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Australia: More than 170 sharks caught under controversial cull program

By Sophie Brown, CNN
updated 8:17 AM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some 50 large sharks killed under culling scheme in Australia's largest state
  • Western Australia government says the program helps improve beach safety and adds to scientific research
  • According to conservationists, there is no evidence the policy has been successful
  • The Western Australia government wants to extend the program for three more years

(CNN) -- The Western Australian government caught 172 sharks, and killed 50 of the largest animals, as part of a culling program that has sparked anger among conservationists.

The three-month program, which ended last week, used baited lines attached to floating drums to catch sharks off popular beaches in Western Australia following a spate of fatal shark attacks in waters off the state in recent years.

The scheme, which was part of the state's $20 million shark mitigation policy, allowed for tiger, bull and great white sharks measuring longer than 10 feet (3 meters) hooked on the drum lines to be destroyed.

Some 50 tiger sharks longer than 10 feet were killed between January 25 and April 30. The largest one, which measured 14.8 feet (4.5 meters), was caught in February off Perth's Floreat beach.

Not the right culprits?

But none of the creatures captured were great white sharks, the species believed to be responsible for most of the recent fatal attacks in Western Australia, which have left seven people dead in the past three years.

Under the program, another 14 sharks measuring less than 10 feet died on the drum line and four more were destroyed because they were too weak to survive, according to the government's figures published Wednesday.

Western Australia's Fisheries Minister Ken Baston hailed the shark mitigation policy a success, saying it was restoring confidence among beachgoers and contributing to research about shark behavior.

"The human toll from shark attacks in recent years has been too high," Baston said in a statement released to the media.

"While of course we will never know if any of the sharks caught would have harmed a person, this government will always place greatest value on human life," the minister said.

Conservationist's nightmare

But the scheme has been criticized by environmentalists who say the sea predators should remain protected species.

"Of the 172 sharks that were caught on the drum line, the majority were tiger sharks which haven't been involved in shark fatalities for decades in Western Australia," Sea Shepherd shark campaigner Natalie Banks told CNN.

More than 70% of the creatures caught on the drum line weren't large enough to be considered a threat or were other animals, like stingrays, Banks said.

While monitoring the government program, Sea Shepherd found that sharks released alive were in a "state of shock" known as tonic immobility and sank to the ocean floor, she said.

Hi-tech initiative

As part of its shark research and protection policy, the Western Australian Department of Fisheries is working on a satellite-linked shark tagging program that allows beach safety authorities to know, through near real-time alerts, if a tagged shark is in the vicinity.

Under the three-month cull scheme, 90 sharks were tagged before being released alive. Other animals caught on the line were freed, including seven stingrays and a north-west blowfish.

Beach closures due to shark sightings were also down this year, according to government figures. There were 93 closures in 2013-14, compared to 131 the previous season.

The Western Australian government is seeking approval to extend the program for three more years.

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Journalist Peter Shadbolt contributed to this report.

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