Lethal or not? Australia’s beaches are a crucible for shark control methods

Lethal or not? Australia’s beaches are a crucible for shark control methods

  • For decades, Australia’s east-coast states have attempted to keep beachgoers safe from sharks by deploying entangling shark nets and culling species deemed dangerous.
  • Recent figures published by the state of New South Wales reveal that almost all the animals caught in the nets during the 2022/23 summer season were “nontarget” species, including turtles, dolphins and endangered shark species, the majority of which died due to entanglement in the nets.
  • In contrast, the west-coast state of Western Australia has abandoned a shark culling regime in favor of nonlethal alternatives, such as drone monitoring and “eco barriers,” swimming enclosures that keep marine life out but do not risk entanglement.
  • Despite calls from environmental groups to exclusively adopt nonlethal technologies, shark control programs are continuing in both New South Wales and its northern neighbor, Queensland, during the 2023/24 Australian summer.

The Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland, which make up the nation’s entire eastern seaboard, have had an uneasy relationship with sharks since they implemented safety measures last century. The governments of both states conduct shark control programs that aim to protect beachgoers by deterring “target” species identified as dangerous to humans, such as the tiger (Galeocerdo cuvier) and great white (Carcharodon carcharias).

Both states’ methods can be lethal, not only for target sharks but for other protected marine life, drawing condemnation from conservationists. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the state of Western Australia has adopted a suite of nonlethal measures that conservationists say are better for marine life and people alike. Nevertheless, NSW and Queensland are sticking with their lethal programs as the country’s beach season gets underway.

Blacktip shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) caught in a NSW shark net.
A blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) caught in a NSW shark net. Image courtesy of Sea Shepherd Australia.

New South Wales’s program: Unintentionally lethal

While the NSW and Queensland programs differ, both have traditionally relied on the use of “shark nets.” These mesh barriers, 120 to 180 meters (400 to 600 feet) long, float in the ocean to intercept target species before they interact with humans. However, environmental groups have lobbied for years for their removal due to the susceptibility of sharks and other marine creatures, including turtles, dolphins and whales, to become entangled in the mesh and drown.

Almost all the animals caught in NSW nets during the past two summer seasons, 2020/21 and 2021/22, were “nontarget” species, according to NSW government statistics. The most recent figures, released in August, show the trend continues: almost 90% of animals caught in NSW nets during the 2022/23 season were nontarget species, prompting renewed calls for the shark control programs along Australia’s east coast to be replaced with nonlethal alternatives.

The statistics, published by the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI), show that only 24 of the 228 marine animals ensnared in nets between September 2022 and April 2023 were target species. More than a quarter of the netted animals were threatened or protected species, including 16 critically endangered sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus), six Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus), and three species of turtle: three green (Chelonia mydas), six leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and five loggerhead (Caretta caretta). Of all the animals ensnared, 63% died due to entanglement.

DPI maintains nets are effective in stopping shark attacks on humans, given the single fatality recorded at a meshed NSW beach since nets were first deployed in 1937. By contrast, 28 fatalities occurred at unmeshed coastal locations during the same period.

Shark nets installed in Sydney (left) and Queensland (right).
Shark nets installed in Sydney, NSW, (left) and Queensland (right). Images by (left) traveling.the.world and Helen K (right) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Environmental nonprofit Sea Shepherd Australia (SSA) has been monitoring shark control programs in NSW and Queensland for much of the last decade.

“In Queensland, if certain species of sharks are found alive in these nets, they are dragged out to sea so that they can be shot in the head and dumped outside of public sight,” Lauren Sandeman, SSA’s threatened species campaigner, told Mongabay. “In New South Wales, sharks found alive are electronically tagged and released, but many drown with these devices. These include species that are supposed to be protected under Australian legislation, such as the great white shark.”

SSA has spotted animals killed in the nets bearing shark bites, Sandeman said, likening the nets to “a floating buffet, right off the beach” that could actually attract sharks rather than deter them.

She said SSA is pushing NSW and Queensland to abandon netting and culling for alternative control measures, some of which the two states are currently trialing. These include the use of aerial surveillance drones, some coupled with artificial intelligence systems, at popular beaches to detect sharks visually and alert swimmers via alarms.

Another control measure both states are trialing is called a SMART drum line. A traditional drum line is an anchored buoy that lures target sharks with baited fishing hooks, a method still used in Queensland. A SMART drumline, however, whose acronym stands for “shark management alert in real time,” incorporates an electronic communications system that transmits the shark’s position to an operating team, who can respond as required.

