The ethics of shark culling

A shark swims with fish

Sharks are the subject of a divisive community debate. Image: Steve Garner

Should the WA government kill sharks to protect swimmers?

To contextualise this discussion the facts in brief are as follows:

There have been 11 fatal shark attacks in WA since 20003 fatal attacks occurred in less than 3 months during 2011.

Fatal shark attacks cause great suffering to the deceased (presuming they weren’t killed instantly), and to their loved ones.

The Premier of Western Australia Colin Barnett believes that “[The] mood of the community has probably hardened, particularly among surfers [and] beach-goers…the protection of human life comes first.”

The Western Australian government has ordered that baited lines be deployed within shark kill zones between September and April. Sharks that are over 3 metres will be killed.

Protests in WA and throughout Australia have expressed anger at the decision by the WA government.

How do we weigh up the different ‘goods’ that come from shark culling? 

On the one hand killing sharks may result in less human death or injury. If we accept that Premier Barnett’s assertion that “human life comes first” is the sole criteria for the decision then all sharks capable of killing a human being should be killed.

Clearly that position is problematic because not all sharks capable of killing a human actually commit the act.

This is a view shared by thousands. Protesters rejected the “human life comes first” approach arguing that the cull “goes against all available science.”

According to this line of reasoning large sharks deserve special treatment especially because they are apex predators. As such  they are important for the health and balance of the ecosystems in which they live. If too many are killed then the ocean’s ecosystem might collapse.

But the apex predator argument is not without problems of it’s own. Should all apex predators be treated as protected? Should a farmer in Africa lay down his gun while a lion eats his first born? Or should Grizzly bears be allowed to wander unchecked  through suburban Alaska and snack on slow moving old people?

In these circumstances killing an apex predator would be justified on the basis that the harm caused to the environment by the death of the lion or bear would be more than outweighed by the reduction of harm to the humans involved.

So the fact of being an apex predator provides sharks with no greater protection than it gives the lion or bear. 

That is unless you argue that the lion and the bear are on the human’s turf. This line of reasoning goes that if an apex predator should stray into the human’s patch then the human has the right to defend itself.

On the surface that argument sounds plausible but it fails to address where the human’s patch starts and finish. 

Does it finish at a person’s boundary fence? At the limits of their town or suburb? 1 kilometre into into the bush or ocean?

Without a clear demarkation the argument is contested over ownership of territory.

How then are we to settle think through this issue.

One position that survives the move from farm or neighbourhood into the water is the ethical position to maximise the ‘goods’ available to the human.

That means weighing up the benefits of a short-term defence of human life against providing humans with a sense that they’ve accounted for the the long-term needs of humans to live in a stable ecosystem.

To answer this conundrum we need to ask: Is the taking the life of a shark (or sharks) justified in order to potentially save the life of a human being?

Or, to pose the question in a different way: Are we duty bound to defend human life or the longterm balance of the ecosystem?

My position on the shark cull

Will the death of a shark or sharks cause any longterm instability in the ecosystem?

Outside of some breathless pseudo-environmental arguments that posit the impending collapse of the ocean’s ecosystem I’ve not seen or read anything that compels me to form the view that the shark cull will cause any long term damage.

Without being burdened by the environmental issue I need only address this issue on the merits of the short term good that comes from the protection of human life.

It’s tempting to stop there but I’m of the view that the end doesn’t justify the means.

Recalling our lion and bear examples the killing of both is clearly a defensive measure. The suffering of a human is reduced or eliminated by the action of shooting the animal.

The same cannot be said about killing sharks. They are killed because of their size and proximity to a populated beach, not because of their perceived intention to gnaw on a human.

Whereas the regrettable act of killing the lion or bear could be rationalised by self defence the same can’t be said about the killing of a shark. The act of killing is a step or two or ten too far removed from the need for defence. Therefore, the killing of sharks can’t be justified on the basis of self defence.

Indeed I find the nexus between killing sharks and the protection of human life so tenuous as to be indefensible. It is my view that the cull can survive little more than the slightest of critiques that it’s a politically motivated stunt.

That being the case I’m left with no alternative but to oppose the cull.