Should We Kill Sharks to Save Humans?

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Sorta transcript:

It may be blizzarding this week on the East Coast, but here in California it’s basically summer, and I could not be happier. Summer means more time outside hiking, biking, and swimming, some of my personal favorite activities. It also means surfing, though to be fair, winter also means surfing, because surfers are insane and anyway here on the Pacific Ocean, the water temperature doesn’t really change that much. It goes from “Holy mother of god that’s cold” to “why would anyone subject themselves to this cold”. As an East Coaster who grew up watching shows like BayWatch, I found this very confusing when I arrived, but it’s true. The Pacific is cold, you guys.

But still, the summertime means more people will be jumping into the ocean, regardless of how cold it is, and that means there’s an increased chance of contact with the ocean’s tenants, including sharks.

In warmer areas and places where it’s already summer, there have already been some incidences. La Reunion Island is a small patch of land in the Indian Ocean where there have been 20 violent shark-human encounters in the past six years. Reunion was famous for its waves and producing world-class surfers, but now most residents don’t take the risk of even going for a quick swim.

Kelly Slater, probably one of the most famous surfers in the world, recently called for a shark cull after a young bodyboarder was killed by a shark in Reunion. Essentially, Slater thinks that we should kill a large number of tiger and bull sharks in the hopes of reducing the chances they will kill humans who are paddling around in their home.

This is complete and utter bullshit. Shark culls do virtually nothing to safeguard humans, mostly because of how incredibly rare shark-human encounters are. Reunion is considered a death trap, and yet there’s only been about one death per year. And killing all the local sharks doesn’t mean that more sharks won’t come, since these species can travel vast distances over open ocean.

To actually solve the problem, you need to look at why it’s a problem in the first place. Just 120 miles away lies a very similar island called Mauritius, where the tourist industry is booming and shark encounters are unheard of — there hasn’t been an attack there since the 1980s. Researchers studying the differences between the two islands have found a few reasons for the increase in shark encounters in La Reunion. For a start, overfishing: depleting the sharks’ food supply around Reunion forces them to push in closer to the beaches looking for food.

That’s something we can fix through better conservation efforts and tighter controls on commercial fishing operations.

Other things are out of our control, like the fact that the good surfing waves break over reef on Reunion, compared to sandy beach break on Mauritius. Sharks are more likely to be actively hunting for food over the reef, and hence more likely to bite at floppy meaty things. And at that point we just need to accept that the ocean is where sharks live, and sharks are an essential part of the ecosystem. We can’t just get rid of them because they happen to be hunting in a place where we want to play on a chunk of foam.

Kelly Slater should get this, since he’s been involved in conservation efforts for years. Unfortunately, he seems to be letting his emotions cloud his better judgement, which frankly isn’t that surprising because he’s also a 9/11 truther. No one will probably listen to his feelings on that topic, but they might listen to him on shark culls because of his status as a legendary surfer. And that’s dangerous — shark culls don’t make humans any safer, they just endanger our fragile ocean ecosystems. Better to just go surf somewhere else.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. Rebecca Watson,

    The only way to eliminate shark attacks completely would be to kill every single shark, and that wouldn’t be a good idea either.

  2. Even if a shark cull would effectively save human lives, and even if it wouldn’t be an ecological disaster, it would be complete bullshit. Sharks have the right to the ocean because it’s where they live their entire lives, and for humans to kill the sharks for what amounts to the ability to more safely play in it would be utterly despicable.

    Forget about science (I am a scientist), treating the world like it’s ours to modify as we see fit without regard for the right of other creatures is a truly disgusting attitude and one that will get us into trouble in all kinds of ways. This Slater guy should eat a dick.

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