Male Sea LionSea Shepherd believes that the current WA Government has a healthy approach to shark mitigation and are passionate about investing in shark mitigation strategies backed by science in a bid to save lives. Photo Credit: Sea Shepherd/Matt Curnock).

Earlier this week Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg pushed for 176 SMART drumlines (SDLs) to be deployed and monitored across 260km of coast at key locations across the Perth metropolitan and southwest ­regions at an estimated cost of between $5-7million for a six-month period.

Sea Shepherd has been involved in shark mitigation now for many years with knowledge and experience. As a result, our submission into the Federal Senate Inquiry was accepted and publicly acknowledged in the senate enquiry into shark mitigation as a key witness.

What we have found is that in terms of a healthy approach to shark mitigation, both WA Labor and Greens have shown sound leadership here, however, the Liberal party under Minister Greg Hunt and now Minister Frydenberg have not, and continued to play politics. This is clearly evident by the fact that again Minister Frydenberg issues this new plan to the media without discussing it with the WA state government. This shows little regard for maintaining a good state-federal government relationship and highlights that Minister Frydenberg is more interested in headlines and politics than working together to save lives.

WA Labor should be congratulated for not giving into the pressure from Minister Frydenberg, the West Australian and the Australian media that pushes for SMART drumlines as the ultimate solution because the reality is that they are not. WA Fisheries Minister Dave Kelly is right to show caution here because the SMART drumline trial and the Federal government has failed to provide any scientific evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness of the technology in terms of ocean safety.

It’s up to the SDL advocates to demonstrate this. No science has done this and no politician has addressed the effectiveness of so called SMART drumlines. We know Minister Kelly has mentioned that he is waiting for the science from NSW, however here's some very important things to note.

Whatever science comes out of NSW is not going to be independent. It will be skewed for the NSW Government’s needs. The NSW DPI have long wanted these devices in the water, which Sea Shepherd witnessed back at the 2015 Shark Summit.

NSW DPI has never outlined what they intended for SDLs. Are they research tools or are they public safety? Because Sea Shepherd believes that they cannot be both. Furthermore, they have never publicised what they hope to achieve with the SDLs. What is their aim/objective etc? What criteria are they measuring against? What benchmarks do they want to achieve? It's like they are flying by the seat of their pants, trying to blanket vast areas of our coast with a meat curtain wherever our human population extends near a natural wild environment. Sea Shepherd is very concerned with the amount of misrepresentation going on in the media about these devices.

Statements from the public that the WA state government will have blood on their hands if they do not take up the SMART drum lines proposal is not helpful, as its only siding with media outlets that have openly stated that they support the killing of sharks, which is proven to do nothing for beach safety.

We are in a dangerous period here where we have a Minister "for the Environment" that wants to see the protection status removed from Great White sharks, and whose views are aligned strongly with right winged papers like the West Australian and The Australian who support the culling of sharks. We need to not give into the pressure of more shark hysteria that leads to nothing more than bad policy on shark mitigation, which is not good for public safety and continues this hysteria which may have a negative impact on tourism, not the sharks themselves. 

With the WA Labor government handed a massive deficit (40 billion) from the previous government, they have to ensure they get the best bang for their buck in regards to shark mitigation. The reality is that SMART drum lines are expensive and there are cases of sharks swimming straight past conventional drum lines and biting people. There is also a big concern for baited hooks off our coasts drawing sharks closer to water users in a hunting-feeding behaviour. Not to mention a shark caught on the SDL, thrashing around will draw in more sharks, as evidenced by the WA shark cull, where caught tiger sharks had large bites out of them from other sharks. 

Nothing SMART About Access and Response Times for SDLs

Then there is the access and response times issue. The South West is a very different environment from New South Wales regions where SDLs have been trailed. There is almost no launch access along the whole coastline from Bunker bay south until Augusta. Only options as Sea Shepherd saw during the shark cull in 2014 was to launch at Gracetown and then run up to Canal Rocks near Smiths beach.

