14 September, 2012 14 September, 2012

To Cull or Not To Cull

More questions than answers, More rage than reason, More politics than science – Zag scribe Anton Lowe gives his take on the situation.

Both Western Australia (WA) and Reunion have seen a drastic increase in shark incidents since the beginning of last year. To a lesser extent, the Seychelles also had a few bloody moments, and so did Egypt. Reunion saw seven incidents including three fatalities since that start of 2011. WA has suffered six attacks and five fatalities over the last 12 months. These are way above normal. In Reunion, it’s thought to be Bull (Zambezi) sharks and the Great Whites assume the blame in WA. It is worth noting that although these are all taking place in the same ocean, it’s highly unlikely that the same mechanism is triggering them across vast distances, and amongst different species. And an El Nino/La Nina pattern has been ruled out.

Studying sharks and attacks is a slow and patient science. They don’t give up their secrets easily, which is probably part of our fascination with them. One thing we have learned is that they tend to come in spates. Whether this is due to people avoiding the water, or the sharks then avoiding those peopled areas is unclear. In studying attacks, we tend to learn more about human behaviour than shark behaviour.

About 300 people (mostly surfers) gathered in front of the Prefecture building in Saint-Denis late July to call for the culling of sharks off Reunion island following the recent spate of attacks.

So, in looking at the reactions in both Reunion and West Oz, we can learn something and hopefully apply lessons better here. Also, what they’ve been going through far surpasses events in the Cape. To put in perspective, it’s a bit like those two places undergoing The Natal’s Black December of 1957. Our response then to that was to create a system of shark nets which last to this day. But, much has changed since then in terms of our understanding of the ocean and in how we use it.

When looking at the human reaction, it’s interesting to see how the authorities have responded. In Reunion, 300 angry surfers picketed the mayor’s office. “This is an important opportunity to voice our outrage and to demand that real steps are taken to stop this massacre.” said one local surfer. Another said, “We made this gathering so that the prefecture is beginning to listen to us, and we can find solutions to the overpopulation of sharks.” That last line ‘overpopulation’ of sharks needs some clarification. If your top order predators are ‘over’ populating an ecosystem, you’re probably on the brink of a catastrophic collapse.

That said; only in the most remote, isolated reefs in the world have biologists found what could be considered an ‘abnormal’ proportion of sharks. But, then it would only seem like that because the ‘normal’ reefs that have been studied previously have been impacted by humans. A pristine reef has loads of hungry sharks, and just enough very nervous fish to sustain them. To have an abundance of sharks, as is being claimed, would be tremendous feather in the cap for local conservation. More likely, sharks are fleeing other overfished areas – so it’s both push and pull. To open shark fishing removes sharks from the immediate area, and probably only creates space for more sharks to enter. Carry on, and soon you’ve exhausted the supply of this slow growing keystone species. Having said all that, the sudden rash of these attacks may indicate something else is at play.

Hawaiian big wave charger Mark Healey has a good understanding of one of the ocean’s apex predators. Here he hitches a ride with a Great White during filming of a recent documentary.

It is also very disheartening to see surfers calling for shark hunting. The popular image of surfing has us at one with nature. With this going on, we’re more Captain Ahab, than Jacques Cousteau.

Mayor Thierry Robert opened hunting on Bull sharks “by any means, including spearfishing, day and night”. I want to meet the guy who is willing to spearfish Bull Sharks at night. Actually, no, I’d rather not meet that guy. Yet, the mayor was forced to go back on this when it turns out his decision to allow shark hunting in a protected area contravened French law. Although, some reports say he had this overruled. Either way, there’s more politics going on here than science. This is more about appeasing humans, than protecting them.

Moving over to WA, although tempers aren’t flaring as much, there are still rash calls. Amongst them are calls for culling or the reassessment of the Great Whites endangered status. In July, Norman Moore, WA fisheries minister saw the allocation of around R120 million extra for shark research in the hope that a better understanding of sharks can minimise attacks. To put that in perspective, our researchers were thrilled when Ocearch stumped up R20 million here.

He went on to say, “I wonder if research might tell us that there are now a much greater number of Great Whites than ever before, and maybe we should look at whether they should remain a protected species.” Experts are very sceptical about that statement. Scientists are naturally opposed to a cull, and personally I reckon the mere mention of it is to placate the public, and it’s not really on the cards. The media has trumped it up, because ‘shark cull’ in a headline is bound to attract attention.

