Australia's Great White Hype
Guest Blog From Western Australian Local Explains Something More Horrifying Than the Death Toll Caused by Shark Nets; the Real Reasons a Faulty System Persists.
Great White Sharks; awe inspiring, majestic, and magnificent and conversely they are deeply feared and misunderstood. I live in Perth, Western Australia and work for the conservation of this vulnerable animal, but it is a difficult job. We aren’t talking about a cute and snuggly bear cub that people relate to, we anthropomorphize cute animals with big brown eyes. You can’t do that with sharks, saving them is a tough sell, especially in Australia.
Here in Australia we have numerous species of sharks including the big 3; Bull, Tiger and of course White Sharks. I have lived in Perth for about 25 years and every year or two there is a shark related fatality. It is brandished in the media, and the government always does the same thing, going out on a ‘Rogue Shark Hunt’ making a sacrificial killing to appease the public that it is safe to go back into the water, then people forget about it.
It is important to the powers-that-be that people feel safe at the beach, Perth and the South West of the State rely heavily on the continued flood of tourists attracted to our white sandy beaches.
Nothing could have prepared WA for the tragedy that took place in WA over a 10 month period in 2011-2012 with 5 people dying from Shark Attacks. The attacks were seemingly random and unpredictable; 1 person died while diving at Rottnest Island, another died while surfing at Cottesloe Beach and 3 of the deaths occurred in WA’s South West on relatively remote beaches. The attacks covered the entire south west area of the state and Perth.
That is how Western Australia earned the infamous title of ‘Shark Attack Capital of the World’ and everybody had an opinion. Following the attacks, the media ensured that the danger of sharks in the water was emblazoned on our minds, a shark swimming past a beach was headlining news, it seemed as if you couldn’t pick up the newspaper, go online or flick the TV on without seeing sharks. According to Sentia Media, West Australian media outlets had produced almost 15,000 stories on sharks in the year ending 2012.
Australia has a history of shark attacks from Aboriginal times through to the first attempts at European settlement, especially in southern waters. Research into Great White Sharks has been headed up by Barry Bruce from the CSIRO for more than a decade. His research stipulates that Great Whites have 2 nursery areas in the Eastern States, 1 at Cove Inlet Victoria and another at Port Stephens in NSW. When they reach about 4 metres in length they generally head for the cool Southern Waters of Australia and a reasonable concentration of them are found off Port Lincoln South Australia where they have moved to dine on seals.
Once the White Shark has reached that size and is in the southern waters, naturally it doesn’t respect state lines and it can roam around South Australia and come up the Western Australian coast. Only around 300 individuals have been tagged, while our coastline does boast an array of acoustic monitors, those are only picking up movements of the small number of tagged White Sharks.
Following the fatalities that occurred, the WA Government was allocated a total of $13.65 million to reduce the risk of attacks along our coastline and ensure tourists that this past summer would be nothing like the one before it.
$2 million was allocated to kill sharks that could be considered dangerous, basically they are guilty until proven innocent; something that doesn’t work in nature. The legislation became what is known as the Imminent Threat Policy. Fisheries Minister Norman Moore told reporters in November 2012:
“Previously, the orders were used in response to an attack, but now proactive action will be taken if a large white shark presents imminent threat to people.”
Premier Colin Barnett and Minister of Fisheries Norman Moore were in charge of choosing the methods which would kill sharks, particularly White Sharks which have been protected since 1997. Barnett turned to existing shark control programs that have been in place in the eastern states for a long time.
In Sydney, New South Wales Shark nets were put in place in the 1930's and fear keeps them in place today. No politician will risk pulling these nets and then being blamed for an attack. Shark nets do not provide a consistent barrier to protect bathers, rather it minimizes the amount of large sharks that could reach the coast. Between 40 and 50 percent of sharks have been found on the Beach-Side of the nets and in 2008 there were 2 shark attacks that occurred on netted beaches.
The other problem with establishing shark nets on coast lines is the high rate of by-catch. In NSW between 1950 and 2008, 15,135 marine animals that weren’t sharks were caught and killed in nets, including turtles, whales, dolphins, rays, dugongs and also killed 377 of the now critically endangered and harmless grey nurse sharks.
Queensland also runs a shark control program and they use a mix of shark nets and hooked, baited drum lines so is their model worth adopting? Between 1975 and 2001, 11,899 great white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks were killed in nets and drum lines. Over the same period 53,098 other marine animals were killed. 505 sharks were caught between January and 20th November 2009. Less than half of those sharks caught were considered the dangerous or target species. Also killed were 16 dolphins, 6 whales, 1 dugong and 30 turtles.
So the evidence is in, the studies completed. Shark nets are indiscriminate and do not provide a proper barrier and drum lines have the same problem, on top of the fact that baiting drum lines attracts sharks, it doesn’t repel them. The studies done for The Department of Fisheries all made the same clear statement; Western Australia’s coastline should not be netted or subject to drum lining in order to protect the marine eco-system. Premier Barnett and Mr Moore made their decision, in the face of all the evidence, they chose Drum Lining as their solution.
