By Rob Taylor
CANBERRA—Shark hunters in Western Australia are set within days to begin a cull of the protected Great White in response to several fatal attacks over the past three years.
The cull was approved Tuesday by the federal government in Canberra, which granted the state an exemption from laws safeguarding the animals.
Western Australia's state premier, Colin Barnett, has drawn protests and condemnation from marine-wildlife experts and campaigners with a plan to bait and kill sharks more than three meters long, after a surfer was killed by a Great White in November at Gracetown, south of Perth.
The seventh fatal attack in three years led Mr. Bartlett last year to unveil the plan to string 72 baited hooks offshore from popular beaches, in a bid to reverse Western Australia's reputation as the world's most dangerous place to venture into the ocean. Once caught, sharks would be shot by professional hunters.
Conservation groups say Great Whites, which are listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, have been in sharp decline since the 1960s and now account for just 0.6% of game fish and sharks caught on lines or in meshes.
Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who oversees conservation laws, including a 1999 listing of Great Whites as a vulnerable species, decided the cull would be in the "national interest," despite his own concerns about the impact on shark numbers.
"One does not have to agree with a policy to accept that a national interest exemption is warranted to protect against imminent threat to life, economic damage and public safety," Mr. Hunt wrote in a letter giving the green light for the cull.
The last attack occurred on Nov. 23, close to where British chef Heston Blumenthal had been swimming the day before during a break from hosting a food festival in the Margaret River vineyard region. Aerial patrols of beaches were stepped up before the government decided on more drastic measures to protect the state's 7.8 billion-Australian dollar ($6.9 billion) tourism industry.
"It's in people's minds. People are probably thinking twice before they go out in the water," Pip Close, chief executive of Margaret River Tourism, told The Wall Street Journal.
Despite their fearsome reputation—sealed in the 1975 cinema thriller "Jaws"--little is known about Great Whites, largely due to their rarity and solitary habits. Females can grow to five meters, larger than males, and surveys have tracked their movement from Australia to as far as South Africa's beaches.
While they are also found off the U.S., South American and other coastlines, the number caught in Australia each year by commercial and amateur fishermen has fallen to around 100 after the government listed the sharks as vulnerable in 1999.
Conservationists like Shaun Collin and Ryan Kempster, from the Ocean's Institute in Western Australia, say there is little proof the cull would increase beach safety. They have blamed increasing shark attacks on a corresponding rise in the number of migrating whales along Australia's coast, which draws in marine scavengers.
Lynn MacLaren, a Greens lawmaker in Western Australia, told the Guardian Australia newspaper she would look into a legal challenge to the cull, which was originally due to begin on Jan. 10 but has been delayed by problems with tendering for shark hunters and public opposition to the move.