Sharing the ocean with a large predator

‘Shark guru’ Blair Ranford. Photograph: Donna Chapman

Original post by Natalie Banks, The Guardian, Australian surfers need to rediscover environmentalism, or more sharks will be killed.

Surfers have a strong affinity with the ocean. They spend more time than most in the Big Blue. Ocean environmentalism in the 1970s actually started with surfers, with the formation of the Bells Beach recreation surfing reserve in Victoria in 1973. It was the first of its kind in the world; back then, surfers joined hands with conservationists.

The WA drum line debate earlier this year saw some surfers turn their backs on the environment and join hands with politicians to kill a marine animal. Irrational fear does tend to bring out the worst in people.

Drum lines, which are effectively meat curtains on hooks, are used to attract sharks in order to capture them. The WA government will not deploy them this summer after an EPA review; that they were ever deployed shows the government thinks luring potentially dangerous sharks closer to shore is a way to improve public safety.

With yet another surfer involved in a shark incident in WA last week, losing a hand and part of an arm, it is blatantly obvious that more needs to be done in the state. Two white pointer sharks – a protected species – were destroyed in response. They have been dissected to discover whether they were responsible for the attack, and the results were inconclusive. Drum lines were never earmarked for the area where this shark incident actually occurred.

surf circle shark
‘As surfers we cannot say we genuinely have a deep respect for the ocean if we support killing over proven non-lethal methods.’ Photograph: Natalie Banks

How we conceive of our relationship with the ocean will lead to how we relate to one of the ocean’s apex predators. Surfer and “shark guru” Blair Ranford, who has called WA home for 12 years, knows that giving respect to the ocean is as just as important as earning it.

“We spend hours on end sitting in the same place, in an environment we have no control over,” he says. “Consequently, we need to acknowledge the reality that there is a chance – albeit a small one – of sharing the ocean with a large predator. As surfers we cannot say we genuinely have a deep respect for the ocean if we support killing over proven non-lethal methods.”

Ranford spoke out against the WA drum line policy, alongside Kelly Slater and surf musician Sam Carmody. To them, the sanctity of the ocean was absolute: when you step into the sea, you step into a wilderness.

“It’s like we’ve lost all feeling for other creatures on some level and I think that’s kind of sad,” Slater said.

Carmody agrees, and believes that the rough wisdom of surfing appears to be fading, in part because of the “almost anti-environmental tone of popular surfing media, which has marked the greatest diversion from surfing’s Morning-of-the-Earth roots, and which is cause for alarm”.

Sharks were seen in the area for the fortnight preceding last week’s incident. If surfers are not given every opportunity to be informed of the marine environment they enter, the system has let them down – and it continues to do so.

A number of surfers in the South-West region of WA were appalled at how close the drum lines were to popular surfing breaks, resulting in a red-faced premier Colin Barnett admitting the surfing community had not been properly consulted.

The public were not informed on key issues during the drum line debate, including that sharks thrashing around on a drum line can attract other sharks who come to do what they do best: act as the doctors of our oceans, to remove weak and diseased marine animals.

Nor were the public consulted on proven shark safety measures that are available right now, including electronic repellents and eco-friendly barriers. Alternative schemes also exist, like a successful 10-year initiative in Cape Town, South Africa, called Shark Spotters, which uses a system of flags and alarms to alert ocean users of a shark in the water.

It wouldn’t be expensive to implement a system similar to inform ocean users of rips, that whales are currently migrating, that there has been an increase in seals seen lately, that cray pots have recently been dropped in the area, or that sharks have recently been seen in the vicinity. Local media could also play a role in informing and educating the community.

Surfers are becoming proactive about their safety. It’s a trend that had to happen eventually. The community are increasingly accepting of deterrents. Electronic devices are being developed that don’t harm sharks – such as Dave Smith’s SurfSafe initiative, which former world tour surfer and surfboard shaper Dave MacAuley has been testing, and the Shark Shield, backed by two-time world champion Tom Carroll.

It would be great to see this go further, with support for shark spotting, educational boards at local beaches and increased tagging and tracking. Such an approach would be better than fear mongering and vengeance. The time to join hands and demand proven solutions to shark incidents is now. Our ocean and our ocean users deserve better.

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