The issue of sharks and shark attacks has become a much-debated issue in Western Australia in recent years. Whether or not there are more important issues to give our attention to is, perhaps, a valid question. However, the fact that this has become such a large theme here is itself worthy of exploration.
After several fatal shark attacks in recent years, the state government has decided to implement a policy of catching and killing great white, bull and tiger sharks over 3 metres in length. To do so, they have given a contract to a professional fisherman for the setting of ‘drum lines’ in the state’s south west. Drum lines involve the baiting of large hooks attached to buoys which are anchored to the ocean floor. These baits are intended to attract and catch large sharks in order that they may be killed.
There has, of course, been opposition to this policy, with protest rallies taking place in WA and around Australia – as well as in New Zealand and South Africa – while members of WA’s state parliament have been flooded with emails protesting the policy. Some activists have said they would remove baits and sharks from hooks, while others have already released hooked stingrays.
There has also been support for the move, with some people – including professional surfers and a number of board-riding clubs – expressing that they now feel safer in the water. This, it seems, has been the main motivation for the policy, and its main attraction amongst its supporters – safety in the ocean, especially for those who enter it on a daily basis.
Drum lines were initially set along the coastline south of Perth. The first shark was caught on January 26 – Australia Day. The media was on hand to film and photograph the fisherman dragging the shark alongside the boat before firing several shots into its head with a .22 rifle. Its stomach was then cut and its carcass dumped further out to sea.
These images led the evening television news and covered the front page of the next day’s newspaper. The most unsavoury images were left out, and, yet, people still found them confronting. Some called it ‘un-Australian.’ Others said it was proof the policy was working, and they now felt safer. Some have pointed out that drum lines have been used in Queensland (amongst other places) for the past 50 years or so, with only one fatal shark attack occurring during this time; these lines account, however, for the deaths of about 500 sharks per year, as well as other marine life such as sting rays and turtles.
Later that week, drum lines were dropped off the coast of Perth metropolitan beaches. State Fisheries Department officers were drafted to do the work after several commercial companies pulled out over alleged threats. Only hours after the lines were set, a 1 metre tiger shark and a 2.6 metre tiger shark were caught. Both were released for being undersized. In this case, both were still alive.
At least three more sharks have since been caught in the south west – one a 3 metre tiger shark, shot and killed; another a 2 metre tiger shark dead on the line; as well as another 2 metre tiger shark still alive, though barely. Other undersized sharks have reportedly been caught off metropolitan beaches, but it is difficult to know exact numbers because the Fisheries Department and the WA government are refusing to give any information about catches. (However, ‘spottings’ of sharks in the 4m range are being readily reported.)
What can be made of all this?
If we are to truly understand such a situation we must arrive at the thinking that creates it. On the one hand we have a thinking that looks to ensure the safety of one’s own self – and the safety of others – from harm. Ensuring the safety of its citizens is part of the responsibility of government, though the question remains as to what this actually entails. (We shall come to this point in a moment.)
On the other hand, there is a kind of, what could be called, ecological thinking – or a thinking that sees the shark (or any other phenomenon) as part of a larger eco-system; it is a thinking that says ‘one cannot alter one part of the ecosystem without affecting the whole.’ This manner of thinking is akin to the indigenous cultural traditions of this place, and elsewhere, which insists upon a level of respect and caution when entering the natural (and, essentially, spiritual) environment. In being ‘welcomed to country’ – and in introducing oneself to country – one acknowledges and respects the beings of that place, and one enters it with a caution approximating the level of respect one has for it. In such cultural traditions as these, such protocol is itself a kind of ‘safety’ activity, although it is one based primarily on a respect for the ecosystem of beings there present, and not merely out of a fear for one’s own survival. Even when animals are hunted for food, the same level of respect – as well as the eco-system cognition that engenders it – prevails. Here, this indigenous eco-system cognition is expressed and governed by the Dreaming and the interconnecting web of songlines: story and imagination (as cognitive faculty of perception) govern all of life.
For non-indigenous culture, this experience of the interconnecting nature of the natural, social and, indeed, spiritual world is either dimly felt or brought to a level of consciousness that is able to perceive such an ecosystem through thinking activity. The stories that express such an ecosystem are not as rich or all-encompassing as those of the indigenous culture of this place, but the scientifically active thought content resulting from thorough observation of phenomena leads to the same realities. And this reality is that we are all swimming in a great ocean of interdependent life and being, and that we have choices to make as to how we interact with this – choices as to how we move in and navigate these waters.
To look to secure one’s own safety or, even, the safety of others, at the great harm of and disrespect for other beings, is to fall out of this vast sea of interconnectedness – to act against the reality of the context as a whole. This is a kind of thinking that can only be described as predatory – imaginatively speaking, we could say that this kind of thinking feeds on other beings to survive – it is, we could say, shark thinking. It is the conclusion of the one-sided, solely materialistic ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality that falls out of the ocean of wholeness or ‘Dreaming’ – the ocean of the world’s eco-system. It is the thinking, imaginatively expressed, of the shark.
It is possible to have the experience of looking into the natural world – in particular the animal world – and of finding in each animal one exaggerated quality or another that can be found within the human being. In the rodent, the canine, the ungulate; in the bird, the fish and so on – in the whole animal world – we can find some aspect of the human being – physical and otherwise – brought to exaggeration. To put it the other way, it is possible to experience the human being as a balanced, integrated expression of the exaggerated qualities of the animal world spread out around us. In having this experience we can ask, What is the significance of the over-abundance, extinction or illness of different species?