Interestingly, the WA government has ruled out nets like we have here in KZN and they have in certain places in Queensland. Public opinion of shark nets have changed over the last few years with more people becoming aware of the damage inflicted on an ecosystem when sharks are removed from it, not to mention the collateral deaths of more charismatic sea creatures such as whales, dolphins and turtles. What we can learn from that is that Australians have a stronger sense of animal welfare now, than South Africans did in the 50s. When we hold the mirror up to ourselves, we should ask how much our sentiment has changed in the interim. The recent paddle-out for slain sharks on the South Coast indicates that it has, even if just on the margins. And we can’t get all holier-than-though towards the Reunionese either, as we’ve at least been passively supporting indiscriminate shark culling for decades.

KZN South Coast resident Olivia Symcox shows a dead ray tangled in the shark nets during the recent paddle out/protest against shark nets.

Looking to the future, perhaps this is just a spate, and things will return to normal soon. But, if they continue, the underlying cause needs to be uncovered. If it turns out to be a signature of environmental damage (i.e. depleted fish stocks), then conservationists and surfers can align. But if, as is being proposed, this is being caused by a revival of the environment, then things will get very interesting.

Here’s a parting question to mull over: Would you sacrifice your safety or even surfing entirely and be happy about it knowing the ocean is better off, or would you choose to carry on surfing in an unhealthy, suffering sea?

Disclaimer: (Because, sjoh, this topic is sensitive)

  • There is nothing here that involves the great (white) chumming debate. That attacks are taking place in areas without cage-diving does not vindicate nor support the pro-chumming side (if they can be called that, and to which I suppose I belong). We take all these cases on their own merit.
  • Also, for this article, we attempted to contact local researchers, but were unsuccessful. As such, this story is based on other media reports and opinion.
  • And I’m away for the week, so unfortunately won’t be able to respond to comments. So, be sure to be extra vicious and personal.


  1. Reuben Jensen
    14 September, 2012 at 10:13 am · Reply

    Wow, its a tough subject thats for sure. Mostly because its “the science of everything”

  2. Dylan L
    14 September, 2012 at 12:06 pm · Reply

    A great article Anton. The current spat of shark attacks and sitings poses some very real realities that if us, as human beings, no matter what shoreline we call our local break, will find being effected by the human intervention which as us humans are so famous for.

    Sitting in the surf yesterday at a local spot here in Durbs, with one other surfer out with me. I find the shark “thought” running through my head a lot more often these days than what I can remember in the past.

    There has to be some reason why the sharks are gathering in more concentrated numbers or why shark sitings and attacks are becoming more of a frequent news heading on our surf blogs and news sites.

    Being a surfer myself I don’t think shark culling is the answer. It might be a quick fix but we’ll just end up damaging something in the domino effect that is the food chain.

    Lets not forget that we “land mammals” have ventured into the sea’s and abused it with over fishing, destroying coral reefs, dumping, oil spills and the list goes on…I can’t help but think that this is not just a freak coincidence of increased attacks and sitings and that it surely is the direct effect of the human footprint that has so vastly increased over the years.

    I’m no environmentalist or hippy flower child prepared to dance around for the savoir of the sharks or their “feelings” 🙂 but we need to find out why this is happening and fix it, before shark attacks become so frequent that a new question begins to appear in our medical aid applications just under the “do you smoke question” that increases our premiums or exempts medical aids from paying in case of shark attacks.

    Besides the obvious of actually being eaten by another animal…

  3. Tiny Peggs
    14 September, 2012 at 12:35 pm · Reply

    It will be a very sad day when or if this ever takes place. Sharks are there for a reason just like a lion an elephant, a giraffe, a blue bottle and even a tadpole, the list goes on. We might not know it now but we will later thanks to those men and woman doing the pain staking job of finding out how and why.

    Sharks just like any other wild animal and knows no better, thats why they called “wild animals/mammels”. We are intruding in their ocean, man was not made to surf although some of think we were “born” to surf.Leave the sharks alone but rather we should kull all the criminals who deleberatly break into houses, steal our cars, rape the woman and even kill, we tolerate that. WHY?

