Australian officials, under pressure to protect beachgoers after a string of deadly attacks, have approved a plan to kill sharks that venture too close to people in the water.
The plan –announced by Western Australia state premier Colin Barnett – has infuriated conservationists and marks a sharp reversal of a current policy that permits killing sharks only after attacks.
“We will always put the lives and safety of beachgoers ahead of the shark,” Mr Barnett said: “This is, after all, a fish – let’s keep it in perspective.”
Mr Barnett and state fisheries minister Norman Moore announced the policy change as part of a $6.85m (£4.4m) package of “shark mitigation strategies” to try to reduce the risk of attacks.
There have been five fatal shark attacks in Western Australia in the past year, prompting some residents to demand a more aggressive management plan.
The cash will pay for a fisheries department service to track, catch and kill those that get too close to swimmers, a study of shark enclosures at beaches, more jet skis for lifeguards and GPS tracking.
Great white sharks are a protected species in Australian waters, but the new policy would allow fisheries department officials to kill any that present an “imminent threat to people”, explained Mr Moore.
After an American diver was killed by a great white in Western Australia last year, the government set tuna-baited hooks to try to snare the predator, the first time authorities used an emergency legal exemption from the state protection of great whites to hunt the animal for public protection. That shark was never caught.
The Conservation Council of Western Australia praised the extra research funds and increased patrols but slammed the new policy as ineffective.
In a statement responding to the announcement, department marine co-ordinator Tim Nicol said: “We are concerned that plans to kill sharks that approach beaches applies a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach to sharks and is a knee-jerk reaction to public concern that will harm the environment without protecting swimmers,” said.