SYDNEY, Australia — As Australians flocked to the beaches at the height of a hot Southern Hemisphere summer, a commercial fisherman hired for the task hauled in a 10-foot tiger shark, caught on a baited line set off the state’s south coast. The fisherman shot the shark in the head four times with a .22-caliber rifle and then towed the carcass out to sea, where it was dumped.
The catch on Jan. 26 — Australia Day, a national holiday popular for beachgoing — was the first under a new “catch and kill” policy in the state of Western Australia for large tiger, bull and great white sharks. Since then, at least one more large shark has died on the line; several smaller ones were caught and released.
The official cull comes after seven fatal shark attacks on swimmers in the state in the last three years, the most recent in November, when a 35-year-old surfer was killed. In one of the attacks, at one of the most popular beaches in Perth, no body was found, only the man’s damaged swim trunks. Five of the attacks were by great whites, officials say.
The state government’s decision is meant to reassure beachgoers, but it has horrified conservationists and flies in the face of global efforts to protect sharks, whose numbers have been in decline amid heavy pressure from Asian appetites for shark fin soup.
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Opponents of the cull policy have mounted protests and consulted lawyers about trying to halt it in the courts. International celebrities have weighed in, including British actor and comedian Ricky Gervais and billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson.
“Idiots, idiots, idiots,” said Valerie Taylor, an Australian underwater cinematographer, referring to the state government, led by Colin Barnett of the Liberal Party. Taylor, 78, is known around the world for her work filming sharks; with her husband, Ron Taylor, she shot many scenes for “Jaws,” the 1975 movie blockbuster about a great white shark terrorizing swimmers off New England.
“The worst part of what the government is doing is killing sharks that are innocent,” Taylor said, by taking any large shark rather than just those known to have attacked humans. Tiger sharks “are the sweetest, gentlest sharks to work with,” she said. “I can’t believe the stupidity.”
Sharks are common along Australia’s long coastline, and some swimming beaches, including Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach on the east coast, have installed nets to protect swimmers. But the nets themselves are controversial because other kinds of marine life become snagged in them and sometimes die. In New South Wales last summer, the toll included two humpback whales and two sea turtles.
Western Australia generally has not installed nets on its beaches, relying instead on aerial and beach patrols to warn swimmers. It has also tried an alert system, tweeting the whereabouts of some tagged sharks.
The state’s Fisheries Department has tagged 338 sharks with radio transponders and installed 320 monitors on the seabed. If a tagged shark comes within about 750 yards of one of the monitors, a message is automatically posted to the Twitter account of Surf Life Saving Western Australia, the association that puts lifeguards on the state’s beaches.
“We have 31,000 followers who get tweets on surf conditions, which beaches are patrolled,” and occasionally, whether a shark has passed by, said Maclain Bruce, a spokesman for the association.
Barnett, the state premier, says monitoring and warnings are not enough for a state where a growing population and greater access to remote beaches has brought a sharp increase in the frequency of fatal attacks — before the last three years, there had been only 13 deaths in the past century, he noted.
“I know that the many West Australians who love to use the ocean — divers, surfers, swimmers and their families — want increased protection from dangerous sharks,” he said before the cull started.
The cull, which will continue through April, covers sharks that are more than 9 feet 10 inches long and are caught on lines more than half a mile from shore. To carry it out, the state needed an exemption from a 1999 federal law protecting biodiversity. The national minister for the environment, Greg Hunt, granted the exemption, citing public safety and the threat the shark attacks posed to tourism in the state, which brings in about $7.5 billion a year.
Conservationists say the broader effect on the marine ecosystem makes the shark cull shortsighted. As top-level predators, sharks regulate the populations of the marine species they feed on, and “remove the sick, the weak, the injured” said Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia, a marine wildlife advocacy group known for its protests against Japanese whaling.
Remove the sharks, Hansen said, and among other effects, stingray populations will boom, which will lead to depletion of scallop colonies. “You can’t touch one species without affecting the next,” he said.
He noted that great white sharks have been deemed to be at high risk of extinction in the wild since 1996, and that tiger and bull sharks are approaching that status. Great whites in particular are known to range across great distances in the ocean, and their numbers are hard to gauge and slow to recover from depletion, according to Australia’s national science agency.
“What happens in Western Australia does not just affect the population of sharks here,” said Gabriel Vianna, a shark researcher at the University of Western Australia who has protested the cull. He said it would be better to follow an approach being tried in Brazil: taking the large sharks captured by baited lines close to shore and releasing them alive far out at sea.
“From what we have seen in Brazil,” he said, “they don’t come back.”
But Barnett’s government rejects that method. Ken Baston, the state fisheries minister, said in a statement that long trips out to sea to release captured sharks would take vessels away from patrolling the waters near the beaches where they are needed, and that there was no guarantee that relocated sharks would not return.
“We are primarily concerned with public safety,” he said.