The meaning of each particular situation is directly connected to the animal under observation, and to all other parts of the ecosystem. The increased number of shark attacks has something to teach us about the ecosystem as a whole, including our relationship to it, as well as something to teach us about our own nature as human beings. What do horse flu, swine flu, mad-cow disease, the cane toad pestilence, shark attacks or anything else have to teach us about the ecosystem as whole; but what do they also have to teach us about ourselves? When something becomes over-abundant in the outer world, how does it relate to the unhealthy over-abundance or otherwise of the same quality in us? Likewise, when something becomes endangered or extinct, what does it say about the corresponding part of ourselves? The same question can be asked of illnesses amongst various animal species.
In the case of sharks, it is possible to observe that an increase in attacks and numbers relates not only to the way in which we as human beings connect to the ecosystem as a whole (including how we impact the food supply chain of sharks), but also to that part of us which is exaggerated in the being of the shark. The proliferation of shark attacks is an externalised picture of some kind of imbalance in the corresponding activity within the human being. Generally, we could say, something of our consciousness has become, imaginatively speaking, too predatory – too shark-like in quality. We have become, in a way, ‘all teeth.’
We have, however, choices to make. We have the possibility to change our thinking activity to one that is in accordance with the lawfulness of the great ocean around and within us. To choose to do so is to overcome our own imbalances and exaggerations, and to realise a certain level of freedom. Such freedom can only be truly achieved by an individual him or her self.
To protect the individual citizen, the government would argue, is part of the task it is charged with, and the raison d’être of such a policy as we have been exploring here. This is, essentially, correct. However, the deeper task – in our time – of government is not merely to protect or ensure the safety of the individual, but to ensure and protect the freedom of the individual. Freedom of the individual is possible in our time, and it is achieved through choosing to put oneself in service of the lawfulness of the great oceanic ecosystem of beingness in the world. To protect this individual freedom is the deeper and true task of government today. And, yet, to do this, it cannot, in any way, act pre-emptively, because in doing so there exists the possibility of individual freedom being infringed upon, and this is too great a risk – too great a ‘security scare’ – in our age. The government acts only to provide an avenue for the remedy and redress of the wrongs done by individuals against the freedom of others.
When it comes to sharks, and shark attacks, this is, therefore, not the concern of government at all but, rather, of experts in the cultural field – marine biologists, conservation groups, fisheries experts, other scientists, indigenous elders and so on – they themselves know who the best qualified are to deal with the issue, and deal with it in an ecologically contextual way. Government can help ensure such cultural work is resourced to meet the needs at hand.
The shark issue is, perhaps, an overstated or over-emphasised one (more than likely because of its somewhat spectacular and fear-engendering nature). Yet, it brings to the surface the greater, more menacing currents at work in social life. There are deeper and more powerful forces at play in the social waters of the world, and this issue is just another hook that catches them at work. It is possible to see – especially in this country, but all around the world – the way in which government oversteps its primary role of ensuring individual freedoms on a basis of absolute equality of rights for all citizens – our rights must be equal to those of all our brothers and sisters. Of primary importance is our right to be free individuals able to experience and collaborate with the great interdependent workings of the world. To ensure these rights, and to provide a framework for remedying these rights when we infringe upon the freedoms of others is the primary purpose of government; its guiding star is equality of rights.
Wherever it oversteps this function it begins to feed on the freedom of individual human beings, and on cultural life as a whole. Whether it be education, media, medicine, agriculture, academia, science, art, land – or anything else rightly belonging to cultural life – we see here a predatory and overweight/oversized quality we could also imaginatively attribute to the shark. In not allowing potentially free individuals to make decisions for themselves (based on relevant information) – by interfering in the free unfolding of the cultural life of its citizens – any government takes on the role of the shark – and no undersized one, either.
So what is the task here? Is it to bait and catch such a mammoth shark – arguably the largest in the social oceans of the world – before attempting to destroy it? In doing so, we would go against our own observations and experiences of the ecosystem as a whole. No, more creative ways must be found. To act ecologically lawfully would be to ensure such a shark exist in its right habitat as part of an entire social ecosystem. The government must be returned to its rightful part of the ocean – and this can only be achieved through a free cultural life taking up its own place as a creative force in the whole ecosystem of society. Cultural life can no longer swim as isolated whitebait for the idle pickings of government or business, but must stand as a creative force of individual freedom able to put its capacities towards a re-imagining of the waters of society – not only when it comes to political issues, but also to the other great force of the social ocean – the economy.
All free-thinking individuals have a role to play in the re-imagining and re-making of the social ocean of our time. Nothing is evil in and of itself – not the shark, nor government, nor business, nor anything else. Evil is only something fallen out of its place in the whole, or out of its place in time. All aspects of the natural and social world have their part to play. It is just a question of whether or not they inhabit their rightful or ecologically ‘lawful’ place in such a way that serves the eco-system as a whole, including the free individual human being who finds him or herself reflected therein.
In striving towards such an ecosystem as this, we begin to respect and live in accordance with the objective realities and beings of the world, choosing to do so based upon true freedom, and thereby serving the greater, longer story of world and human evolution.
 There have been seven fatal shark attacks in Western Australia in the last three years; 20 fatal attacks in the last 100 years.
 The fisherman said it was a bull shark, but marine experts insist it was a tiger shark. This discrepancy of opinion led to criticism of the fisherman’s capacity to identify the sharks he is contracted to kill. The fisherman is paid $5705AUD per day, or $610,500 for the 107-day contract. The total amount for implementing the policy looks set to top $1 million.
 One could also say, thereby, that social life as a whole has become something of a shark, feeding, as it were, on the human being.