Getting into the water and out through the surf in Gracetown would be nigh on impossible for half of the year, for example, when large fronts arrive and the surf is up with heavy swells, either the SDL could not be put in or if they had already been put in it would then be utterly impossible to launch a vessel, let alone bring a shark alongside, tag it and then drag it a km out to sea from a heaving boat in four plus metre swells. If SDLs are deployed, baited and a large storm arrives, then we have baited drum lines out there with no way of getting out to retrieve them or de-bait them at night. Response times of 10 mins or even 30 mins would simply not be achievable as part of the SDL requirement. 

Summer months slightly different but even back in 2014, the shark cull contractors boat stayed in the water every day and so you end up paying the contractor huge sums of money to be there continuously. He was paid $6,000 a day for three months and was only one contractor covering a small area of around 15km. The south coast from Augusta to Esperance has better options for launch but again the winter months bring large Southern Ocean swells pretty much continuously as anyone can see on ocean planning charts. So even though you can launch a boat and get out to the SDL, it is still a very difficult task to remove a hook and tag a large active shark then tow it safely out to sea for release. 

A lot of people forget that in 1992, Queensland Shark Control Program drum line gear was dislodged in a storm and entangled and killed an 9-year-old boy whilst he was body-boarding off Nobby’s Beach on the Gold Coast. One could easily argue that the shark control program devices themselves pose a threat to swimmer safety by both leading beach goers into a false sense of security, and the threat of entanglement to humans. There have also been numerous occasions where QLD Fisheries contractors have failed to remove drum lines before inclement weather conditions.

In short, due to condition, access and response times, SDLs are in reality a waste of tax payer’s money for an attempt at shark mitigation and saving lives for the South West. The whole operation is simply a non-starter from the beginning. 

SMARTer Ocean Users 

Every loss of life is tragic and yes, there have been 17 fatal shark incidents in the past 25 years however many of these were preventable. For instance, at times spear fishermen had their catch tied to them, instead of a trailing line, or putting burley in the water, which goes completely against the recommendation from the Spearfishing Association of Australia. Or the case of other ocean users completely ignoring the signs and warnings, be that sharks spotted in the area, salmon running or whale or dolphin carcasses. We know that we are not on the menu, we are just at times in the way, and we can save more people by putting more effort on not putting ourselves in the way. We cannot ask the government to mitigate against people’s poor ocean safety use. Let’s not forget that the Market Force Survey commissioned by the Barnett Government found that over 80 percent of Western Australians believe the mitigating ocean / shark risk is up to the individual and not the government. 

Planning of Events

If you speak to traditional owners of the south west they knew that when the salmon were running, it was the shark’s time and they did not go in the water. However, we know this is not going to happen, especially when the surf it up. So, if you’re a surfer and you want to ignore all the warning signs, then wear a shark deterrent device. At certain times of the year we have salmon running, seals and whale carcasses, it’s a time when many sharks will be drawn to our coasts, not looking for us as the media would portray, but stimulated and looking for their natural food. We are trying to have the Margaret River Pro at the height of the shark season, due to the number of salmon, seals and whales. Perhaps an idea might be to shift the event date, or perhaps swap it with another key ASP even around Australia. After all, the data obtained from the shark spotters program in Cape Town, allows them to plan their events at a time when less white sharks are around, to mitigate the risk in an area where they have a relatively healthy population of white sharks. 

Shark Behaviour and Medical First Aid Packs

Another point worth noting is that when a shark is drawn into an area off our coast stimulated by either poor fishing practices leaving fish carcasses off beaches, or whale carcasses, that sharks will go around biting various things looking for what has brought it into the area, that might be a lump of seaweed or it could even be a surfboard, even if no one was on it. This has all been backed up with proof and real ocean tests. However, sometimes that investigative bite severs an artery and we often lose people from a loss of blood. 

This is the reason why Sea Shepherd has been pushing for the Acute Shark Attack Pack, instructional card and video in a bid to save lives, as seen here with shark survivor Paul De Gelder. 

