Patrick Molnar investigates.
It was a beautiful sunny and calm day on the Gold Coast while we were following a whale family for about 20 minutes. Tourists and locals were enjoying the closeness of these magnificent animals when suddenly one of the crew members said that we had to change direction, so as not to deflect the whales to the shark nets.
If you are living in Queensland, you have probably heard about the Shark Control Program that creates debate in almost every corner of Australia. Even brothers can argue on this topic. Some believe shark nets are a great way to keep surfers and swimmers safe in the water, but more people believe the opposite because of the great number of non-targeted marine life that have been killed by shark nets.
Shark nets and drum lines are the two most common types of shark control that exist in Australia. According to the Queensland Government – Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry official website: “Nets do not prevent sharks from entering a particular area. They are, however, intended to catch ‘resident sharks’ and sharks that move through an area while feeding on bait fish.
The Shark Control Program (SCP) large mesh nets are specifically designed to catch sharks over 2 m in length. The SCP aims to reduce the number of potentially dangerous sharks in particular areas rather than create an impenetrable barrier against shark attack.”
As the statement says above, shark nets and drum lines do not provide 100% protection from sharks, however, they have shown a significant reduction in shark population since their introduction in the 1960’s. A statistic from the above mentioned Queensland Government’s official website shows that 566 sharks got caught in Queensland from 1 January to 31 October 2013.
The statistic shows a huge number of sharks that got caught by nets, but is the reduction of shark population would be the appropriate solution against shark attacks?
In fact, the reduction of shark population can lead to a negative effective on the coastal ecosystem, according to Dr. Ryan M. Kempster – Shark Biologist & Founder of Support Our Sharks:
“The true effectiveness of shark nets to reduce attacks is difficult to evaluate, as the rates of attacks before and after their deployment are often very low, but what is clear is the negative effect on our coastal ecosystems. If we really want to make the public safer, the focus should be on education and research.”
He also said that shark nets do not provide complete protection, but work on the principle ‘fewer sharks, fewer attacks’. Shark bites fall into the statistical category of random events, therefore, it doesn’t matter where the last accident happened, it can happen either at the same spot or even 100 km’s away.
Furthermore, a detailed article on the Sea Shepherd Australia conservation’s official site states that top predators, such as sharks, are influencing the whole ecosystem in the ocean, and their disappearance would be catastrophic because the populations of smaller predators, that the apex predator once kept in check, can now explode and cause havoc to the predators that occupy the next step down the food pyramid.
Besides the sharks (very often harmless sharks), there are a large number of non-targeted marine life (whales, turtles, dolphins etc.) which have been killed by shark nets and the numbers are continuously rising.
Filmmaker, Activist and Skipper of Migaloo 2, Dean Jefferys says:
“From 1960 and 1990 shark nets entangled 216 dolphins, 2140 turtles, 552 dugongs including many migrating humpback. They should be removed immediately to prevent more needless marine deaths. 29 whales have been caught in shark nets since 2000; of those 26 have been successfully freed.”
He expressed his opinion on why these shark nets have been installed:
“Every year many humpback whales and other important marine life die in these shark nets which are installed to satisfy the fear created from the Jaws movie. Unfortunately there are still people who capitalise from fear of sharks even though someone has more chance of dying from a coke machine falling on them then being attached by a shark. “
One of the biggest concerns regarding shark nets comes from the whale migration season; from June to November is the time the majority of humpbacks migrate from the cold waters of the Antarctica to warmer waters of Australia.
Dean Jefferys says: “Some are not found and die slowly from suffocation or wounds from the nets. Last migration season six whales were tangled and another baby humpback died in a shark net of Sydney.”
During the 2014 season, already eight whales have been caught and a baby humpback drowned at Bilinga shark nets on the Gold Coast. Already, two more whales have suffered because of the shark nets compared to the last migration season, and the phenomenon is getting more serious year by year.
November is undoubtedly a busy time on the Gold Coast. This is the time when tourists arriving to start their holiday. Andras Balazs, a tourist visiting the Gold Coast at the moment, says he feels comfortable when he enters the water because of the shark nets.
