And yes, this Emu War actually happened. Roughly 20,000 emus migrated into the Eastern Wheatbelt area, discovering newly cleared farmland filled with crops and watering points for sheep. They liked this supply of food and water and were ambivalent toward the soldier settler (and other) farmers’ tough run of grain prices and droughts.
Since these were ex-soldiers facing ruin (from drought, grain prices, broken subsidy promises, and emus – blame the killer emus!), they liked the idea of using machine-guns (2 Lewis Guns) against the birds in the same way they’d used them against opposing infantry in WW1. This didn’t go anywhere near as well as expected. Emus are faster, harder to kill outright, and generally not running straight at a machine-gun embankment; so their casualties were low.
Two attempts were made at an emu cull, but ultimately the government decided to offer a bounty on emus instead. Later they went with the tried and trusted move of building a fence to keep the emus out of agricultural areas (along with dingoes, wild dogs, rabbits, kangaroos – although the latter laugh at attempts to build a fence they can’t jump over).
Ever since Spielberg made us scared of seeing any more Indiana Jones films, people have felt better about blaming him for the hysteria around sharks.
Recently in my home state of Western Australia there has been a decision made to cull sharks because some people have been killed by them. Clearly we should blame sharks for just wanting a hug and not humans for dressing up like shark food. This is a stupid decision and I’m about to outline why we can’t even tell if there have been more shark deaths, let alone whether a cull would actually work, let alone whether you’d know if the cull does anything. It all comes down to statistics. Well, that and media beat-ups to sell advertising space.
You’d honestly think that there had been a change in the number of people dying in Australia from shark attacks in order to justify a shark cull. Well, the official stats show there hasn’t been an increase in deaths from shark attacks. In fact the deaths are so low the noise around the long term average of 1.38 deaths per annum (2000-2012), that any increase or decrease in deaths are impossible to assign any significance to (see chart below). Three deaths in a year (2000): could be an anomaly. Zero deaths the year after (2001): likely to be regression to the mean. Number of deaths from the most ferocious animal on the planet: bees; 10 per year.
Graph of Aussie shark attacks 2000-2012. Blue is total encounters, yellow is non-fatal, red is fatal. Trend lines for total and fatal.
What you do see in the data is a slight increase in the number of attacks. If you look at the number of attacks and fatalities since 1900, there has been a general increase in the number of shark attacks, but a decrease in the fatalities from shark attacks. It’s almost as though there are more people in the world and more of them bobbing up and down in the ocean in seal costumes, possibly on a tasty cracker.
International Shark Attack File data, Florida Museum of Natural History
Now this is interesting for the world and Australia, as it appears that despite our best efforts as humans, sharks aren’t taking revenge for the 100 million of them we kill each year. But this is about a shark cull in Western Australia: what’s happening there? Well, these tables say it all really:
Western Australia accounts for ~13% of shark attack deaths. When we look at 2012 data we see that WA is having a greater proportion of the Australian attacks and accounts for all the fatalities in Australia. The terms “bigger population”, “longer coastline”, “more cashed up bogans“ come to mind.
So there is no actual proof that there are any more deaths occurring from shark attacks, definitely no trend toward more deaths, but a significant increase in the number of media reports on those deaths (citation needed). Even on a state by state basis there isn’t any death trend.But there is a trend towards more shark incidents. What we are actually seeing is an increase in the number of people dressing up like seals/shark food (scuba divers and surfers).
Circumstances affecting shark / human interactions:
The number of shark-human interactions occurring in a given year correlates with human population increases and the amount of time humans spend in the shark’s environment. As Australia’s population continues to increase and interest in aquatic recreation rises, it would realistically be expected that there will be an increase in the number of shark encounters.
Let’s put that in perspective, Australians have a 1 in 3,362 chance of drowning at the beach and a 1 in 292,525 chance of being killed by a shark in one’s entire lifetime. In Australia there are 1.38 deaths per year from sharks, 121 deaths per year from drowning at the beach, and1,193 deathsper year from driving. We’re more likely to die from all the stupid shit we do, than from sharks. So why have a shark cull?
There is no real reason to have a shark cull. We already kill 100 million of the things annually anyway. What we actually need to do is look at where the sharks are looking for food, has their food moved, if so due to what, and are we seeing less shark food available such that sharks are looking for alternate foods. The shark cull with drum lines and nets is actually likely to kill off dolphins, turtles, rays, and endangered shark species, which is why fisheries researchers don’t support the cull.
Update: I neglected to mention that other states in Australia have been using baiting and nets, in the case of Queensland, since 1962, and since 1937 in New South Wales. Reports are not complimentary of the Queensland nor New South Wales programs. To quote:
…the Fisheries Scientific Committee is of the opinion that the current shark meshing program in New South Wales waters’ adversely affects two or more threatened species, populations or ecological communities and could cause species, populations or ecological communities that are not threatened to become threatened.
