One of the main justifications for the recent shark cull trial in Western Australia has been made through drawing on the results of the long-standing shark mitigation programs in both Queensland and New South Wales. Once you delve into the realities of the shark control program in each of these states, it is simple to determine that other avenues would prove much more effective at both protecting swimmers from an already minimal risk whilst swimming at the beach, and safeguarding fragile marine ecosystems for generations to come.
Shark nets were first introduced to most of Sydney’s beaches in 1937. The program now involves the deployment shark nets along 51 of the most popular beaches from Newcastle to Wollongong over approximately 250kms.
If one was to look into the reasons why this method of ‘shark control’ was adopted in New South Wales in the first place, you would have to look back at how the perceptions of sharks changed in Australia early on in the 1900’s.
Following a number of shark incidents in New South Wales in the late 1920’s, a ‘shark menace report’ for NSW was written in 1929, which stated: “...experience indicates that sharks do not patrol our beaches merely for the sake of an occasional human meal.” At that time, shark ‘attacks’ were regarded by most people and media outlets rightfully as ‘shark accidents’. However, a number of scientists and members of the general public at the time were believers of the ‘rogue shark theory’, something that has since been dismissed by marine experts as a fear based ideal which purports that particular sharks continuously seek out humans as a source of prey. The theory did enough damage to people’s perceptions of sharks and increased support for their culling.
Therefore, a trial of shark nets began in New South Wales in 1935, to cull shark populations off Sydney’s coastline. The NSW State Government first financed the installation of shark nets in 1937 for no other reason than the fact that that year marked the 150th anniversary of New South Wales; state politicians did not want a fatal shark incident on the beaches of New South Wales during the celebrations and while the state had international spotlight.
Over the period between 1943 and 1946, shark nets in New South Wales were removed so that the Fisheries vessels used to service them could instead be used by Americans in World War II. During that time, there were no shark incidents along previously netted beaches. Despite this, the nets were reintroduced in 1946.
Nets are now put in place for 8 months of the year in New South Wales, from the 1st of September to the 30th of April. Nets are not in place everyday as many believe, but are only required to be in place for 14 days of each month, usually over weekends. Each net is 150m long and 6m high and usually set in 10-12m of water. Sharks are able to easily swim around the nets and into the surf zone. In fact, approximately 63% of shark incidents at ocean beaches in New South Wales have occurred at netted beaches.
A NSW Fisheries minister once claimed that the “nets act as a deterrent to sharks setting up territories by encouraging them to move along”. However, sharks targeted by the nets swim vast distances everyday. Scientific studies do not support the claim that sharks set up territories.
Sharks, along with other endangered marine creatures such as whales, dolphins and turtles become entangled in the nets and drown every year. It is reported through the NSW Government that 16,064 sharks and rays as well as 259 dolphins, turtles, whales, dugongs, seals and penguins were killed in New South Wales shark nets between 1950 – 2008 However it is highly likely that these figures are a gross underestimation of the real impact that the program has had on marine ecosystems, with misreporting being commonplace in the early decades of these programs. Of the marine animals affected by the program, most are endangered, possess a protection status or are classified as near endangered. Internationally, shark nets have been labelled a ‘key threatening process’ for killing endangered species.
When it comes to shark mitigation strategies, New South Wales, as Dr. Chris Neff, (who recently finished his PHD on the politics surrounding shark incidents in Australia) states, is the “grandpa” of shark control programs. With locations around the world such as Florida, Cape Town, New Zealand and Hawaii moving away from shark culling and on to more effective, non-lethal alternatives, Australia is being left behind by continuing these archaic methods of killing of our precious marine life, just so people can be deceived into feeling a little safer at the beach.
With over 3,000 members of the public attending rallies in Sydney in early 2014 to support the end of the shark cull in Western Australia, and many learning for the first time of the damage the nets incur off New South Wales, it is plain to see that public perceptions of sharks are changing once again. People are beginning to understand that to enter the ocean is to enter a wild ecosystem. With dozens of people drowning in the waters off New South Wales each year, the safety risks are always present when we set foot on the beach. Sea Shepherd is committed to seeing the implementation of non-lethal alternatives to replace shark nets in New South Wales, and the end of the oldest cull of marine life that has been taking place in our own backyards for more than 75 years.
Learn more about the New South Wales shark meshing program:
31 July 2015 - The truth about shark nets in New South Wales
12 Oct 2011 - The Conversation: The untold story of shark nets in Australia