How Australians can safely enjoy the pleasures of the ocean alongside its apex predator is a barbecue stopping debate that stirs both fear and fascination in the Australian psyche.
On one side of the debate are those who believe the only good shark is a dead one. On the other, those who think sharks deserve a fair go – after all, the ocean is their home.
Then there are those who fall somewhere in the middle – beachgoers who view the deaths of sharks and bycatch caught in nets and on lethal drum lines in shark culling programs as a necessary evil. It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind at the beach.
But that view is misguided, according to a recent Senate report, which says the shark control programs in Queensland and New South Wales are outdated and ineffective, give a false sense of security and result in an unacceptable number of deaths of marine species, many endangered or threatened.
Sea Life Trust estimates for every one potentially dangerous shark caught in the nets, the number of non-target, non-dangerous animals caught is about 20.
The organisation says between 1962 and 2014, the Queensland Shark Control Program ensnared and entangled 84,800 marine creatures on drum lines and in shark nets.
The Senate inquiry into shark mitigation and deterrent measures (December 2017) recommended the Queensland and New South Wales governments immediately replace lethal drum lines with Shark Management Alert in Real Time (SMART) drum lines – which are not designed to kill sharks, but allow them to be caught, tagged for study and released alive.
It also recommended phasing out shark nets, which are typically only 186 metres long with a depth of six metres, allowing sharks to swim around and underneath.
Sunshine Coast shark expert Tony Isaacson is a marine educator who believes sharks are greatly misunderstood, saying sensationalised media portrayals of sharks do them, and the public, a great disservice.
“When a shark makes a mistake, it’s in the headlines for all the wrong reasons,” he says.
“Most are category three or four incidences, which are bites that end as fatalities.
“From the research I’ve done, most of these are preventable. We need better education so people are aware of when the risks are higher than normal.”
BBC TV presenter and naturalist Steve Backshall, on the Coast last week for his Deadly 60 Downunder show, echoes these sentiments: “Unfortunately, shark attacks appeal to our sense of the macabre and the sense of the sensational,” he says.
“If you have a shark attack in Australia, it makes front page news in the UK. It’s a sensational story so those attacks have a greater impact on the national psyche and international psyche than another form of human fatal incident.
“The reality is the attacks on human beings is very low and mortality is impossibly low.
“I really hope the people in Queensland and on the Sunshine Coast can see their way clear to using more modern, less mortal ways of protecting human beings.”
Both Steve Backshall and Tony Isaacson are often seen sporting T-shirts emblazoned with sharks, drawing attention to the plight of the ocean’s apex predators.
Mr Isaacson has devoted his life to studying the behaviour of sharks around the world.
With multiple awards under his belt, he has been acknowledged for his commitment to shark advocacy and raising awareness of the critical role sharks play in maintaining healthy oceans.
He champions new technologies that could supersede nets and drum lines and give us better protection, while conserving marine species.
But he’s frustrated by what he sees as an archaic Queensland shark control program and unwillingness by the government to ramp up support for non-lethal technologies.
“I have the luxury of being an independent marine educator,” he says.
“What I’m seeing is a hesitation to spend any money on technologies that might be observed from a distance and proven elsewhere while we watch.
“I think that’s an inappropriate thing for us to do while Australian companies are developing state-of-the-art technology that can and will save lives, and cover a far greater area than nets and not endanger marine life.”
Mr Isaacson is currently in the Bahamas, where shark diving tourism injects $US113 million (about $143 million) into the economy annually. He’s on a self-funded trip trialling a number of non-lethal shark deterrent devices and has captured on video 100 per cent effectiveness of e-Shark Force and No Shark electronic bracelets deterring bull sharks over a number of days in Bimini.
Accompanying Mr Isaacson on the trip is Richard Talmage, from West Australian company Smart Marine Systems, which makes a device called Clever Buoy.
Described as a ‘virtual shark net’, it uses multi-beam sonar technology to identify when a shark enters a beach, coupled with software that gives the beach patrol real-time messages.
Beach authorities can track the shark and decide whether to clear the beach or send a drone or surf rescue team out to investigate.
“Management at Sunshine Coast Council has expressed an interest in a demonstration,” Mr Isaacson says, adding that he has seen Clever Buoy’s sonar signatures of great whites entering a beach at Hawks Nest in New South Wales.
The device was implemented at the World Surfing Titles in J-Bay, South Africa this year to avoid a repeat of the Mick Fanning incident, and will be used in California and Florida this year.
The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries trialled Clever Buoy at Bondi Beach and plans to conduct further trials.
The Western Australian Government provided $500,000 to support a Clever Buoy trial from December 2016 to March 2017, with the results under review.
The Queensland Government has made no commitment to investing in trials of Clever Buoy or any other non-lethal shark mitigation device. It’s sticking with it’s $3.5-million a year shark control program, which it says is working just fine.