Neither DPI nor NSW’s agriculture minister, Tara Moriarty, responded to Mongabay’s questions about the state’s decision to continue the meshing program for the 2023/24 season. However, in an August press release, the agriculture ministry confirmed that the program would continue unchanged from the preceding year when the state added alternative technologies to netted beaches for testing, describing it as “an effective mitigation program.”

Illustration of a shark net used in Queensland.
Illustration of a shark net used in Queensland. Image courtesy of Sea Shepherd Australia.

Queensland’s program: Lethal by design

Since 2001, nearly 18,000 animals have been caught under Queensland’s shark mitigation program, including 14,079 sharks, 991 sea turtles and 448 marine mammals. This program differs from NSW’s in two significant ways: It culls target shark species caught in nets and on SMART and traditional drum lines rather than electronically tagging them, and it keeps nets in place year-round.

This latter move is especially problematic, according to SSA and other environmental groups, as between April and September more than 30,000 humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) migrate past Australia’s east coast toward their tropical wintering grounds. The whales risk becoming entangled in Queensland’s netting and drowning.

The government’s own specialist advisory body on shark control has called for removing the nets. In February 2021, the Shark Control Program Scientific Working Group, which advises Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF), said it “supported the proposed 2021 Net Replacement Trial to reduce the risk of entanglement of Shark Control Program equipment with migrating whales.”

Yet the Queensland government has not altered its program, saying on average fewer than six whales become entangled each year. The DAF didn’t respond directly to a query about why the state declined to follow this specialist recommendation, but in an emailed statement referred Mongabay to the Queensland Shark Management Plan 2021-2025.

The plan “sets out how the Queensland Government will continue to reduce the risk of shark bites through [its] traditional program, while researching and trialling new shark mitigation technologies and boosting community education,” according to the statement attributed to an unidentified spokesperson.

These alternative technologies included drones and SMART drumlines, the statement said, adding that “No major changes will be made to the program until these trials have been completed and analysed, and it is determined whether they are effective for Queensland conditions.”

Mark Furner, Queensland’s agriculture and fisheries minister, didn’t respond to Mongabay’s request for comment. He has previously backed the state’s shark control program, describing its “enviable record.” Since 1962, just two fatalities have occurred at netted beaches on Queensland’s mainland, while 13 have occurred at unnetted “coastal locations” there. (Eight others occurred in unnetted locations in the open ocean or off remote islands.)

A grey nurse shark (Carcharias taurus)
A critically endangered sand tiger shark (Carcharias taurus) at Broughton Island, NSW. Image by John Turnbull via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Another state changes its ways

Culum Brown, head of the Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution of Fishes Laboratory at Macquarie University in NSW, told Mongabay that most Australians don’t know how the meshing program actually works.

“I don’t think shark nets are effective at all,” Brown said by email. “They are simply a net floating in the sea just offshore from popular beaches. Sharks can swim over them, under them and around them. In fact, the catch data shows most sharks are entangled on the beach side of the net, so they are trying to move away from the beach.”

Brown said the most effective way to mitigate human-shark interaction centers on public education, noting that in Australia sharks kill fewer than two people annually on average, with statistics driven up by surfers and spearfishers who are more likely to enter shark habitats than ordinary beachgoers.

“Really, the best, proactive approach [to reducing shark interaction] is to use drones connected to base artificial intelligence systems that automatically recognise when sharks are in the area and set off alarms to recall swimmers to shore. We could do that right now. It would be cheaper and more effective than nets,” Brown said.

The precedent to alter shark control programs is already set in Australia.

Between 2010 and 2013, seven fatal shark attacks occurred in Western Australia, which encompasses the nation’s entire western seaboard. In response, the state government implemented a control program in 2014 that relied on culling target shark species. The state abandoned this program soon after, following a recommendation by its Environmental Protection Authority.

WA began introducing nonlethal measures in 2017, and its shark control program now involves electronically tagging and tracking sharks, using drone technology for surveillance, and setting up “eco barriers.” These swimming enclosures keep marine life out but do not risk entanglement. In a move unique in Australia, the government also subsidizes “personal shark deterrent” devices that emit electrical waves intended to cause uncomfortable muscle spasms in sharks.

Since 2014, there have been eight fatal shark attacks across WA, an improvement over the period before the state implemented either lethal or nonlethal management measures. However, given the relatively recent adoption of the state’s nonlethal approach, more data is required to assess its efficacy.

Sandeman said she believes the eastern states should adopt WA’s approach.

“This model is the model all states should aspire to replicate as a means to properly protect both the public and their marine environments,” she said. “At the end of the day, no form of shark mitigation is 100% effective, save never entering the ocean.”

Banner image: A great white shark cruises around the water’s surface in southern Australia. Image by Jeff Hester / Ocean Image Bank.

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