First aid shark / aquatic kits can be purchased here: Aquatic Trauma Kit.

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The Acute Shark Attack Pack with Advice Card which Sea Shepherd helped put together.

Along with the BEN beach numbering system each beach should have a medical kit with instructional card.

Shark Signage 

Sea Shepherd has been a strong advocate for better beach signage, very much like the ones Cape Town has with their shark spotters program 

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However, more specific to the south west, we would suggest identifying high risk times of year (salmon / whales etc) and an area below where notes could be written, when sharks spotted, do’s and don’ts for fishing. Plus a storage area where a first aid shark kit be kept with the instruction card. Ideally kits should be as close to water users as possible, e.g. on the beach themselves.

Whale Carcass Management 

Over decades, the WA Department of Environment and Water has led the way for the de-entanglement of whales caught in fishing gear. They have put their lives on the line to save countless whales over the years and should be congratulated for their efforts. They are always looking at ways to manage whale carcasses to minimise the large attractant they are to sharks, which impacts on public safety. It’s important to note though that not all carcasses are the same, some small, some up to 40 ton and in different stages of decomposition with varying access and weather conditions that also come into play. If the sensationalist and tabloid newspapers and Frydenberg want to focus on an area that might help save lives, it’s better whale carcass management. In terms of education and awareness, it’s about the heightened risk near carcasses and also improving dangerous/sloppy fishing practices. Because what is clear is that whale carcasses along the WA coast will be in the rise in the coming years.

Summary 

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A diver wih Great White Sharks (Image Credit: Sea Shepherd).

Sea Shepherd believes that the current WA Government has a healthy approach to shark mitigation and are passionate about investing in shark mitigation strategies backed by science in a bid to save lives. We cannot and should not go down the path of knee jerk reactions like the former WA Liberal Government who buckled due to pressure from the West Australian paper and forged with the WA shark cull that cost the taxpayers millions of dollars and did nothing for public safety. It’s important to note that this government went against the findings of their own survey.

Having met with many shark bite victims and victims’ families, Sea Shepherd is very passionate about seeing real solutions put in place that actually save lives. Minister Frydenberg continually states that we have to put human lives first, and Sea Shepherd agrees with the Minister on this point, however, culling sharks does nothing for beach public safety, in fact, it’s worse as it’s a merely a false sense of safety and in 2018 there is so much more we can do.

As University of Sydney shark bite researcher Dr Christopher Neff has stated time and time again: "We are not on the menu, just sometimes in the way.” We just need to work more on not being in the way, with a greater understanding of the local marine environment and better warning and information systems. Dr Neff also urges governments to consider drones as an inexpensive early warning direction system that would work “phenomenally” with personal protection devices on surfboards.

After all, sharks off our coasts is an indication of a healthy marine environment, which given the state of our world’s oceans is globally rare and unique. Western Australians have a humpback population that has come back from the brink of extinction to one of the world’s biggest, with healthy population numbers.

We have seals and salmon so naturally we are going to have the APEX predators come in, like sharks and orcas. It’s completely natural for them to be there and we need them there as keystone species to manage the species below them. People say that the ocean is out of balance, in that there are now too many sharks, which is absolute rubbish. The only reason we are seeing more sharks off our coasts is due to more ocean users, and an increase in their food supply drawing them in, like whales, seals and fish. If we don’t have sharks, we will then have an ever-greater number of whale carcasses and fishermen calling for a seal cull because the seals will be supposedly “stealing” all their fish.

Given most of the air we breathe comes from our oceans, they are humanities primary life support system and sharks play a critical role in maintaining the health of our oceans. Healthy oceans need sharks, we need healthy oceans, we need sharks.

Sea Shepherd is encouraging the Greens and WA Government to stick to their guns on this, to not cave in on shark mitigation strategies that are not based on science, in the best interests in saving lives.

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A surfer who is against the use of SMART drum lines in WA. Published in The West Australian.

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