Shark program nets more critics


Richard Ling, Flickr

There has been a decline of sharks since the implementation of the Shark Control Program, demonstrating a depletion of shark populations over the past half a century.

The Queensland shark control program shark control program currently costs taxpayers $3.3 million every year and in the last 10 years has been responsible for the deaths of over 10,000 sharks. The program is criticised internationally, responsible for the deaths of endangered creatures and research suggests that it may not even keep swimmers safe. Yet the government still stands behind its program.

Sea Shepherd Queensland co-ordinator for the Operation Apex Harmony campaign, Johnathan Clark, says the program offers people a false sense of security and the Queensland government don’t want to admit that the program might not be the reason there are so few attacks in Australia.

“We’ve got a system that’s been around since the 1960s that’s been heavily advocated for by the governments and is associated with very few attacks, but some of these attacks have occurred at supposedly safe beaches,” he says. “Just look at the Nick Slater incident – that should have been very sobering.”

Nick Slater was fatally attacked by a shark at Greenmount Beach on the Gold Coast late last year. Greenmount has eight drumlines and one net in place to protect those in the water.

University of the Sunshine Coast professor and shark expert Dr Bonnie Holmes says the government is concerned with the media backlash it will face after an attack. “No Premier wants to be the one to make the decision to take the nets and drumlines out or change the configurations from what they’ve been historically for the last 30 or 40 years, because if someone gets bitten it will be political suicide, the media will go to town,” she says.

The state’s fisheries minister, Mark Furner, told The Guardian in March that the government backs its policy. “The government stands by the shark control program, which has been keeping Queenslanders and visitors safe since 1962,” he says.

But he says they are open to exploring alternatives. “The government is committed to continuous improvement, but will not make changes until effective alternatives suitable for Queensland conditions are identified,” he says.

Currently, the government use a lethal mix of drums and nets in its shark mitigation program to capture and euthanise over 19 species of sharks. However, it is trialling the use of drones to spot sharks at five beaches in southern Queensland and last year replaced traditional drums in the Great Barrier Reef with smart drumlines.

Smart drumlines were meant to be introduced after the Humane Society International successfully took the Queensland government to court over the use of baited drumlines in the area. The judges ruled that the evidence supports the opinion that shark culling does nothing to protect human life and ordered the government to replace the traditional lethal drumlines with Smart Drumlines in the Great Barrier Reef to preserve the ecosystem.

Smart Drumlines are designed to be a non-lethal alternative that sends a real-time alert to contractors when an animal has been caught. The animals are then tagged and released away from the public.

Although, two years later, the government has yet to replace the drumlines in the area. Mr Clark says this is a “point of contention” as the government have instead began checking the traditional drumlines more regularly and simply leaving the hooks unbaited on the other days. “All that has happened so far is a change of protocols within the Great Barrier Reef for the traditional drumlines,” he says.

Of the 84 animals that were captured in the Great Barrier Reef during July 2020 to Feb 2021, only 18 were released, the Queensland fisheries website says.

Dr Holmes says that Smart Drumlines might seem to be the perfect alternative in theory, but in practice there is still a lot to be desired. “There are still a lot of species that will be impacted by these, for instance hammerhead sharks die easily when caught on one of these drumlines and they’re a protected species,” she says.

Drumlines and nets may give beachgoers a sense of security in the water
Drumlines and nets may give beachgoers a sense of security in the water. Image by G.Mannaerts, Wikimedia Commons

It also comes at a huge expense to the taxpayer. “If you are paying a contractor to go out any time of the day or night on the fly as soon as the beacon goes off, it’s going to essentially double what we are already paying,” Dr Holmes says.

Mr Clark has met with colleagues from Sea Shepherd and other key parties to look at the recent Cardno report that documents non-lethal alternative measures and worked out the costings and equipment needed to completely overhaul the system. “There are benefits and drawbacks to every alternative, it’s about finding the best fit for that particular beach,” he says. “So we sat down and worked out what the best piece of equipment would be for every beach in Queensland, and the cost.
“It is a big initial outlay of $30 million but within five years of purchasing and installing the new equipment, yearly costs would be the same as what they are now. This new technology would protect people at the beach and be a win for tourism.”

When Mr Furner was asked to comment on the report he told the ABC that the suggestions to remove drumlines and nets were “pure madness”. “You would leave swimmers, surfers, beachgoers, unsafe by not having that protection,” he said.

Yet, experts say the presence of drumlines and nets may give beachgoers a sense of security in the water, but there is no evidence to prove that it keeps people safe. Mr Clark says the government needs to look at the evidence.

“There is this mentality there that the government needs to take away all the risk, but the evidence proves that the drumlines and nets don’t offer the protection they think it does,” he says. “They’re so worried about a tourism backlash from a fatal shark attack. They say there is a downturn in business when a shark attack occurs, but international arrivals were stable and increasing through that period.”

Dr Holmes says Queensland should focus on using sharks as a drawcard to bring in tourists, similar to what South Australia do. “I grew up in South Australia where there is no drumlines or nets,” she says. “The tourism there is based on people wanting to swim with the sharks.”

A 2005 report suggests this interest in shark watching could not only help shark conservation but fund it. Sharks have been a part of Sammy Johnston’s life for as long as she can remember. Working in water tourism and growing up on Moreton Island meant she got up close and personal with the magnificent creatures on many occasions.

Yet she’s never feared them. She was taught to be aware of their presence and educated around keeping safe in the water. “Growing up on the island you just get taught to be aware but not scared, don’t swim in murky water, don’t swim near big schools of fish,” she says. “Certain wind conditions at different ends of the island meant you don’t go in past your knees.”

This sort of local knowledge and education is key to keeping people safe in Queensland waters. Sammy says the ocean belongs to its inhabitants and humans need to respect that. “One of my biggest fears is that one day when I have kids they won’t be able to experience our amazing ocean creatures the way I did on the Island, that they’ll only be able to read about them in books,” she says.

It is a fear that might not be too far from reality if they aren’t protected. Dr Holmes says shark size has decreased dramatically over the last 18 years and if the Queensland Government don’t get on top of it, it will change the whole ecosystem.

“Looking at the historical catch data over an 18-year period just from the Shark Control Program showed that the declines are significant in catch rate and the size,” she says. “We just don’t have those big beautiful 4.5 metre animals anymore. We need these big animals to be eating the next level down to help keep the system in check.”

A study conducted using Queensland Shark Control Program data found significant declines of hammerhead, whaler, tiger shark and white sharks since the implementation of the Shark Control Program, demonstrating a depletion of shark populations over the past half a century.

Dr Holmes says the evidence is overwhelming and it’s time for the government to step up. “I think for the shark control program its time, we know enough now and it needs to change,” she says.