    Leave the sharks alone and find solutions so we ALL can enjoy a day in the surf.

  4. Boep
    14 September, 2012 at 12:37 pm · Reply

    Stuffin’ Japanese and Chinese are overfishing the entire effen ocean causing sharks all the world to go hungry. Our navy and fellow african navy’s must blow these poo heads right out the water anytime they set foot in our territories….. This will lead to more fish, less hungry sharks, more fun in the sun for surfers and their stekkies…

  5. Shark751
    14 September, 2012 at 1:48 pm · Reply

    cull, cull, cull!!

  6. Kevin
    14 September, 2012 at 2:46 pm · Reply

    @Shark751, nice to see you adding to the discussion.

    My personal feelings involving the subject? Well, I’ve come to accept the fact that because of the threat sharks pose, there’s always going to be a risk of losing a limb, or even worse, dying, each time I go surfing.

    But then if you think about it, that threat doesn’t just come from sharks; it also comes from some other kook in the lineup stabbing you with his board ’cause he’s out of control, or simply just falling wrong on a hectic take-off over a shallow sandbank. Or drowning?

    But that’s just in the water. I also have to drive through rush hour traffic to get to the beach and fit in a surf during winter’s short days. I don’t know about you, but I kak myself just about every time I  drive anywhere these days. Okes are reckless – me included sometimes. Yet we choose to share the roadways with the other cowboys anyway.

    I could go on, but you should get the idea. My point is that sharks are just another risk associated with pursuing my passion for surfing. Either I choose to go surfing because I feel the rewards are worth the risk, or I take up golf, tennis or some other low risk activity.

    But to damage this already screwed up planet’s oceans and marine life just  to lower my risks of getting injured, now that is out of the question.

    That’s greedy and primitive thinking.

    At least that’s what I think…

  7. Mattyv1989
    14 September, 2012 at 5:01 pm · Reply

    Let’s kill them, c’mon. I’ll even open my own shark restuarant; shark burgers, shark pizza, medium rare shark or just plain medium. I’ll organize hunting trips for tourists to catch one of the big buggers. Let’s go kill some sharks, hoora!

  8. OJ Symcox
    15 September, 2012 at 5:44 am · Reply

    Surfers that want to kill any marine life in order to “feel safe” do not deserve the privilege of being in the ocean. It is a wilderness environment, it is not a space that you can control and that is the beauty of being in the ocean. If you don’t like it, stick to wavepools please, you won’t find dolphins, rays, turtles, bluebottles, sharks or anything else that adds to the experience of spending time in the sea. 

  9. Lynne
    15 September, 2012 at 6:08 am · Reply

    If we are going to start culling sharks because of a few attacks then why are we not culling humans who murder rape and hurt our loved ones everyday. Surely this is a greater problem. Sharks are easy to understand. You all surf and swim when they are there far more than u realize. Want to stop the attacks in reunion then stop fish farming. Sharks eat fish so if u chum or have fish farms in a surf area sharks are then in eating mode. Culling sharks is ignorant human brain .

    • Wazza
      13 December, 2013 at 11:17 pm · Reply

      Some countries still have death sentences. Would you support culling in SA waters if the govt reinstated the death penalty? Your Reunion observations are way off. Read an article about the real situation on the reefs in Reunion and you will see they have established that these Zambezi sharks have eaten pretty much everything they can get. You understand that this is a major localized reef imbalance and the apex predator population needs to be regulated in order for a supporting base of cartilaginous and bony fish population to repopulate the reef and provide a viable food source for this apex group.

      Sharks are extremely misunderstood…each species extraordinarily complex…I do support your statement where you say there are a lot more sharks than you realize. Indications based upon research and observations…largely in three countries suggests improvements in coastal shark species numbers. Those sharks venturing into open international fishing waters are unfortunately not as lucky as those species to whom special protection has been afforded.

  10. Spencer
    15 September, 2012 at 6:25 am · Reply

    Lynne and OJ have pretty much summed up all I would have said on the subject.All I would add is that the ocean is their environment and we are encroaching on it by over fishing, dumping our waste in it etc. Culling sharks is wrong, FACT!!

