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Why it’s time to modernise ocean safety in New South Wales, Australia Author: Emilia Michael, Action for Dolphins and Lauren Sandeman, Sea Shepherd Australia The New South Wales Government’s 2022 - 2026 Shark Management Program (Shark Management Program) includes effective, scientifically supported shark mitigation technologies that protect ocean users while minimising harm to marine animals.However, it has one key deficiency – the continued use of shark nets. Shark nets are installed at 51 beaches between Newcastle and Wollongong during September – April every year. The nets have been removed between May – August since 1983 so that migrating whales can pass without being entangled. There has been no corresponding spike in shark bites or encounters during these times, despite wetsuit technology increasing year-round ocean users in recent decades.
Ocean users are already swimming with sharks at netted beaches. This is because shark nets are not a barrier. Each net is only 150m long, 6m deep, and set in 12m deep water. However, the beaches they are installed in are often kilometres long. As such, it is unsurprising that 40% of sharks are caught on the beach side of the nets. Photo Credit: Gerald Schombs on UnsplashThe decision to continue using shark nets is controversial.
Shark nets indiscriminately entangle marine life, including threatened species. Over the 2021/22 meshing season, shark nets caught 376 marine animals. Only 14% (51) were target sharks, of which only 25 were over 2m (target size). The remaining 86% (325) included turtles, rays, dolphins, and fish. 22% of animals caught in these nets were threatened species. Photo Credit: Envoy Shark CullThe NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee has expressed grave concerns that the current shark net program is not meeting the objectives under the Joint Management Agreement (JMA) to either reduce the risk of a shark bite occurring, or to reduce its environmental impact; they further state that the ‘use of a range of technologies and the cessation of shark nets are likely to achieve a better result for the objectives of the JMA’.
Evidence shows shark nets are ineffective at reducing shark interactions. According to the Department of Primary Industries (DPI), shark nets are designed to ‘intercept’ white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks larger than 2m. The DPI believes the nets have been effective in ‘greatly reducing the potential number of interactions’, however has never published research demonstrating their efficacy. Photo Credit: Sea Shepherd Australia However since 2000, 85% of reported shark interactions in the Sydney metro region occurred at beaches with shark nets whilst they were deployed in the water (29 interactions at netted beaches and 5 at non-netted beaches).
The scientific evidence presented in the Humane Society International (Australia) Inc v Department of Agriculture & Fisheries (Qld) led to the Tribunal’s finding that the lethal component of shark management programs ‘does not reduce the risk of unprovoked shark interactions.’ The Tribunal found Associate Professor McPhee’s (expert witness for Queensland Department of Fisheries) evidence most compelling. He stated it was ‘highly plausible’ that if the shark management program removed lethal technologies, we would see ‘no discernible change in unprovoked shark bites, in particular fatalities.’ These findings were upheld on appeal by the full Federal Court of Australia.
Scientists state that the claim that shark nets are the key factor for reducing shark interactions in NSW ‘conflates correlation with causation, oversimplifying or overlooking key social factors’. Scientific analysis finds that the key contributing factors for reduced shark interactions include the change in human behaviour with swimming in the ocean (swimming during the day instead of at night), the expansion of beach patrol programs at the same time nets were introduced, investment in public services and advances in medicine and medical response to incidents. Photo Credit: Sea Shepherd Australia Importantly, NSW is already using modern alternatives that are more effective at protecting ocean users without harming marine life. These technologies include the following:
Scaling drone surveillance programs,
Increasing coastal surveillance through tagged shark listening stations to ensure each local government area has one,
More research into personal deterrent devices, and
Expanding community education programs.
Personal deterrent devices and electromagnetic barriers are also available. Photo Credit: Action for Dolphins It is time to modernise ocean safety in New South Wales by permanently removing shark nets and doubling down on the deployment of modern technologies.
The community and relevant stakeholders agree it’s time to remove this outdated technology. For instance, the permanent removal of shark nets from NSW’s waters is supported by NSW Local Governments, most members of coastal communities, the NSW Fisheries Scientific Committee and the NSW Threatened Species Committee. If you also agree, you can let New South Wales politicians know by adding your name here