Sea Shepherd activists say they were caught in a ‘Mexican stand-off’ with NSW government contractors three kilometres off Ballina’s shoreline on Sunday April 23.
It was the third mission Apex Harmony QLD campaigners have undertaken to check Ballina’s shark nets for wildlife in an effort to provide more ‘transparency’ on the north coast shark-meshing trial, co-ordinator Jonathan Clark said.
Mr Clark said his crew of four inspected nets at Shelly, Sharpes, Lighthouse and Seven Mile Beaches and observed fishers hired by the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) as they headed out to sea, in case they were towing a shark.
According to data in the first four monthly DPI bycatch reports, contractors have yet to achieve consistent twice-daily checks as per requirement, leading to the activists’ concern for wildlife.
DPI figures for the month March 8 to April 7 showed contractors netted the five trial beaches an average of 18 days of the 28 and then checked nets for wildlife less than once per day on average.
The average number of net checks per day for the trial since it began in December has now dropped to 0.98, DPI figures showed.
Despite poor visibility in the aftermath of ex-Cyclone Debbie, Mr Clark said a specialist diver onboard Sea Shepherd’s Grey Nurse was able to identify and photograph a dead Mobula Ray caught in the net off Shelly Beach, around 11am.
‘It was really quite decomposed,’ Mr Clark told The Echo, adding he thought it had been ‘predated’, or bitten by another animal.
‘That’s gotta be a shark attractant,’ he said.
‘Given the murky conditions and low visibility, I question whether [the contractors’] way of checking can be done effectively.’
Unless DPI contractors are alerted to trapped marine life outside of scheduled checks, animals either survive long enough to free themselves or are freed at the next inspection, or die struggling.
Contractors have recorded 80 dead animals found in north coast shark nets since the trial began nearly five months ago compared to 105 released alive.
The percentage of dead wildlife has increased each month from 28 per cent in the first DPI by-catch report to 56 per cent in April’s report.
Mr Clark said he and his crew first spotted DPI contractors around 9am at Lighthouse Beach on Sunday. ‘We thought they must have checked the other nets already, so maybe we were wasting our time’.
‘But they kept away from us; they didn’t check the net at that time, they left and headed out to sea.
‘We followed them three kilometres out to sea. We weren’t sure, [we suspected] they might be towing a shark but we didn’t see that.
‘We were on the port side; they may have had something on the other side. They ended up stopping and waiting; it was a bit of a Mexican stand-off.’
Mr Clark said his crew eventually returned to their net-checks, whereupon the Mobula Ray was found.
DPI contractors were later seen at Lennox Head.
‘We didn’t see them do any work on nets or drum lines,’ said Mr Clark. ‘We’d guess maybe they didn’t want to work while we were there’.
Mr Clark said there was no verbal interaction between his crew and DPI contractors.
A DPI spokesperson later confirmed contractors checked Ballina shark nets on Sunday morning and again in the afternoon but did not confirm a sighting of activists or any towing activity.
‘The boat remained on the ocean until the afternoon due to tide conditions making a crossing of the bar not possible,’ the spokesperson said.
Fines of $22,000 can apply for anyone caught tampering with shark meshing on the north coast compared to fines of $5,500 in Sydney for similar offences.
Federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg gave the NSW government special permission for the north coast shark meshing trial to begin in December last year as one response to a spate of shark encounters.
The trial was originally meant to last six months, excluding times when nets were removed from the sea, and is now due to end November 17.
As we went to press a senate inquiry into shark-mitigation strategies, chaired by Tasmanian Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, was underway in Byron Bay. Witnesses included scientists, surfing representatives, environment groups and local councils.