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End of the line

It’s half past five in the morning and the sun is yet to rise over Hillarys harbour. Bleary-eyed, we walk to meet our hosts at the boat ramp. Someone comes out of the dim dawn light to greet us, and before long we are on a boat, leaving dry land behind. We head straight out of the harbour just before sunrise. A large moon is reflected on the wake from a passing boat as we navigate the heads. The plan for today is to see exactly what the West Australian shark cull looks like up close. We leave the harbour in a donated boat, fuelled by crowd-funded petrol. The question must be asked: why do this? Why wake early to hop in a tiny boat and follow a Western Australian Fisheries vessel around the Perth coast?

To find answers to these questions, we have tagged along with a couple of volunteers – Laura and Blair – who are keen to show us the reality of the shark cull.

Before we head too far out to sea, however, the specifics of the shark cull in Western Australia must be explained.

After 4 shark attacks in 2013 (1 fatal) and 5 in 2012 (2 fatal), the West Australian (WA) government, led by Premier Colin Barnett, implemented a shark cull trial by way of 72 drum-lines strategically positioned one kilometre off the most popular beaches in WA. This is a similar policy to the one used in Queensland for decades without much in the way of protest, yet here in WA there has been a strong backlash against the government for this policy. What do we make of this? Who is protesting and what are their motives for doing so?

Blair and Laura are not what we expected; Blair is a FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) control supervisor who also volunteers in South Africa tracking sharks for academic research. Laura, an early retiree who is originally from Scotland, plans to one-day sail around the world with her young family. Two successful people from different backgrounds find themselves on a boat, close to Scarborough Beach, watching the sunrise with drum-lines in the distance.

As we approach our first drum-lines, Laura and Blair are on edge. They are not here to stop the cull, nor to interfere. They are here merely to monitor how WA Fisheries carries out the culling and to publicise it to a wider audience. There is a real sense of how powerless they are, as there are 50 metre exclusion zones surrounding the drum-lines. If Laura and Blair spot a shark and the Fisheries vessel is not around, they call them. They then wait for the Fisheries vessel to assess the catch, although they say the fisheries vessel can sometimes take hours to respond.

As we did not see a captured shark, we cannot comment on their response times.

There have been recent instances of activists sabotaging the drum-lines, although our hosts are adamant these people are not affiliated with the monitoring crews and that they are acting independently of their cause to peacefully monitor the shark cull.

“It’s usually pretty easy to see when a shark is on the hook,” Blair says as he scans the drum lines, “A shark in distress tends to get the lines wound around each other and the drums end up touching as opposed to a few metres away.” In this instance the lines are clear, and so we head south towards the next batch of drum-lines.

By monitoring the Fisheries activities and publishing photos of the culling on social media, Blair and Laura hope to pressure the government to stop the shark cull.  It is clear that both Laura and Blair have a deep concern about the politicisation of shark attacks; it’s their belief that justification for culling sharks so close to shore is lacking in scientific research, and is more of a reactionary policy rather than substantive one.

Mobile phones are vital in communication between the volunteers. Today we are one of three boats, all in constant contact. Laura calls Jake, another volunteer who has been actively patrolling the lines since the shark cull began.

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Jake launches his boat from Fremantle at the same time as the Fisheries vessel, shadowing it along the coast. The PV Hamelin appears in the distance; it is a vessel usually used for research purposes, but which has now been tasked with the cull. It operates over a 12-hour shift from 6am to 6pm. At 20 metres in length, the Hamelin is larger than I imagined, and it dwarfs our small speedboat.

We meet up with the small volunteer vessel, which is named after a character in an animated film. We are oblivious to this fact. “You mustn’t have any children then?” Laura says with a wry grin. The crew on this boat looks to be in their mid-40s. Adorned with small Sea Shepherd stickers, the little skiff appears to be new; we were told the main reason for purchasing it was to monitor the shark cull.

Over the next few hours, we monitor the southern drum-lines running from Port Beach to Trigg, with no captured sharks in sight. During this time, Blair spotted a small hammerhead shark close to the boat, and noted it was likely too small to be hooked on the drum-line.

With fuel running low, we head back to Hillarys, along the way meeting Jake’s vessel again. They have not seen anything either. From what we are told this is unusual, and only the day before two sharks were caught and killed. There is a sense of relief as we pass the last drum-lines in Mullaloo and find them clear.

After disembarking, we meet with Laura’s husband Andy, who is keen to discuss the merits of the monitoring operation. He, like Blair, Laura, and numerous other volunteers, has a strong conviction that this is a policy without merit, but rather one where politicians have reacted to a sensationalist media.

“It’s so wrong,” he says with passion in his voice, “I want them to stop killing the sharks first and foremost, and implement a more rigorous process to assess the shark cull.” When we ask why they are monitoring the Fisheries vessel, Andy is quick to point out that, “no one is out there to document the situation.”

Without actually seeing a shark culled, we cannot comment on that process. It is impossible to say what impact this may have had on us. From what we are told, even with the Fisheries department following protocol, the process of culling a shark is not clear-cut. “They are a huge animal that is not easy to kill,” says Andy speaking of a large Tiger shark he saw culled. “The shark was shot three times in the head to kill it.”

As of the 17th of March, the drum-lines have captured 72 sharks in the metro area and 37 in the southwest. For the metro beaches, 8 were found dead on the lines, 51 were released and 13 culled. In the southwest, 6 were found dead, 12 released and 18 culled, with one self-release. No great white sharks have been captured so far, with the overwhelming majority of those captured being tiger sharks.

There are conflicting views as to the effectiveness of drum-lines, with experts disagreeing on the policy and the public is seemingly far from satisfied. We ended the day with more questions than answers: how much data is currently being collected in this cull? Could it be bringing more sharks close to shore? Is this the new norm off Perth’s beaches? Is this a rushed policy?

One day on a boat is far from enough to comprehend the shark cull in its entirety. What is certain, however, is that tomorrow the sun will rise again over the dark harbours. As long as the Fisheries vessel is heading out, so too will the volunteers.

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Disclaimer: Pallet Media (a part owner of FLINT Magazine) donated $20 towards the fuel for todays monitoring activities. 

Jake Edwards is the Art Director at FLINT and Director of Pallet Media, based in Perth, Australia. 

James Knox is Editor-in-Chief of FLINT, based in Perth, Australia.

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