I want to first thank Melissa Smith and Ross Weir for participating in the interview with me and sharing extensive knowledge. Also contributing to the interview were Blair Ransford and Barry Bruce. Due to length, this interview will be presented in multiple parts, so check back in next week.
WSV - I recently read about your collaboration with Blue Seals to stop longlining. On my recent trips the local dive companies told me horror stories of longlines wiping out resident and migratory sharks, as well as turtles, birds, etc. But what about white sharks? How do longlines affect whites in Western Australia?
WASC - Longlining is a destructive fisheries practice that we at WASC would like to see banned in Australian waters. Long lining by commercial, Commonwealth and State fisheries impacts on the Great Whites by killing them directly, as by-catch. Even those that are released alive are affected as some later succumb to death. It also impacts upon these sharks by killing the animals they predate upon.
We do know that white sharks are being killed on these destructive longlines, including juveniles. Barry Bruce of the CSIRO has shown what is considered to be two separate populations, one on the Eastern seaboard of Tasmania and one west of Tasmania. The South West Tuna and Billfish fisheries use longlines and it is very likely that Great Whites are also caught in Seiners targeting endangered blue fin tuna. Many of these are, of course, also a food source for the diminishing Great White shark population.
WSV - Can you give me any specific numbers? Is anyone studying this?
WASC - Long lining and its impact on the Great White Shark population is a complicated affair, primarily due to the migratory nature of the Great White Sharks and the lack of intensive research done on the issue. Barry Bruce of the CSIRO is considered one of the major researchers into Great White Sharks in Australia and his studies concluded that Great White Sharks in eastern and southern Australia form two genetically separate populations which are highly mobile population (Bruce and Colleagues 2006). These sharks are inhabiting the waters of the two states which report ongoing mortalities within their State-Managed Fisheries, these are South Australia and Western Australia.
The data that reflects mortalities by commercial fisheries, by Commonwealth fisheries and by state fisheries are a combination of both longlining and gill net related deaths.
Commonwealth managed fisheries indicates that there were approximately 37 Great White Sharks caught between 2002–2008 of which 27 were reported as being released alive (DEWHA 2008aaaa). Only South Australia and Western Australia reported interactions from within their state managed fisheries - of those, Western Australia reported 10 interactions in 2007–2008 while South Australia reported five interactions in 2007–2008 (DEWHA 2008aaaa).
The studies do however acknowledge that the true mortality rate of Great Whites resulting from commercial and recreational fisheries practices is far higher than Commonwealth and State statistics. Although not specifically targeted, they are caught as by-catch on longlines and in the nets of professional fishers and in fin fish farm cages such as tuna farms. This is currently thought to be the largest cause of mortality for Great White Sharks.
The estimate of Great White Sharks caught by commercial and recreational fisheries is listed as anywhere between 100-440 per year throughout Australian waters.
WSV - What about drum lining?
WASC - Drum lining for Shark Control Programs on the coasts are having a huge impact on Great White Sharks and this is documented in much more detail. While WA’s Imminent Threat Policy includes the use of Drum lines on occasion, Queensland has been drum lining year round for decades and the damage this has done is massive. The Queensland program which operates from the Gold Coast to Cairns, uses 344 baited* drum lines year round (Green et al. 2009). The hook is baited every other day with fresh sea mullet, which is a naturally occurring food source for sharks (Qld DPI&F 2006). Between 1985–1986 and 2008–09, some 18,900 sharks were caught in the Queensland Shark Protection Program (Qld OESR 2009). Of these, 214 (or approximately 1%) were Great White Sharks.
*note, these are baited lines. The lines are intended to reduce shark activity in the area, yet bait is used to attract the sharks. Seems rather unfair.
WSV - In addition to longlines, drumlines, etc., your sharks are also facing the ‘Imminent Threat’ policy. To summarize for the readers, this is a government sanctioned program to destroy any shark lingering in waters “too long”. What can you tell me about this?
WASC - The Imminent Threat Policy is an another example of Political Policies that result from purely financial interests, so much so that even endangered species can be targeted such as the Great White Shark. When the spate of attacks occurred in WA, former Department of Fisheries Minister Norman Moore attempted to have the protected status removed from the Great White Shark, reasoning that they could not possibly be endangered when they had been seen during attacks or near attack spots. Luckily, the protected status was not lifted, but the Imminent Threat Policy was introduced by Premier Colin Barnett and Norman Moore, which threatens these endangered sharks.
Norman Moore stated that his primary reason for pursuing the Imminent Threat Policy was because he felt WA’s Tourism sector would suffer as a result of the attacks and this policy would lessen the impact that attacks had on holiday destinations, particularly in WA’s south west. Premier Barnett supported this policy to garner more votes in showing that he had his state’s ‘Shark Problem’ under control while the media frenzy called WA ‘Shark Attack Capital of The World.’
WSV - When dealing with a “threatened” species, I have found myself on more than one occasion wondering why policies and permits are set forth that allow for the damage and destruction of the animal before proof is shown that these policies are solidly founded.
WASC - WA Premier Colin Barnett and former Fisheries Minister Norman Moore sought studies from other parts of the country to help them make an ‘informed decision’ about what kind of shark control program would suit WA. The main study was done by Bond University and its results were based on the history of Eastern States Shark Control Programs. Critically, the study revealed:
The Bond University findings were sent to WA’s Department of Fisheries and despite its recommendations that Western Australia’s coast should not be subject to drum lines, when the Imminent Threat Policy was drafted two months later, these findings were ignored and Drum Lining was included in the policy dealing with Pre-Emptive slaughter. Once again we see that the politicians favored an environmentally unsound program (which has played out in Queensland for nearly three decades with huge numbers of sharks killed along with turtles, dolphins and rays) because that is what suited them financially.