It didn’t take long for them to test out their drum lining solution, when it was alleged that a white shark was ‘behaving menacingly’ (whatever that means) in WA’s south west near Dunsborough, The Department of Fisheries issued a kill order and contracted a local vessel called ‘The North Islander’ to set up drum lines and kill the shark… which didn’t happen, 2 tiger sharks were caught and released but the ‘menacing’ great white never showed up.
The public were outraged at this fiasco which took place in this tourist hot-spot. Citizens were demanding to know how much the useless effort cost and surfers complained that the drum liners had endangered the beach for days.
There were many positives that came out of the plan; over the summer period the surf life savers were able to patrol multiple beaches daily, helicopters were in the air to spot sharks and research is being done into shark repellents at the University of Western Australia.
A minimum of $2 million was put towards research and tagging through the Imminent Threat Policy, shark conservationists like myself sat back in anger as we waited for The Department of Fisheries and Forestry’s (DAFF) to get in the water and start tagging sharks, it didn’t happen all year until last week, finally a tagging expedition into WA’s sharks which was motivated by the new Minister of Fisheries Troy Buswell directly following an attempt by the Ocearch to come in and tag sharks in WA waters. Mr Buswell was agreeable to it but permits are issued by the Federal government and they don’t approve of Ocearch’s methods. Both ways it is a positive for the sharks and the people of WA, tagging and research will finally be done.
Apart from the Ocearch issue, the onset of winter silenced the shark debate… until October 9th.
On October 9th, Greg Pickering was attacked by a suspected white shark whilst free diving for abalone in Southern WA Waters. He survived the attack and was airlifted to hospital but what is particularly amazing about his case is that he was attacked once before, in 2004 whilst spear fishing, in a totally different location. Nobody saw the shark that attacked him and therefore the species couldn’t be confirmed. He was diving in waters where white sharks are known to aggregate and wasn’t using the protective cage that most abalone divers use. A kill order was issued for the shark responsible.
The fact that a kill order was issued on an unknown shark really highlights the ridiculousness of the WA Imminent Threat Policy. The Department of Fisheries admitted they wouldn’t know which shark was guilty until they had the dead body and did DNA sampling… talk about going on a fishing expedition! After a few days, they saw the error of their ways and rescinded the kill order.
Kill orders, Shark Nets, Drum Lines… isn’t there a better system we could use to protect people and sharks? Michael Brown of Surfwatch Australia says yes.
Michael and his team have developed something called 'Shark Guard' he says:
"The primary reason we developed Shark guard is because we are aware that unless we come up with a viable alternative that there is no way the government will remove the nets."
Shark Guard works by dropping the buoys into the water about 300 metres apart with a hook with a fake fish. The buoy is large and bright yellow. When the bait is seized with a bite force that can only come from a large shark, the guard is triggered. Once the shark does bite the unit, it will then detach from the main mooring and then the shark will start to tow the unit and as soon as it does, it activates a GPS transmitter and a video camera.
Shark Guard buoys set up in place of nets and drum lines means that the shark will be easily seen by swimmers or surfers as it is dragging the large yellow buoy and the Control Centre can watch the animal remotely and inform the authorities. Once the shark is out of the danger area, near a public beach for example, then the unit can be released from the shark remotely from the control centre, or by boat. The potential for this technology can save lives of humans and sharks alike.
Another idea being researched is magnetic repellents. The principal is that they over-stimulate the shark's electro sensory system and induce a repellent response. These have been tested successfully with other shark species such as Bull, Tiger and Hammerheads. It is showing promise in White Shark research, but not really ready for sole use under the guise that it will definitely stave off white sharks. There is of course also the eco-friendly shark exclusion barriers being tested which work like a wall so no marine life gets caught in it, unlike shark nets.
So what about the poor Great White Sharks; persecuted by fear, captured in fishing nets, finned for black market sale, poisoned by our waste and killed by our shark control programs... what can we do for them, they are vulnerable to extinction? We can educate ourselves and the future generation and understand that, when we go into the water we are entering the domain of the sharks, once you step into the ocean for any reason you are accepting a risk.
As a shark conservationist I put a lot of hope in technology like Sharkguard, it has an amazing potential to keep beach goers safe and sharks alive. This is the sort of research that money should be funnelled into. For the sake of my coast line I hope for a day when I don’t have to worry about drum lines being dropped into the water and I hope for a time when NSW and Qld pull their shark nets and lines out of the water, god knows we as humans damage the ocean enough already, it’s time to really start minimising harm.
SOS – Save Our Sharks
Debra Canabal of Epic Diving in the WSV hoodie. Get yours!
About the Author
Skyler Thomas is the primary blog contributor, cinematographer, and lead editor at White Shark Video.