A scientific study of great white shark numbers could be used by the government to justify delisting the species as threatened or ordering a cull despite international treaty obligations, the Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson has warned.
Whish-Wilson, who is chairing a committee inquiring into shark mitigation and deterrence, has accused the Liberals of politicising recent deaths in Western Australia, including that of 17-year old Laeticia Brouwer through their calls to end protection of great whites.
The WA Liberal state council has passed a motion calling on the federal government to allow the killing of great whites and the issue will be debated at the Liberals’ federal council in Sydney in June.
In an interview with ABC Radio in Perth on Thursday, the environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, noted that before great whites could be delisted, he would need advice from his department’s threatened species scientific committee.
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Frydenberg said he was “getting the ball rolling” and was “very pleased” to get advice from the committee and the CSIRO to assess great white numbers on the east and west coast.
The CSIRO’s work is under way and it is expected to report later this year. Frydenberg said he would try “to accelerate it as fast as possible”.
But he highlighted another potential roadblock: the Conventions for the Conservation of Migratory Species, a UN treaty protecting the sharks, which required two-thirds of voting members to change.
“It’s a very complicated step, and in fact it’s indeed a two-step process to remove the great white sharks from the [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation] Act, and it will take some time and it would need to be based on scientific evidence,” he said.
Whish-Wilson said Australia needed a population study to determine the number of great white sharks, but he the “recent politicisation of tragic shark incidents” suggested the study could be used to justify dropping their protected status.
He hoped the UN convention would be an effective roadblock but said there was “always a risk” Frydenberg could attempt to pull Australia out of it. He acknowledged Frydenberg might just be “playing the politics with his own party on this” by using the convention as an excuse not to remove protection.
Whish-Wilson said the study could be used by the government to claim the need for a cull of thousands of sharks as an “interim measure”, using any recovery in numbers to conduct a cull while claiming not to breach international obligations.
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A spokesman for Frydenberg ruled out pulling out of the UN convention.
“Any change to the listing of great white sharks would need to be based on scientific evidence,” Frydenberg said. “It would not be appropriate to preempt the process which involves the CSIRO studying numbers and any recommendations by the independent scientific committee.”
In his ABC interview, he called on the West Australian government to take more “immediate action” by putting in drumlines and nets to deal with sharks, something the McGowan government has ruled out.
Whish-Wilson said shark culling programs did not improve safety, and drumlines and nets were not feasible, especially in remote locations where surfers had been attacked. He advocated the use of deterrent devices, such as “shark shields” that send out electric currents around a surfer’s board.
“I think we’re at a real turning point – people don’t want to see sharks harmed, but they want to achieve beach safety properly and sustainably.”
The Senate committee will hear from the CSIRO and the environment department. It will report by 30 June.