Educational Series: It’s Time to Stop Slaughtering Sharks for ‘Safety’

By Nick Engelfried
Every summer, millions of people head to ocean beaches to surf, swim, fish, or otherwise enjoy the water. For some, there’s nothing more relaxing than a day at the beach. However, what many beach-goers don’t realize is that they may be recreating in proximity to some of the largest and most effective predators evolution has produced: sharks. The reason why most people who visit shark habitat never see or interact with them is simply that sharks generally avoid humans and do their best to stay out of our way. Despite this, they have been persecuted by people for decades.

From catching and killing sharks for shark fin soup, to climate change that disrupts shark habitat and affects the populations of prey species, there are many ways human activities have contributed to the decline of the ocean’s top predators. However, one of the most blatant examples of fear motivating cruelty against a wild animal is shark culling, or the practice of intentionally targeting and killing sharks in areas where people recreate.

While the goal of culling is to prevent potentially dangerous shark encounters, there is little to no evidence that it actually accomplishes this. Meanwhile, targeting species like great white sharks deprives the ocean food web of a predator who plays an essential role in the ecosystem. At a time when sharks and other marine life are under threat as never before, we should not let fear lead to policies that further endanger these mostly-harmless animals.

Last year saw a total of 81 confirmed cases of wild sharks biting humans globally, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File. Of these, 69 were “unprovoked bites,” in which a shark approached a person in the water. The other 22 were provoked attacks, where a shark was actively harassed by a swimmer or fisherperson. Of the unprovoked attacks, only 10 proved fatal to the person involved.

When you consider how many millions of people swim in the oceans every year, it becomes clear that shark attacks are extremely rare–despite the fact that many people recreate in the habitat of some of the largest sharks without even realizing it. The perception that sharks are highly dangerous has been fueled by movies like Jaws, and by the fact that the very small number of attacks that occur tend to attract massive amounts of news coverage. In some parts of the world, hysteria over shark encounters has led policymakers to implement culls in a misguided attempt to assuage the public’s fear.

Some of the most dramatic attempts at shark culling have occurred in Australia–specifically in the states of New South Wales and Queensland, where a series of high-profile shark incidents have fueled widespread panic among the public. In both states, sharks are caught and killed in submerged nets. In Queensland they are also killed on drumlines, devices consisting of floating buoys containing baited hooks. Whether caught in a net or on a drumline, the sharks die slow, painful deaths as they struggle to free themselves. Making matters even worse, sharks are not the only victims who find their way into these death traps.

Between 2012 and 2021, shark nets and drumlines in Queensland waters killed more than 6,400 sharks, as well as over 300 rays, 92 dolphins, and 65 sea turtles. Yet, it is doubtful whether this carnage of sea life has done anything to make people safer. Large sharks like great whites–which are responsible for the majority of serious attacks–are highly migratory, meaning a culling program may inflict massive amounts of misery on sharks and other animals while doing little to change the overall numbers moving through the area. And, because baited drumlines actively attract sharks, they may actually increase the risk of fatal shark-human encounters.

In the United States, shark culling more often takes the form of deadly sporting events like shark-killing contests and tournaments. Approximately 70 such events are held in waters off the U.S. East Coast every year, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of sharks–including imperiled species. While the stated purpose of these contests is mostly recreational, proponents argue that reducing the shark population benefits people. Here, the concern is not so much human fatalities or injuries, but the fact that sharks may reduce fishing yields by “stealing” fish off of hooks. Yet, again, there is little evidence to suggest culling sharks actually results in more successful fisheries.

The fact is that sustaining healthy ocean ecosystems means learning to coexist peacefully with sharks, and encouraging people to avoid unnecessarily risky behaviors is much more effective than culling. After being ruthlessly targeted in the twentieth century–partly by commercial fishers, and partly as a result of Jaws hysteria–great white sharks were protected in U.S. waters in 1994, and their populations have slowly grown in recent years. Yet, the probability of being attacked by this largest of the predatory shark species remains almost infinitesimally low.

Off the coast of California, where great white numbers have increased, the group of people most at risk from attacks are surfers–probably because a surfboard in the waves can occasionally be mistaken for a seal. Yet, according to the organization Shark Stewards, the probability of a surfer in California being bitten by a great white is estimated to be one in 17 million. For people engaged in other beach activities the risk is even lower. That said, there are things anyone can do to minimize the chances of a dangerous shark encounter.

Best practices for swimming safely in shark habitat include going with a group, staying out of the water if you are bleeding or have an open wound, and avoiding unnecessary splashing or erratic behavior. Sharks may also be drawn to murky water, harbors, and stream mouths, so staying away from these areas is a good idea. You can also time your swim so as to avoid windows when sharks are most active; for example, some sharks are more likely to come in close to shore at night or around dawn and dusk. Because species like great whites are migratory, there are certain times of year when they are more likely to be encountered in specific places. For example, in California great whites are most likely to frequent coastal waters in October and November.

While the intent behind shark culling may be to protect people or safeguard recreational activities, the reality is this is an outdated practice that kills thousands of sharks and other marine animals with little or no real benefit. The best way to reduce the already very small chance of having a negative encounter with a shark is to follow safety advice and keep in mind that, just as with any large wild animal, sharks are very unlikely to bother us if they are not provoked.

Photo credit: Samson Bush

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How many confirmed shark bites occurred worldwide in 2023?
What are drumlines?
How many sharks were killed by culling in Queensland waters between 2012-2021?
Which of these animals are caught and killed in nets meant for sharks?
True or false: Only ten verified, unprovoked fatal shark attacks occurred worldwide in 2023
In which month are you most likely to encounter a great white shark off of California?
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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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