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Protecting Sharks is Safeguarding the Reef, Queensland Tourism and Public Safety

Thursday, Oct 10, 2019

Commentary by Sea Shepherd Australia's Managing Director Jeff Hansen

Killing sharks does nothing for public safety – damages the Great Barrier Reef and Tourism

The Queensland Government wants the Federal Government to change the law so it can continue baiting and killing sharks in the Great Barrier Reef. The appeal comes after the Queensland Government lost a Federal Court appeal on September 19 2019, against Humane Society International (HSI) Australia, challenging the state government program in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area to use baited hooks to catch and kill 19 shark species, all in a bid to ‘protect' swimmers.

This Federal Court ruling effectively prevents the culling of sharks within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – a decision backing the scientific findings accepted by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in April this year.

Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner wants the Federal Government to change federal legislation to allow the program to continue in the park, while Queensland's tourism minister, the Hon Kate Jones stated that Prime Minister Scott Morrison could have "blood on his hands" if he doesn't intervene on a ban preventing shark culling on the Great Barrier Reef.

However, on the 25th of September, the Queensland Minister for Fisheries announced that the Queensland Government will be rolling out 17 additional drum lines at beaches adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Sharks maintain the health of the world’s Great Barrier Reef 24/7

It’s no secret that the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living organism on planet earth, is not well from impacts such as water pollution, crown of thorn starfish and the burning of fossil fuels providing a double whammy of ocean acidification and warming. In essence, our reef needs all the help it can get, and one way is the protection of reef sharks, for they maintain the health of reefs globally 365 days a year.

Between the years of 1962 and 2014 the Queensland shark control program has ensnared and entangled 84,800 marine animals, with large numbers of rays, turtles, dolphins, dugongs and whales, and although the aim of the program is key target species such as tiger, bull and white sharks, the reality is that over the years thousands of reef sharks have also been killed. 

Previous studies have shown that when sharks are removed from marine ecosystems, coral reef health is severely compromised, as seen in this article by Principal Research Scientist Mark Meekan from the Australian Institute of Marine Science titled, “Killing sharks is killing coral reefs too.”

On reefs without sharks, smaller predators such as snappers and emperors were many times more abundant and the smaller predatory fish, herbivorous or algae-eating fishes (parrotfishes, rabbitfishes and the like) were less abundant on reefs with less sharks. Herbivorous fish are vitally important to coral reefs because they eat algae that otherwise overwhelms young corals, particularly as they recover from disturbances such as cyclones and bleaching. 

Sharks maintain the health of our oceans and reefs worldwide, hence the name, 'doctors of our oceans'. The more reef sharks, the healthier our reefs are and the greater chance our Great Barrier Reef has in fighting against the impacts of climate change and other reef threats.

Not to mention the impact removing sharks has on fisheries, as documented in a study by Ransom A. Myers of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and colleagues, who are among the few to document the cascading effects that the loss of a top predator can have on a marine ecosystem. In the absence of large sharks, the researchers say, the smaller sharks, skates and rays that they feed upon have thrived. 

In turn, the study shows that as one of these middle links in the food chain, the cownose ray, has become more abundant, it has wiped out scallop beds in North Carolina, and as a result the fishery collapsed.

Sharks are the unsung heroes for QLD tourism 

As mentioned above, a reef with sharks is much healthier reef and one which stands a higher chance at combatting the impacts of warming/bleaching events. Given our Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, directly and indirectly, supports over 64,000 Australian jobs, and sharks maintain the health of the reef 365 days a year, sharks truly are the unsung heroes for tourism. 

In fact, in places like the Island nation of Palau, where people come to see and dive with sharks, studies have estimated that each shark is worth $2 million dollars to the Palau economy. 

The QLD Fisheries Ministers rolling out of 17 additional drum lines at beaches adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is further jeopardizing reef health and QLD’s tourism industry; all for merely a false sense of safety.

Drum lines are indiscriminate killing machines – even killing people

Drum lines don’t just catch and kill the target species (e.g. Bull, white and tiger sharks), they also catch and kill mostly non-target species, including over the years’ thousands of harmless reef sharks, rays, turtles and even dolphins, as seen in this footage taken in 2015 off the Gold Coast with a panicked mother by her hooked calf. 

