A 17 year old surfer in Western Australia has been killed by a shark. This is, of course, a tragedy, and my thoughts are with the girls friends and family for the loss. However, in response the Australian Federal Government has said that they are open to a shark cull to ‘protect people’, which would be equally tragic, if not much greater. Let’s look at some numbers.
First, I need to acknowledge that I think this is bad because I intrinsically value animal suffering, and feel like this might impact animal suffering in a negative way. But even if we just look at humans (and not only that, specifically humans in Australia!), this idea would be an incredibly inefficient way of reducing suffering and/or death.
Here I’m going to make some simplified assumptions to make the case for culling seem more attractive than it is, then show that it still doesn’t make sense. From 1958 to 2014, 72 people died to shark attacks in Australia (536 attacks total). Let us suppose that for a one-time investment (unrealistic) of $10 million (unrealistically low) we can prevent all shark attacks in Australian waters for the next 56 years (unrealistic). If we suppose 72 more people would have died in this time frame, this would be an estimated cost of $138,888 per life saved*.
Even with these extremely optimistic assumptions, that is an exceedingly poor return on investment. The Against Malaria Foundation can save a human life for approximately $6,000 AUD by preventing cases of malaria. But even if we care much more about people in our own country than in Africa (which, to be fair, governments have to), there are still more effective ways of reducing death.
For example, the median cost per quality adjusted life year (QALY) gained for Australians by interventions for specific diseases such as diabetes is $3,700 AUD.
Do we care about all suffering, or just suffering specifically experienced by humans and caused by sharks? That would be silly, but then, government policy doesn’t always seem to make much sense. The steelman of this might be that they are trying to win publicity points (and aren’t ignorant of cost-benefit analyses). Sharks are a topical issue today, and the government wants people to like them. But let’s not pretend the policy would make any rational sense to someone interested in improving the world, even if you only care about animals of your own species that happen to within an arbitrarily defined political boundary.
I urge the Australian Federal Government to please reconsider any thoughts of a shark cull, and to focus on helping sentient beings in a significantly more efficient manner.
* One might even be able to make an argument that a shark cull would increase human deaths. I have no numbers for this argument and therefore place low confidence on it, but if a shark cull is incomplete (i.e. doesn’t kill all sharks), yet more people end up swimming because they think it’s safer, more people might die.