Commentary by Natalie Banks – Apex Harmony Chief Advisor:
The reaction to shark incidents in Australia is baffling and in most cases frightening to watch, as communities and those speaking loud enough, go through various stages of reactionary measures, from confusion and shock, sadness and loss, to anger and revenge, but never moving on to the final stage of acceptance.
From angry surfers blaming the government in Western Australia for surfers ignoring warning signs and being bitten, to the Catholic Diocese of Lismore in northern New South Wales banning surfing and surf life saving events, the reactions are at best naïve and at worst, arrogant, egotistical and ignorant.
In New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland, the Government has installed “shark control” measures in an attempt to reduce shark encounters. Shark nets were rolled out from 1937 in Sydney, and were labelled by New South Wales Premier William McKell in 1946 as “quite valueless.” He later went on to say that “if meshing alone were used, I fear it would prove to be of little value. Worse, it would possibly lull the public into a sense of false security, leading to diminished watchfulness and possibly to tragedy.”
Queensland on the other hand has used both shark nets and drum lines (baited fishing hooks designed to catch and kill anything that is unfortunate to be caught on the hook) since the 1960’s.
Neither of these techniques have been proven to work as a shark safety measure, yet due to the decrease in shark bite fatalities at the beaches these measures have been installed at, some Australians have been calling for sharks to be killed in order for them to feel safe recreating in what is a wild and natural environment.
Those calling for these measures have ignored the fact that medical advancements have saved the lives of shark bite survivors and though there has been a reduction in fatalities at beaches where shark control measures have been installed, shark bites are still occurring at these so called “protected” beaches. In fact, 47 shark bites have occurred at beaches in New South Wales where a shark net has been installed, which sadly includes a fatality, while in Queensland, 16 shark bites have occurred at “protected” beaches, including another tragic fatality in 2006.
In fact, Queensland and New South Wales continue to lead the way in terms of the number of shark bites occurring across Australia.
Granted, there has been an increase in shark bites occurring in Western Australia and there is always room for improvement, but sadly drum lines; traditional or Shark-Management-Alert-in-Real-Time (SMART) and shark nets are not the answer to shark bite reduction and neither is pointing the finger to Government.
In all honesty, if the Government closes a beach, this is the best possible solution that anyone could possibly provide to reduce a shark bite. Yet some surfers globally, in Reunion, in South Africa and in Australia continue to ignore these warnings and do it anyway. What is disappointing to witness is that their colleagues are rarely heard supporting the beach closure, instead they point their fingers to someone other than those who truly are responsible for their safety; themselves.
But not only is the Western Australian Government closing beaches due to shark activity and attractants such as whale carcasses, they are issuing notices of natural marine occurrences which attracts sharks, such as salmon runs, while providing a subsidy for a product that is the only shark repellent proven by science to work and expanding helicopter patrols for beaches which have had increases in shark activity.
But apparently, this is not enough for some ocean users. They want more, and in the soft voices standing behind those currently yelling for commercial shark fishing areas to be opened, there are additional solutions that could be investigated, such as increased signage at the beaches themselves and the installation of shark trauma kits.
However, no matter what additional measures that are implemented, shark drum lines, culling or not, if an ocean user can not adhere to a beach closure, there is absolutely nothing further that the Government can do to save that person’s life. It seriously is time that all ocean users take personal responsibility for their actions. If the Government has to increases the fines for those ignoring beach closures, than perhaps some people will think twice about entering the water where sharks have been spotted. Perhaps the wallet does need to be affected for the message to get through and perhaps this is what else the Western Australian Government can do.
Because the ignorance of calling for the killing of sharks illustrates that there is no respect for the ocean and the intricate balance that sharks bring in keeping oceans healthy. Nor do the calls for shark nets and drum lines, respect the thousands of marine animals that are innocently caught up in these measures, some of which are now endangered due to human activity and are being killed at an astonishing rate due to these measures. Its not just by-catch however, some shark species are also facing extinction.
Lastly, these calls show no respect for the future generations. Without a healthy ocean humans can not survive. The ocean is slowly dying, with dead zones being found regularly. Humans through their arrogance, egos and ignorance are killing the very life support system that they rely on for clean, healthy oxygen.
Fortunately, while there is life, there is still hope. In Queensland the current party serving was voted in late last year, based on a platform that they would investigate and undertake a scientific review of non-lethal shark monitoring while recognising the need to protect important and vulnerable marine species. Additionally, the Greens Party, which has a history of objecting to shark nets, drum lines and culling, had an outstanding result during the same election, securing its first member of parliament into the state.
New South Wales are currently three years into a five-year $16m non-lethal trial of shark control measures, seeing some great results in the use of drones and their SMART drum line trials. Whether these trials will see a replacement to shark nets is yet to be seen, as is whether SMART drum lines not only reduces by-catch deaths, but actually provides a safety measure for beach users.
The technique of tagging and towing sharks to deeper waters utilised as part the the NSW SMART drum line trial has been used in Brazil with fantastic results for the beaches where this initiative takes places, however as one marine biologist, Alison Kock notes, “the data shows an increase in shark attacks at an adjacent beach, leaving one wondering whether they have simply moved the problem elsewhere.”
Whatever the solution from here, we can not allow arrogance, egos, ignorance and fear to dictate the terms. Science, costs, the amount of fatalities caused by shark interactions, the decisions made by some beach users to ignore the solutions currently on offer and future generations all need to be considered.
As Western Australia’s Fisheries Minister, Dave Kelly recently stated, “it is worth noting that despite the extensive use of drum lines and nets on the east coast, [of Australia] there have been about double the number of shark attacks in the last five years compared to shark attack numbers in WA. This includes an attack in February at Kiama Beach and a shark interaction just the other week at Lennox Point, both NSW beaches which are part of the NSW SMART drum lines trial.
It would cost Western Australian taxpayers "an estimated $50 to $75 million per year" to install SMART drum lines off beaches in WA where attacks have occurred, money which could be spent on roads, hospitals, schools and reducing the numbers of those drowning at beaches, if only beach users obeyed beach closures.
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