In 1992, tragically, nine-year-old surfer Paul Rogers drowned after his leg rope became wrapped around a shark drum line at Nobby beach.

A tiger shark caught on a drum line at Bundaberg, QLD.

Killing sharks does nothing for public safety 

Science does not support the killing of sharks, be that via nets or drum lines for public safety. A recent Senate enquiry into shark mitigation also backs this up, as does past examples of attacks occurring at beaches with nets and drum lines. 

With the recent case by EDO NSW and HSI, in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, in its judgement the tribunal concluded that “It is plain from the evidence that Queensland’s lethal shark control program is out of step with national and international developments” and that “from the scientific evidence… drum lines do not reduce the risk of shark attack on the individual” and that “the euthanasia of any species of sharks, significantly tiger sharks, that have been caught on drum lines should be a last resort and not occur as a matter of practice”. The Tribunal concluded that the tiger shark has undergone a significant reduction in its population in the Great Barrier Reef. These findings were also upheld in the Federal Court of Australia.

So, from science, senate enquiry and Australian Federal Court, killing sharks does nothing for public safety, so we ask our politicians to stop listening to ill-informed and hysteria driven media outlets that do nothing in their attempt to sell papers but put unjustified pressure on our governments that simply create bad shark mitigation policy, which in turn puts human lives at risk. If anyone is to have blood on their hands, it’s the right-wing media in this country.

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley recently stated that “Queensland needs to read the judgment a bit more carefully, the judgment did not tell them to take those drum lines out within 24 hours, it makes it very clear there was no need to take the drum lines out.”

Minister Ley is right, in that the Tribunal has varied the existing Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority permission for the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries' Shark Control Program, requiring it to:

  • Avoid the lethal take of sharks and remove the list of target sharks from the permit.
  • Ensure drum lines are attended to as quickly as possible when sharks are captured, and require that the euthanasia of sharks caught on drum lines is only undertaken on animal welfare grounds.
  • Ensure all tiger, bull and white sharks caught on drum lines are tagged then released so that their movements can be monitored and researched.
  • Ensure SMART (Shark Management Alert in Real Time) drum lines are trialled and implemented as soon as reasonably possible;
  • Conduct research into alternative non-lethal shark control measures; 
  • Require research to be conducted into the at-risk tiger shark population.

Lethal shark mitigation is lazy – let’s work together to keep our people and marine life safe

For the past 12 months, I have been a part of the WA Governments smart drum line reference group under WA labor Fisheries Minister Dave Kelly. This has had representation from Surfing WA, Surf lifesaving WA, WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, WA Fisheries and the WA Conservation Council among other key stakeholders. 

I have been inspired by everyone’s passion, intelligence and willingness to work together with transparency, bringing new and innovative ideas to the table, all working in a bid to save human lives, while understanding the importance of our oceans. This is the way forward, to not listen to media-driven shark hysteria, to not point the finger at this side or that, but to genuinely work together. We cannot expect governments to have all the answers, and nor should they, so working together with scientists, conservation groups and key stakeholders is the way forward for us all. When we work together, anything is possible.

Sea Shepherd encourages the Queensland Government to do the same, to work with key stakeholders, to not make this political in our coming together in a bid to save human lives, without indiscriminately killing the very marine life that maintain the health of our oceans and precious marine ecosystems. After all, given that most of the air we breathe comes from our oceans, what happens to them affects us all, we are all in this together, so let’s work together 

We need sharks, they don’t need us 

In 2016 and 2017, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef had two recent unprecedented bleaching events that had catastrophic impacts on the northern half of the reef, especially those corals in shallow waters. 

Australia’s great barrier reef is a world icon and with the increasing threats of climate change, needs all the help it can get and looking after our sharks is one way of maintaining our reefs health.

Sharks have thrived in our oceans for the past 450 million years; tragically, some shark populations have crashed by up to 90% globally. However, sharks are the unsung heroes of our oceans, they maintain the health and balance in our precious marine ecosystems. What we should really fear is an ocean without sharks, for an ocean without sharks would see the whole structure collapse and vital habitats would undergo serious damage.

At the end of the day, sharks can live on this planet without us, but we cannot live on this planet without them. We need them, they don’t need us; so, in essence, protecting sharks and our oceans is safeguarding a future for us all.

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