And (okay, I’ve cherry picked this a bit, read the whole report on how we are overfishing, killing shitloads of sharks, destroying the fisheries and adding baiting on top of this):
The main pressures on grey nurse sharks appear to be fishing activities and shark control programs……. The biological susceptibility of sharks to over fishing, evidence for increasing fishing pressure and lack of information have given rise to increasing concern about the sharks and rays of the Reef.
Essentially shark baiting, whilst paling in comparison to the 100 million sharks killed for their fins annually, is another pressure that endangered species don’t need. Especially when the baiting is still killing other endangered animals, not just sharks.
Farmers are some of the most innovative Australians – since 1970 they have lost 7.5% of arable land, but they’ve found ways to increase production by 220%. They’re also some of the most conservative, expressed in their reluctance to accept the science of climate change. So what will win as they face a changing climate: innovation or conservatism?
The agriculture industry has been developing for the past 10,000 years, but it could be argued that the biggest advances have come in the last 50 to 60 years. Since 1970, the world population has doubled, yet farming area has stayed the same.
Essentially farmers and the research that has supported them have been fantastic. A recent Conversation article highlighted this. But now agriculture faces, possibly, its biggest challenge: climate change.
Australian agriculture: the greatest story never told.
Research in Western Australia found that over half (52%) were uncertain whether human-induced climate change was occurring. This is in sharp contrast to the 97% of climate scientists who agree that humans are causing global warming. Only 31% thought climate change represented a major threat to the future of their farm businesses. Results also showed that only 33% of all respondents found climate change information easy to understand.
In Western Australia since July 2010, the Farm Business Resilience program has, in part, been seeking to educate farmers about climate change. Before the initial sessions, farmers were surveyed by Chris Evans for their perceptions, knowledge and attitudes to climate change. Only 33% reported that they agreed climate change was occurring and just 19% believed climate change was human induced. Surveys at the end of the course assessed perceptions, knowledge and attitudes again, now showing that 80% of the farmers understood the impact of climate change and variability change on their businesses.
This was a staggering improvement, considering the difficulties that communicators face when they’re trying to correct misinformation. Numerous social studies have found misinformation is notoriously difficult to dislodge and debunking myths can sometimes have the effect of reinforcing them (known as the backfire effect). The backfire effect is particularly potent when presenting climate science to conservative audiences. If myths are not replaced with an alternative, plausible explanation, their influence can persist like returning weeds.
The key to the program’s success came down to knowing how to contextualise information. An example is that most scientists present science to the public but fail to make their knowledge understandable. The authors know how important it is to explain that information and doing so in a program like this allows clear explainations and discussion. The advantage of speaking with farmers about climate is that they live and breathe it. Million dollar business decisions often hinge on seasonal outlooks, so farmers usually have a good knowledge base to work with.
So why is it important to educate farmers about climate change? Because successful farming is really important. Need proof? Don’t eat for a week.
Even without climate change, farmers have a lot to deal with in the next few decades. There are pressures on productive land from:
There are also social and political pressures for chemical usage, access to technology and production practices. The current debates over access to GM technologies and use of pesticides are just two examples of social pressures on farming. There are also the ever-present economic pressures, as returns decline and costs increase – the cost price squeeze.
Under all of this pressure, agriculture has to supply increasing food demands, all while climate change is forcing down productivity. Given that most of the world’s agriculture is rainfed (73%), agriculture has a lot to lose with changes in rainfall resulting from climate change.
A recent article on The Conversation highlighted how little people outside of agriculture know about where and how their food is produced. It is important for everyone to understand how modern agriculture works, to see the science and technology that is involved. Just as farmers need to know about climate change and how it will impact them, the wider community has to understand what agriculture needs into the future.
Without community support, farmers will not have access to the latest technologies, trade agreements will be jeopardised and production will leave our nation without needed food security. And without more knowledge about farming, the wider public won’t understand proposed strategies for agriculture under climate change.
So the agriculture industry needs to be involved in an informed discussion of its future. Having farmers and the wider public meet will also help non-agricultural people understand where their food comes from and how it is produced. The better this link between producer and consumer, the better the industry will be. Through programs like Farm Business Resilience we can improve agriculture. But it can’t stop there: if farming doesn’t come to grips with climate change, it will affect us all.
This article was co-authored by Tim Scanlon. Tim is a scientist who is primarily involved in the agriculture industry as an extension specialist. His current focus is in climate change extension to rural Australia as part of a national program being trialed in Western Australia.
John Cook does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.