the actions of one politician nor the idea of public misconception seem to suggest why the democratic state of Western Australia has initiated the shark cull, why is likely to approve a three-year extension of it, and why local fishermen are queuing up in hopes of securing a six figure contract to do the killing. I don’t believe one bad egg in Parliament is the only factor behind this, nor do I think it benefits the shark in any way to attribute the cause of their deaths to one politician. Additionally, I have serious doubts that public misconception of sharks—once the driving force of shark deaths—is any longer relevant enough to warrant this knee-jerk reaction to the fatal shark attacks of 2012 and 2013.  So, beyond these two minor factors, what is really going on Down Under?

Perth, Shark cull

Perth, Shark cull

Before arriving in Perth, I had not researched much about the place but planned to just “wing it,” as I think travel in this way leaves open more doors than it closes. Though I soon would realize the problems of this approach, I have always found great excitement in experiencing a new place without knowing much about it beforehand.

Of course, my first experience of WA was its sleek, modern airport.  Walking through the terminal to the baggage claim, past stores full of Aboriginal art, Bundaberg Rum, and the ubiquitous outback hat, I could not help but liken this airport to the ultramodern one in Vancouver, British Columbia. Both places featured glitzy storefronts with three dominant products: liquor, high-end jewelry, and Native handicraft.  While millions of dollars went into the upgrade of Vancouver International Airport before the 2012 Winter Olympic Games, Perth’s terminal seemed to have a similar makeover without any such event.  What was the connection here, I wondered?  It took only a short bus ride to find out where this money had come from.

After exchanging my own paltry budget at the Travelex kiosk (a novice mistake), I left the airport in a brand-new bus toward downtown Perth—the "Central Business District" or "CBD" as the locals say. We entered one of those four-lane thoroughfares that seem to connect every major city to their airport, but strangely, this one was free of traffic on this Tuesday morning. The first business we passed was a truck rental place with big utility vehicles out front, each sporting a fresh coat of industrial yellow or green paint. Next to it was another rental outfit, this time bigger trucks, yellow and green with massive off-road wheels. I looked to the right out the opposite window—more trucks for rent! One by one, the bus sped past these rental agencies, each one with big trucks, small trucks, some outfitted with high-water snorkels and some with winches; all commercial vehicles for commercial use.

Mining Truck

Mining Truck

Ten minutes into the commute, the rows of rental agencies gave way to stacks of office buildings, each with a stylish, understated logo facing the street. Most of this writing was rather cryptic, appearing to be nothing more than the founder’s last name or at least their initials. The one I finally recognized was BHP Billiton, the giant mining company that operates throughout the world. More and more we passed names like Rio Tinto and Newcrest, each printed in different fonts and different colors. Some logos were followed by an “Ltd.”, while others were “Consultants.” Some did “Logistics,” and others did “Oversight.” Leaning over to the guy next to me, I asked, “What are all of these companies?”

“Mwyning” he said in his thick Australian drawl. “Awl of it.”

From the hired trucks to the offices to the banks, on either side of the street along this forty-minute bus ride—each of them was in the business of mining. As I would soon find out, the entire city of Perth, the coastal town of Fremantle, and the State of Western Australia–with its sleek airport, friendly people, and great white sharks–are all in some way or another involved in the business of mining.

This article will continue in Part 2: "Vagabonding"  

Check back soon!!