Bond University Study:
WSV - Who does this type of policy really benefit?
WASC - Who does the Imminent Threat Policy benefit? As previously discussed, it benefited politicians like former Fisheries Minister Norman Moore, WA Premier Colin Barnett also benefited hugely as he was re-elected in March of this year. In addition to the political benefactors of The Imminent Threat Policy, the tourism sector also benefited. The public saw an increase in Surf Lifesavers with Jet Skis and helicopters on Shark Watch all summer which was very beneficial for them, but this part of the policy was attached to another portion of the funding.
WSV - How many sharks have been killed directly by the pre-emptive killing policy?
WASC -This summer period was the first trial of The Imminent Threat Policy and only one drum line action was instigated by The Department of Fisheries. This action occurred in WA’s South West, near Dunsborough in early January 2013 where it was alleged that ‘menacing great whites’ had been present on the same beach for a period of several days. A Kill Order was issued by the Department of Fisheries and they employed the services of vessel ‘North Islander’ and its crew to deploy drum lines in attempt to catch these ‘menacing sharks’. The end result after a couple of days was the capture and release of two tiger sharks officially. Drum lines were pulled out of the water with no capture or even sighting of the great whites.
The reaction to this first drum lining attempt in the Dunsborough community was quite strong. Surfers complained that the burleying of the waters by ‘The North Islander’ was likely to attract sharks long after the lines had been pulled up and the community demanded to know how much this fruitless effort cost. The Department of Fisheries refused to release details on the expense of the exercise and another drum lining was not attempted for the rest of the summer period of 2012-2013.
WSV - A large sum of money was put toward the shark cull. How much money does the government give to shark research organizations?
WASC - The Imminent Threat Policy was actually broken down into several funding initiatives that spread the $6 million across several different shark control matters. Funding was allocated as following:
WSV - What’s the likelihood that we, mankind, are in fact responsible for the increase in sightings near shore?
WASC - The obvious answer to this question is yes, there are many things that mankind does which could be considered to be increasing the amount of sightings near shore. These include fisheries operations and other vessels jettisoning waste, overfishing areas of the ocean that sharks frequent, impacting on the population of seals, sea lions, sea birds and other species that are prey items. Activity around river mouths is also included, particularly since we tend to use river mouths as Ports and marinas for fishing vessels. Also overfishing of sharks must be considered since it has badly damaged the breeding stock, forcing them to move to areas they have not been found to visit with regularity historically. All these things can pressure sharks closer to shores in search of food or breeding.
This is however a double sided question. We are creating more ways of monitoring sharks through tagging practices, through shark watch programs, and having more people, in more vehicles on the ground, in the water and in the sky looking specifically for sharks whether it be for “beach safety”, for research and protection or through targeted fishing.
Therefore it can also be said that while more sharks are being reported in the surf zone, it can also be easily argued that seeing more sharks in shallow water doesn’t mean their presence there is new or unusual: only that there are more eyes on the water now than ever before. Basically, more research is needed to truly answer this question
WSV - Obviously, the more eyes on the water, the more sharks will be spotted. Directly associated to more eyes on the water is the concept of increased numbers of beaches accessible to humans. How many beaches in the last two decades have been developed on that were previously uninhabited?
WASC - Western Australia has received a lot of growth in the last twenty years due to both the tourism sector and in general population. The South West of WA has been at the forefront of this growth with towns such as Albany and Dunsborough which were historically Whaling Stations growing into tourist locations for their beautiful white sandy beaches. The Margaret River area, which is also part of the South West has grown immensely also, not just for beach areas but due to its vineyards making it a major tourist draw. With business growth comes steady residential population growth and far more people are now living in these towns and enjoying the extended beaches of the coast.
The population increase in the outer CBD is also reflected in the building of another Train Line which extends out to the Mandurah coastal area which, until about ten years ago was primarily a tourism area, but now the residential population in the Mandurah, Falcon area has exploded. The North West of WA has several major tourism areas, all centralised around coastal hotspots, but much of the actual land is divided amongst the mining industry.
There are many more boats out on the coast than there were twenty years ago and more Marinas have been built and existing ones extended to deal with this increase of recreational boating traffic. The Fremantle Port which traditionally has been the main port for all of Perth’s imports and exports has grown and changed. Fremantle has spread into a large residential beach side town with many tourist draws.
The live export industry, particularly to the Middle East is based in Fremantle with hundreds of thousands of sheep and cattle being trucked to this port for loading onto Live Export Vessels. These vessels spew a lot of waste into the river mouth as they stay loading for days at a time and the Fremantle Mayor has been supporting the Stop Live Export Movement of Perth in a bid to rid Fremantle of these vessels. Another Port is being reclaimed in an area called Kwinana which is commercial.
The population of WA has certainly grown and the use of our coastline has increased, now more than ever the beaches are filled with swimmers, surfers, divers and kayakers. Studies have shown that the spread of the population around Southern WA and the greater Perth region show a pattern consistent with the distribution of water based activities along the coast when matched up to shark attacks.
To be continued...check back for part two of this amazing interview.
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.