    • Wazza
      13 December, 2013 at 11:22 pm · Reply

      Overfishing, dumping our waste in the ocean, etc are sadly not as important as the protection of sharks to you? Culling is a necessary evil required to regulate certain species of shark, not all sharks. Once you protect the ocean, achieving this through a number of means, none of which people would likely want to support is when balance will be established and when this happens the need to cull in order to regulate populations will be negated…and you will be happy 🙂

  11. Geo
    15 September, 2012 at 6:26 am · Reply

    Sincerely hope sanity will prevail…but then again sanity is not a good trade mark of the human race:(

    Are the sharks REALLY the problem or is it the lack of education? From what I have learned the incidents which took place in Reunion Island were at surf spots which is questionable with regards to safety if you have an understanding of what attract sharks.
    I have been to Reunion and think its a STUNNING Island, please o please don’t let this piece of paradise become the scene of another senseless and brutal killing spree. Remember the Dodo, when the last one got killed, that was the end of them, now you only have wooden sculptures to show of what would have been a beautiful animal to see alive. Let us, as surfers and ocean lovers, for once show that we humans are capable to learn form past mistakes!

  12. Bella Bones
    15 September, 2012 at 8:20 am · Reply

    I always thought surfers were *defending* our oceans … This is so wrong on so many levels. If they are only interested in skimming the surface without love for a wild environment then maybe they should start building “wave pools” for them … I hope there are some “true” surfers left in WA … Sad …

  13. Shark751
    15 September, 2012 at 4:20 pm · Reply

    Kill Kill Kill!!  We should do the same with criminals!!  If a dog bites humans he gets put down.  Cull the sharks!!  The ocean is out of balance so whats right aboutprotecting only one species???  Cull the bastards!!

  14. Debbiegramer
    15 September, 2012 at 6:47 pm · Reply

    You want to enjoy the privlege of surfing  but without the sharks our eco system will shut down, killing the ocean as we know it.   So you are cutting off your nose to spite your face,  but unfortunately  the sharks will suffer before you realize what you have done.  Without the sea their is no you and me

    • Wazza
      13 December, 2013 at 11:30 pm · Reply

      Debbie, have you seen what happens when you leave elephants to do as they please in an area…you guessed it…they completely destroy the area and leave the habitat in a state of ruin. Culling of elephants was reestablished in certain areas in order to protect these environments under management after a moratorium against culling was internationally enacted. The same problem has developed but this time in the ocean with the bull sharks in Reunion. Culling is the last option in conservation but it is unfortunately a necessary evil. Balance needs to be established and managed.

  15. Sieben Stern
    15 September, 2012 at 6:52 pm · Reply

    So what made surfing a protected sport where there can be no injuries?  They take that risk when they enter the water.  If they’re not prepared for that then they should stay out instead of asking for empty waters.

    OOPS i want to do yoga on the Serengeti plain… gotta cull all the lions and elephants!  derp derp.

    • Wazza
      14 December, 2013 at 4:11 am · Reply

      It may surprise you that lions are actually culled in cases where they attack people within national parks and reserves. Kruger has killed a number of lions attributed to killings of illegal immigrants crossing the border, as have rangers in the Serengeti where lions have attacked surrounding villagers….and elephants and back on by culling list in order manage ecosystem to the benefit of the entire communities of plants and animals relying on a healthy functioning environment.

  16. Cameron Johnston
    16 September, 2012 at 10:52 am · Reply

    It’s no secret that in our oceans most shark species are almost all either already critically endangered or rapidly heading that way. Recent research shows that Great White populations have crashed by around 80% and Bull Shark or Zambezi numbers by as much as 99% over the last 40 years. In fact, in the last year there have been numerous reports suggesting that the total world population of Great Whites could be as low as only 3500 animals.

    Unfortunately in today’s world, surfers and these apex predators seem drawn to the same waters, as is the case with  Western Australia, Cape Town and Southern California to name a few, and for the most part they manage to coexist very well considering the rapidly increasing number of people using the oceans and the total number of hours we have bathers and surfers in the home environments of these fish.The increase in number of “attacks” needs to be viewed as a symptom of a bigger problem and not as the problem itself as the article indicates. 

