Commentary by Allyson Jennings – NSW Apex Harmony Coordinator.
On Tuesday 29th September, I attended the 2015 NSW Shark Summit in Sydney on behalf of Sea Shepherd Australia. Around 70 delegates including government officials, marine scientists, lifeguard organisations, Royal Australian Navy, environmental groups and other stakeholders were present on the day. This summit was formed as part of the response to the past 12 months of human-shark interactions which have largely centred on the Far North Coast of NSW of which tragically, two were fatalities.
Firstly, I would like to thank The Hon. Premier Mike Baird and Hon. Minister Niall Blair for this opportunity. It is clear that the NSW Government wants to approach the issue of sharks and beach safety in a progressive, well considered and proactive manner with minimal impact to the marine environment. Contrary to this, the WA Government responded to the incidents involving humans and sharks with a knee jerk cull via drum lines which resulted in the capture of 172 sharks over a three month trial, most of which were tiger sharks and none were great whites.
The summit agenda included an overview of what the NSW Government hoped to gain from this summit in terms of how to address the issue and what steps could be put in place going forward, presentations from some of the world’s best marine science experts in shark biology and behaviour, presentation of the government commissioned “Independent Review of Bather Protection Technologies” by Cardno and wrapping up with a discussion. The NSW Premier also addressed the summit as he has a keen personal interest in the issue being an avid surfer and ocean lover.
It was unfortunate that the Independent Review into Bather Protection Technologies was didn’t provide any further information than what we currently already knew about the technologies emerging or available presently. The short time frame of two months which Cardno had to complete the review, would have also contributed to the lack of detail and substance. The technologies were divided into large scale deterrents and personal deterrents and were assessed against a set of researched criteria.
After evaluating the numerous technologies, the Shark Spotters program and tagging and tracking were the two main recommendations which were presented to the summit as the best options to roll out immediately whereas many of the other technologies required further information, independent testing, weren’t ready for trial or commercially available.
The Shark Spotters program is a world first of its kind based in Cape Town, South Africa. It has been successfully running for 10 years, with only one fatality, which occurred on a low visibility day – as was demonstrated by the Shark Spotting team, with the deployment of the black flag . The program is based on trained volunteers placed in various elevated positions at a beach location to survey for sharks and a set of coloured flags, each with its own meaning to inform beachgoers of conditions and presence of sharks in the area. This program could be applicable at beaches across NSW and the current volunteer surf lifesaving members could be utilised as a cost effective measure with the added advantage being that they are trained in first aid and rescue.
Sea Shepherd had identified Shark Spotters as a viable non lethal alternative in 2014, however no government had considered it thoroughly citing topography and resources as major barriers. These barriers could easily be overcome with the use of volunteers and observation towers.
Tagging and tracking was the other ready to go option presented. This method enables scientists to learn about the movements and habits of sharks along the Eastern Australian seaboard.
CSIRO has been tagging and tracking sharks for several years now however recently NSW DPI started their own North Coast Local Waters Shark Tagging Project as a part of the NSW Government’s $250,000 shark mitigation campaign on the NSW North Coast. Eight sharks have been tagged so far and many have already migrated significant distances as far away as up to Fraser Island, Queensland and south to Port Stephens, NSW.
Another recommendation was smart drum lines which are currently being used in Reunion Island.
However given many species of shark have a high mortality rate such as Hammerheads which only have a 50% chance of survival after being hooked, signal failure and the indiscriminate aspect of many other marine creatures being snared on the drum lines e.g dolphins and turtles, this is not an ideal option.
Other technologies such as Eco Shark Barrier and Shark Shield were considered as options being commercially available.
Shark Safe Barrier was another technology close to trial and will be commercially available in 2016.
It is important to note that NSW DPI has never given the current shark nets as much scrutiny as the aforementioned technologies. Had they done this, it is likely the nets would never have been installed as there is no scientific evidence to support their efficacy in protecting beach goers and minimising impact on marine wildlife.
Nonetheless, what was made abundantly clear by NSW Government officials is that any decisions made going forward will be thoroughly researched, tested and guided by science.
As Vic Peddemors, NSW DPI Shark Scientist stated “We are not going to put devices into the water to placate people’s fears.” Those in attendance were guaranteed that the summit was the beginning of a process in ensuring the best solutions are put in place to protect both beach goers and marine life.
However it was evident as stated by several speakers that there is no silver bullet when it comes to solving this issue and that there will never be 0% risk when it comes to recreating in the ocean.
Despite this, everything possible will be done to minimise risk to beach goers safety and impact on the marine environment. It was further mentioned that there will not be a one size fits all solution to NSW beach locations and that a multi layered approach was needed.
The Premier and Minister Blair also stated that a cull was not an option to be considered given that there was significant evidence to support the ineffectiveness and acknowledgement of the protected status of Great White Sharks.
The stakeholder group which Sea Shepherd Australia is a part of will continue to further work on the issue to ensure the best possible outcome for both beach goers and the amazing array of marine wildlife present off the NSW coast. It is possible in this modern age with the numerous non lethal technologies available to achieve this positive result for all.
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