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Even after attacks on humans, sharks should be protected

By Mike Coots, Special to CNN
July 23, 2012 -- Updated 0936 GMT (1736 HKT)
Five people have been killed by sharks off Western Australia in the past 10 months.
Five people have been killed by sharks off Western Australia in the past 10 months.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Five have died in shark attacks off Australia in the past 10 months, says Mike Coots
  • As a shark-attack survivor myself, I feel these losses keenly, Coots says
  • Coots: Still, a healthy shark population equals a healthy marine ecosystem
  • Australian law protects the great white, and that law must stay, Coots says

Editor's note: Mike Coots is a shark-attack survivor, shark conservationist, surfer and photographer.

(CNN) -- The latest string of fatal shark attacks in Western Australia is creating a climate of fear that could haphazardly undo a very important environmental law that protects great white sharks.

Last weekend, 24-year-old surfer Ben Linden was attacked by a great white near Perth, becoming the fifth fatality off that coast in the past 10 months. In response, the Western Australia Fishing Minister, Norman Moore, promised to write the federal government "to know if there has been any update on the status of the white sharks and the sustainability level at which the Federal Government will lift protection." If Mr. Moore has his way, hundreds if not thousands of sharks will be killed in Australia. I have a problem with that.

Yes, my heart goes out to the victims' families and friends who are mourning the losses of these tragic events, and I in no way downplay the pain and sadness an attack has on an entire community.

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Mike Coots
Mike Coots

I know, as I lost my leg and nearly my life after being attacked by a large tiger shark here in Hawaii. I do feel that these predators play a very important role in the health of our oceans, and I strongly oppose any type of shark hunting or culling program. Let me explain.

By fishing for the great white shark, the bycatch will surely be a bunch of other shark species that have never had a history of munching on people. They did a shark culling program in Hawaii in the 1960s and early '70s, and 4,668 sharks were killed. Only 554 were the targeted species, the tiger shark.

If a judge put one criminal along with eight innocent people on death row for a murder, would that be justice? And what if the guilty criminal was found guilty only because he belonged to the same race as the suspect in the crime? This type of rationale doesn't make sense, and it surely doesn't do anything to solve the crime.

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White sharks, by most scientific studies, have been shown not to be territorial. The shark that attacked Ben Linden is very probably hundreds of miles away, quite possibly in the waters of another country. The odds of a culling program capturing the same animal responsible for any one of the attacks is very slim.

Sharks, the dominant predators in the sea, by nature need to be on the move to be efficient eaters. The element of surprise is their weapon of choice, and if they hang in the same area for too long the fish get spooked and they lose out on an easy meal. Moving ensures a more efficient way of consuming food. Great whites tracked off of Australia's northwestern coast have been known to travel to South Africa, and have been recorded traveling more than 12,000 miles in just nine months.

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In Australia, the great white is protected by both domestic and international law, having been cited as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1996. In 2002, with input from scientists, environmentalists, fisheries, and fishermen, Australia's government initiated the White Shark Recovery Plan. This law took a long time to be put into place, and undoing it would jeopardize the marine ecosystem.

Any marine biologist will tell you that a healthy shark population equals a healthy marine ecosystem. Sharks predate dinosaurs, and millions of years of evolution have positioned them in a critical and vital role as an apex predator. Predator removal can cause a cascading effect that destabilizes the entire marine food web and, in turn, our oceans.

Great whites are slow to mature and have very few offspring, so any type of culling program, even if done for a limited amount of time, would put their existence in peril.

From what I have learned about Ben Linden, his entire life revolved around the ocean. So does mine. And so do those of millions of other people across the globe who surf, fish, swim, dive and feel more comfortable in water than on land. The ocean is a complex web of marine life, with many species being driven to extinction year after year. For humans and sharks to coexist is for us to respect their place on Earth.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Coots.

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