But is this comfort worth the lives of harmless animals?
The last incident happened on the 16th of October when a juvenile humpback whale got caught at Queensland’s Rainbow beach. Luckily, the Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrols were able to release the animal, thanks to the fortunate weather. – This is according to an ABC News article.
But it is not always like that. The death of a baby humpback at Bilinga has sparked debate to rethink the Shark Control Program.
Mic Smith, an environmental journalist and tutor at Griffith University and also the author of Mic Smith Geographic blog that is focusing on Gold Coast and Vietnam Conservation and Culture, expressed his dismay at a whale which was drowned by a net:
“They called up the shark nets people and they took three hours to get there. The surf lifesaver came over; he is not allowed to do anything. The chopper came over; they are not allowed to do anything. Nobody is allowed to do anything and meanwhile the whale drowned.”
There is a rescue team which has been set up for incidents just like this (Marine Animal Release Teams), however, it looks like their response time is not quick enough to save animals that are caught in shark nets.
Mic Smith adds: “I agree with the whale conservation people: pull down the nets during the season. If they can’t do that, make the response time quicker. “
Footage can be seen on Mic’s blog about the drowned baby humpback whale. The footage was recorded by Bilinga residents who noticed that something was “splashing around” in the shark nets out the front of their place. Larissa Searle and her partner Rayne Fouche said in an interview on Blank Gold Coast with Mic Smith:
“We realised it was likely a whale because there was another larger one swimming around nearby quite distressed swimming back and forth.”
The couple say the shark nets are there only for peace of mind and they think when people watch the video they will speak up, and therefore, the Gold Coast can be shark net free during the whale migration season.
The question now is what can be alternatives to shark nets?
A cost-effective solution called Eco Shark Barrier was first introduced in Coogee beach, Western Australia in December, 2013. The barrier was made from recycled plastic and its holes were big enough to enable smaller marine life to swim through, while small enough to keep sharks away:
“The openings in the barrier measure at their widest point 30cm, any marine life within these measurements, can freely swim in and out of the barrier with no harm. Any animal larger than the openings will simply bounce off the barrier, think of it as a wall.” – According to the official website.
It was removed this April at the end of its trial, and the results are very convincing, according to a survey.
In Brazil, the government has teamed up with scientists and developed a technique that do not harm any marine life, but keep the dangerous sharks away from popular beaches. This technique led to an impressive reduction of shark attacks by 97%:
“It uses a combination of bottom long lines and drum lines to catch tiger, bull, and hammerhead sharks within 2 km of the shore. Once captured, the sharks are brought on board and carefully placed in a tank filled with running seawater, before being measured, sexed, tagged and finally released about 8 km from shore.” – can be read on The Conservation website.
In South Africa, they are more likely to use people, instead of nets to keep sharks away from popular beaches.
The Shark Spotters Program started in 2006 in South Africa by the surfing community. The technique involves human resources and operates at least 10 hours, 365 days a year:
“A spotter is placed on the mountain with polarised sunglasses and binoculars. This spotter is in radio contact with another spotter on the beach. If a shark is seen the beach spotter sounds a siren and raises a white flag with a black shark.” – According to the program’s official website.
Obviously, none of these above mentioned techniques are causing any harm to non-targeted marine life.
There are always new and old alternatives that can be used instead of shark nets or drum lines, and these alternatives should be considered as soon as possible to prevent the unnecessary death of non-targeted marine life in the future.
Gold Coast environmental journalist, Mic Smith, would no argue that there is a risk of sharks, but the shark nets are not the best way to keep them away from swimmers and surfers: “I don’t think the shark nets actually do much but provide comfort and I don’t think that the price of having whales trapped week after week is worth that price of comfort.”
There are other alternatives that wouldn’t cause the death of harmless sharks, whales, dolphins and other non-targeted marine life, but can keep dangerous sharks away. Using shark nets and drum lines to reduce the shark population may not be the appropriate solution to this problem, even if it comes with pointless death of harmless animals.