By Meg Lamb
In light of recent shark attacks in New South Wales, Premier Mike Baird has announced a plan to “prioritise human life over everything” and install a six month trial of shark nets in northern NSW. This would extend the state’s shark net program from the 51 beaches that are already netted between Wollongong and Newcastle and will supposedly help to curb shark attacks.
The Premier had, up until recently, adopted a long-term and non-lethal approach to managing sharks in NSW. Baird’s adoption of an outdated technology to “solve” this issue, threatens not just sharks but all marine animals.
Do shark nets actually work?
The Premier’s knee-jerk response shows just how little the NSW government actually knows about shark management.
Contrary to popular belief, shark nets do not create an enclosed area within which beach goers are protected from sharks. In reality, the nets are just fishing nets (150 metres long by 6 metres deep, suspended about 200 metres out from shore).
Shark nets in NSW alone have killed more than 15,000 marine animals and the majority of those killed posed no threat to humans. Aside from the huge threat to marine life, there is compelling evidence that demonstrates shark nets do not work to stop shark attacks.
Even the NSW government’s chief shark scientist, Vic Peddemors, from NSW Department of Primary Industries does not think nets are the way forward. He has predicted that if the nets were installed, 20 dolphins would be killed within a matter of weeks.
The upshot of all this is that even with nets in place, humans could still face encounters with sharks so the government could potentially be spending millions on a program that doesn’t work. It also means that thousands of sharks and other marine creatures (many of which are endangered) would be harmed or killed by getting stuck in the nets. This puts Australia at risk of breaching its duty to protect threatened species and marine environments both under domestic and international law.
Should New South Wales follow Queensland?
Queensland’s Shark Control Program has been in place since the 1960s. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk claims there has only been one fatality since then because of the state’s use of shark nets and baited drum lines.
While this may seem impressive, it is important to understand that this same program has trapped more than 85,000 marine creatures. This includes turtles, stingrays and manta rays, dugongs, dolphins and whales.
There would also appear to be some inconsistency in Palaszczuk’s figures. On closer inspection, it seems there were at least 71 human fatalities due to shark attacks in Qld between 1853 and 2013 – even in places where shark nets and baited drum lines were in place. In any event, the number of fatalities had actually started to significantly decrease 40 years before the program was even introduced.
The introduction of a similar program in NSW could therefore result in the destruction of the marine environment without actually being effective in reducing the occurrence of shark attacks.
The way forward
Sharks play a very important role in the ecosystem and no one really knows what removing such a high level predator from the marine food chain would do. It is important that the NSW government invests in developing non-lethal programs to minimise the threat of shark attacks on humans.
Possible solutions include raising awareness about alternatives such as electric shark repellants and educating the community about safety risks.
Whilst the threat of a shark attack is no doubt very frightening, there is always a risk associated with using the ocean. But it should be remembered that the chance of a shark attack occurring is actually very slim. In fact, shark attacks are so infrequent that you are far more likely to die on the roads in NSW (327 people in 2016), than from a shark attack (3 people on average in the whole of Australia).
As a number of sharks species are classified as ‘vulnerable to extinction’ and ‘near threatened’, the Baird government has a responsibility to ensure non-lethal strategies for managing sharks are adopted.
NSW should be leading the way by looking at how we can safely co-exist with sharks, rather than adopting scare tactics and using bad science as the basis for policy.