Science not shark nets

Speech by Tamara Smith in NSW Parliament on the FISHERIES MANAGEMENT AMENDMENT (SHARK MANAGEMENT TRIALS) BILL 2016

I speak on behalf of The Greens on the Fisheries Management Amendment (Shark Management Trials) Bill 2016, which will enable the trial of shark mesh nets along the North Coast of New South Wales. The bill gives the Minister for Primary Industries the power to approve trials of mesh nets in New South Wales for five years without approvals under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995, the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 and the Fisheries Management Act 1994.

The increase in shark bites on the North Coast and in my electorate have unsettled my community. The tragic loss of life and the near fatal bites that we have occurred recently have affected victims, their families and friends and the first responders. It has affected the whole psyche of our coastal community, whose identity is implicitly connected to the ocean. I know that everyone in this place and every member of my community wants people to be as safe as possible both in the ocean and on land. None of us wants to see people being killed or harmed.

The Greens oppose this bill for several reasons: it reintroduces outdated and clunky technology; at a cost of millions of dollars each year, it is not a sustainable mitigation strategy; and it kills threatened and endangered species. As a marine scientist remarked to me recently, it is like wanting to be protected from elephants in the Serengeti and asking the Tanzanian government to let off cluster bombs in the hope of killing a few elephants whilst wiping everything else out in the process. We are smarter than that. We know that wiping out our biodiversity is creating a hot and uncertain planet for the not-too-distant future. The Greens are committed to a science-based approach to keep people as safe as possible whilst respecting our oceans and the creatures that live in them. The Minister has acknowledged that netting will not guarantee public safety.

I will not discuss the blatant and despicable political opportunism of the Opposition, which stands for nothing when it comes to the environment. My community knows about that, so there is no need to waste time going over that ground. I want to praise the efforts of a group of dedicated volunteers from the Ballina area who call themselves Shark Watch NSW. Shark Watch has taken the initiative to set up a shark surveillance service to help protect swimmers and surfers at Ballina's beaches. Recently I saw a demonstration of drone technology at Tallows Beach and the footage taken by the drone was incredible. Working full time, the volunteers watch for shark sightings through binoculars, with trained eyes on the water. I watched for a couple of hours as the team, visible in their white uniforms, worked. Surfers coming out of the water said how safe they felt with their eyes on the water.

Lifesavers have provided that service since the early 1900s but now we also have the incredible drone technology. When sharks are seen, the volunteers activate an alert system so that local surf life saving patrols and police can get the water cleared as quickly as possible. An additional benefit is the citizen science aspect of their spotting, as other marine animal sightings are also recorded and that information is made available for research purposes. Shark Watch is based on the South African Shark Spotting Programme, which has run for 13 successful years on Cape Town beaches. I helped sponsor the shark spotters from Cape Town to come out last year and I spent two days with them. I was incredibly impressed with the work that they do. I also commissioned a feasibility study with the Sea Shepherd organisation and Byron Shire Council for shark spotting in my electorate. Ballina's beaches are badly in need of such a service.

The Department of Primary Industries, in its own desktop study Cardno review, found that shark spotting was the best method for shark mitigation. However, now that a cost-effective, organised group is ready and willing to provide such a service, the New South Wales Government does not appear to be interested. Instead, Shark Watch has received funding from the local council to protect swimmers and surfers in the Byron shire to the north of Ballina. Byron's beaches will receive shark spotting even though arguably Ballina needs it far more. But I am determined as the local member to see the Shark Watch program rolled out in Ballina. Shark Watch was planning to have five teams operational in Ballina by the Christmas holiday season, a goal that required only very modest start-up funding. This would allow the group to cover five sites between Lennox Point and Lighthouse Beach and provide a valuable community service.

Shark Watch was willing to provide a non-lethal shark detection service in time for the summer holiday season, so that residents and tourists alike would know there were beaches in Ballina where there were volunteers dedicated to spotting sharks, backed up by drone flights and a real-time warning system for ocean users. Instead, Byron shire beaches will get an extra level of protection. The online public consultation has been rushed and, as was pointed out at a recent Shark Management Strategy stakeholder meeting in Ballina, consultation around the nets is taking place after the decision has already been made. Shark spotting was recommended in the Cardno review. Smart drumlines and Clever Buoy technologies were also recommended and have been funded. Why has the number one recommendation, that is, shark spotting, not been funded?

It is not true to say that shark nets are the most effective form of protection from shark bites. Researchers, scientists, fishers and surfers still have not discovered a guaranteed form of protection, mostly because we still do not know what causes sharks to bite humans. As part of the shark inquiry, members of this Chamber and I visited John West of the Australian Shark Attack File based at Taronga Zoo. He listed 18 separate theories of why sharks bite humans and concluded that their motivations remain unclear and that predicting unprovoked attacks is virtually impossible. Statistically, shark nets are no more likely to provide protection from shark bites than any other method, apart from killing all sharks. Associate Professor Laurie Laurenson from Deakin University analysed 50 years of data about shark mitigation programs and coastal populations in New South Wales and South Africa. He came to the conclusion that statistically there was no relationship between the number of sharks in the ocean and the number of shark attacks. Shark nets are used to reduce shark numbers by killing them, but if there is no correlation between shark numbers and shark attacks then shark nets are useless.

Since nets were first dropped in Sydney in 1937, one person has died at a meshed beach in New South Wales, at Merewether in 1951. Attributing low fatality rates to beach nets is questionable. Over the last 15 years, 14 shark attacks have occurred at meshed beaches. Several of those attacks were serious but because of swift action by on and off duty lifeguards and prompt medical attention the victims survived. Internationally, fatality rates from shark bites have declined dramatically using all shark control methods, including doing nothing. A Department of Primary Industries report in 2009 found 23 of the 139 unprovoked shark attacks in New South Wales since 1937 were at meshed beaches. A follow-up report in 2015 indicated there were four attacks at meshed beaches between mid-2008 and mid-2015 that resulted in serious injury.

So shark nets do not stop shark bites. If the science is accurate and the number of sharks in the ocean do not correlate to the rate of shark bites, what are shark nets good for, apart from providing a false sense of security? Nobody has a clue as to why there are sharks biting humans on the North Coast, not even CSIRO'S Barry Bruce, Australia's foremost white shark expert, whom we also met as part of the shark inquiry. What is non-controversial is the damage that shark mesh nets do to marine life. The Department of Primary Industries report in 2014 stated that 189 animals were reported entangled in nets during that period, and 77 per cent of them were threatened, protected or non-target species. The region of Ballina is of high significance to several coastal cetacean species, particularly the Indo-Pacific bottle-nosed dolphin.

It is not clear how success with the mesh nets trial will be measured. If there are no shark bites it does not necessarily mean that the nets prevented them. To my knowledge, there was not a bite last year over a six‑month period. Will such a result mean a successful trial? That matters because there is a lot of contention about how the meshing program in New South Wales has been assessed in the past. I will end with this scientific hypothesis that a marine scientist put to the Department of Primary Industries at a recent meeting. If traditional nets are based on culling sharks—and that is how they work: the principle of fewer sharks, fewer attacks—and the nets will be checked once or more a day to release sharks and bycatch, how exactly will the nets work and how different is that to the smart drum line program which captures and tags sharks with precision? I know the answer: the difference is politics.

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