“The Palaszczuk Government remains steadfast in our support for the Shark Control Program,” says Queensland Agricultural Development and Fisheries Minister Mark Furner.
“It has undoubtedly saved lives. That’s why it will continue.
“In the last 55 years, only one person has lost their life to a shark at a protected Queensland beach.
“Based on the evidence to date, traditional capture methods remain the most effective measures to reduce the risk of a shark attack.
“If new technologies are shown to be effective in preventing marine life fatalities and are practical for use, they will be considered by the Shark Control Program.”
Surf Life Saving Queensland regional manager Aaron Purchase agrees: “Our priority is people’s safety and we support the current program, given it has a good track record in Queensland.
“However, we are open to ideas that will improve it. We are aware there are trials of various technologies that are trying to achieve the same outcome of keeping sharks away from people.
“If one of those is proved to be effective, we’re open to that, but it would have to be proven first. We always come back to our message of swim between the flags.”
From 2009, Fisheries Queensland invested $125,000 into research to better understand the behaviour of large sharks.
“This research strategy is being developed through the Shark Control Program Scientific Working Group, which was established to improve the program’s effectiveness and reduce impacts on bycatch,” a Fisheries spokesperson says.
“The Scientific Working Group is also exploring alternative shark control technologies.”
But Mr Isaacson says the Queensland Government is not doing enough: “A wait and see approach is not a commitment to actively trial and evaluate new technologies at Queensland beaches and managed waterways,” he says.
He also says signs at Sunshine Coast waterways like Lake Kawana need to be upgraded to explicitly state that dangerous bull sharks inhabit those waters.
Striped surfboards and wetsuits, drones with special shark-spotting capabilities and Eco Shark Barriers, which are made from nylon and are designed to restrict sharks without killing non-target species are among some of the non-lethal options that could be trialled locally.
The West Australian Government has taken a new approach to shark mitigation after a 2014 trial of drum lines caught 200 sharks, none of them the target species – great white sharks. It has invested more than $33 million on a broad range of strategies.
One such strategy is to offer a rebate of $200 for Shark Shield FREEDOM7, a device worn on the ankle that emits a three-dimensional electrical field that repels sharks – even great whites – and is proving popular with surfers, divers and anglers.
A Queensland Fisheries spokesperson says, “The Queensland Government will monitor the results from the subsidy trial to determine if this program would be effective if implemented in Queensland.”
Shark Shield has received private investment of $10 million over 15 years and Clever Buoy $2 to $3 million, but the makers of both products say they are amazed at how little interest they’ve received from local, state or federal governments.
Eighty-five of Queensland’s beaches contain nets or drum lines and 24 beaches along the Sunshine Coast have a combination of 75 drum lines and 14 nets.
The program has been supported by successive governments since 1962, but their effectiveness is difficult to evaluate, as 83 per cent of drum lines are deployed at locations where a fatal attack has never occurred.
Also, shark attack statistics don’t take into account the absence of shark bites at beaches that do not feature nets or drum lines.
Those in favour of continuing the current program point to New South Wales as proof of its effectiveness.
In the shark meshing program area (SMP) from Newcastle to Wollongong between 1995 and 2015, 25 incidents occurred, comprising encounters that resulted in injuries and those that did not.
Between September 2014 and October 2016, the non-SMP Byron Bay to Yamba coastline experienced 18 encounters, including two fatalities. So that’s 25 in 20 years compared with 17 in two years.
But a review of the program in 2009 noted that 23 shark encounters had occurred at meshed beaches and 40 per cent of sharks trapped in nets were found on the beach side.
Mr Isaacson suggests the reason for the heightened number of attacks in northern New South Wales isn’t due to an absence of nets, but whale burials on the beach, which attract sharks when their oils, liquids and blood leak into the water, and while drum lines and nets remove some of the sharks, more will come to take their place.
The Senate report concluded: “Despite the many arguments and counter-arguments that can be made about the effectiveness of lethal measures, fundamentally, it is impossible to determine whether there would have been a higher number of deaths if they were not in place.
“Nevertheless… it can be concluded that it is impossible for lethal shark control measures to guarantee public safety.
“Relying on outdated approaches from the 1930s that are not backed by science would not be tolerated in other areas of public safety.
“The committee… is of the view that it is necessary to carefully consider the effectiveness of alternative approaches.”
Tony Isaacson has a simple message: “The safest and best option for every recreational family at the beach is to swim between the flags.”
He adds, “I’m in agreement with the Fisheries minister. He has said the shark control program must continue because it definitely saves lives.
“I agree 100 per cent with those statements. However, the shark control program needs to have a quantum shift from lethal technologies to non-lethal technologies.
“I would like to think the shark control program delivers no human fatalities in my lifetime or my children’s lifetime. That would be my aim.”