    We are, after all invading their natural environment, and we have to realise that without them in that environment, the oceans that we all love and enjoy, would soon become unusable to us. There have been numerous studies globally on environments where sharks populations have been all but destroyed and what has happened in almost every case, is that once these Apex predators have been taken out of the equation,  the numbers of other lesser predators such as skates and rays, which ordinarily form part of the shark diet, have increased significantly and these have then decimated populations of other organisms like shellfish which also sustain a variety of reef fish species. Once the balance has been tipped by the removal of sharks these ecosystems soon collapse.

    The bottom line is our oceans are in a terrible state and every single shark needs to be protected if they are to survive. Already great patches of the worlds seas are devoid of any animal life besides jellyfish. Any cull will result in the deaths of not only these already very threatened species but of countless other sharks as was seen in the recent cull in the Seychelles in 2011. As it is sharks in South African waters are already hammered by the indiscriminate killing nets of the Natal Sharks Board.

    Its the responsibility of every beach user to understand the risks of entering the water, and if these risks seem unacceptable then yes, definitely rather stick to pools and safer environments.

    • Wazza
      14 December, 2013 at 4:03 am · Reply

      Can you share some of your sources verifying 80 and 99% reductions in GWS and Zambezi populations? Shark research wasn’t undertaken in any effective manner. Does the research include shark populations around the Niger Delta, along the coast of Bangladesh, throughout the waters of Brazil, northern Japan and the Kamkatcha Peninsula. I have not come across a research paper trying to establish shark populations in these regions. Therefore since data was poor and only collected from small regions throughout the vast ocean we can establish that the past and present numbers are just guesses. We know the is considerable pressure on certain oceanic shark species while the population of other species seem to be growing in regions conducting research where protection has been afforded to these species.

      The bottom line should be the protection of the marine environment, not the protection of one species to the detriment of another. At some stage protected species numbers within certain regions have to be managed, this for the good of an environment dealing with the impacts of human activity.

  17. Twig
    16 September, 2012 at 12:50 pm · Reply

    Cull humans…

  18. Beth
    17 September, 2012 at 7:30 am · Reply

    We are in the shark’s territory and we choose to enter their domain. How dare people even think that we have the right to cull sharks in their own territory. The issue of why shark attacks are increasing is an extremely complex one and it’s devastating and  distressing that some people are stupid enough to think that the mass slaughtering of sharks is a solution. 

    • Wazza
      14 December, 2013 at 4:07 am · Reply

      Ease up on the hysteria, no one is advocating mass slaughter, rather population management in order to maintain a healthy functioning populations of certain shark species within certain local geographic areas.

  19. Russ
    17 September, 2012 at 7:43 am · Reply

    You step into the ocean and you step into another world. One that does not belong to us humans but that of marine life. We do what we do and the risks are there. Why does man want to kill something when it doesnt suit him? Who gives us such a right to do so? What happens when things change for the negative or when all our marine life is gone? I agree with Lynne and OJ.
    To all those kooks who want to cull, go find a wavepool or take up river rafting.
    I can certainly think of many people in this crime riddled country of ours that need to be culled as well.
    Leave our oceans alone!!

  20. Fiona
    17 September, 2012 at 10:47 am · Reply

    Humans are already “culling” sharks by the millions to feed the asian market! To start killing off even more because you dont feel comfortable in THEIR environment if they are present just indicates how arrogant and stupid people really are

  21. Erle Vaughan
    18 September, 2012 at 4:10 am · Reply

    Killing sharks for our own pleasure is lank selfish and quite sick

  22. Emchowicz
    18 September, 2012 at 5:05 pm · Reply

    one of the best articles Ive seen on this subject !

  23. Emchowicz
    18 September, 2012 at 7:59 pm · Reply

    this “cull ” word is rediculous let cut the BS and use the right words “cull”= “slaughter of animals mainly for human convenience and greed”

    • Wazza
      13 December, 2013 at 11:05 pm · Reply

      When environments are imbalanced there are methods employed to slowly rebalance the system. Without wildlife management the supporting ecosystem is destroyed by this top heavy population.
      It seems you support environmental degradation and destruction at the expense of saving a number of the apex consumers at the top of the pyramid…without the supporting base all the sharks you wish to save from culling die.

  24. Llewelly Whittaker
    20 September, 2012 at 7:52 pm · Reply

    cull them, great white attacks will increase if we dont

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