As an antidote to the endless promises, promises of the state election campaign I recently attended a panel presentation on ‘Politicians, Bankers and Sharks’ hosted by the Byron Greens.
In the same week, I had interviewed shark attack survivor Sam Edwardes who, despite a great white taking ‘a big chunk’ out of his leg, said he was keen to get back in the water as soon as his body was able.
The panel brought some focussed intelligence to bear on the subject for a change, rather than the usual Murdoch media beat-ups we are used to.
On it were Southern Cross University shark expert Dr Daniel Boucher, underwater photo journalist Nigel Marsh, Greens politician, former banker and keen surfer Peter Wish Wilson, and our own Ballina Greens MP Tamara Smith – who has been at the pointy end of the debate since she came to office.
Myth 1 – All sharks are dangerous
According to Nigel, there are more than 500 species of shark and a dozen of them are potentially dangerous with three responsible for most of the attacks on people: bull sharks, great whites and tiger sharks.
Did you know the ‘average’ shark is just one metre long with teeth one millimetre long?
‘I’ve dived with great whites and they usually take off when they see you,’ Nigel said. ‘Tiger sharks are very shy and bull sharks are like dogs: some will bite but most are scared.’
Myth 2 – The shark population is exploding
Daniel explained that the Sydney netting program caught lots of sharks up until the 1970s but numbers since then have plummeted.
He estimates there are currently about 750 adults and 4,500 juveniles of ‘dangerous’ breeds off the NSW coastline at any one time. But, he adds, one in four juveniles die each year, so the population is ‘just stable’.
Myth 3 – Sharks target humans as prey
Daniel said sharks ‘neither target nor avoid’ humans, while Nigel – who has dived with thousands– said they do not target humans as prey.
The consensus seemed to be that most shark attacks happen from behind, and that when they meet a person face to face most sharks are unlikely to attack.
A variation of this myth is the so called ‘rogue shark’ argument, that some animals get a ‘taste for human blood’.
Daniel said that if this were the case ‘you would expect to see multiple attacks by the same animal yet there is no evidence to support this. They usually don’t hang around that long,’ he said.
Myth 4 – Shark nets prevent shark attacks
Contrary to the popular imagination, shark nets do not enclose beaches. Most shark nets are a short stretch of netting between two buoys, just below the waterline and stretching for about 100 metres. They are usually removed in rough weather. Sharks can swim under and around them.
According to Daniel, most sharks caught in nets are caught while swimming out – rather undermining the protection argument.
He added that people do get attacked at netted beaches – and also where there are drum lines.
What about drum lines?
The panel then turned its attention to possible solutions.
The NSW government has removed shark nets from the northern NSW coastline following concerted public pressure on the back of very few sharks caught and lots of ‘bycatch’ (including dolphins and endangered turtles) getting killed in them.
But their key replacement has been the so-called ‘smart drum line’: baited hooks that catch sharks, which are then tagged with a radio transmitter and released.
The catch-and-release program is itself controversial, with no figures available about the longevity of the sharks after they are caught and tagged.
Nigel described drum lines as the ‘lesser of two evils’ while Daniel said, ‘No government is going to get rid of the nets without putting something else in place.’
So what else could be put in place?
Tamara advocated for the Shark Spotting program, based on a South African model. She funded a pilot study covering Byron Bay beaches out of her expense account but said ‘the government wouldn’t touch it’.
Also described were the so-called ‘eco-barriers’ made of plastic that have been successful at some WA beaches but were destroyed during a storm when they were trialled at Ballina.
Peter Whish Wilson described a new technology called ‘clever buoys’ which are loaded with an algorithm that recognises the sounds and movements made by target shark species, and which are programmed to ‘learn’, so increasing their accuracy over time.
Sadly, but somewhat predictably, with no Australian government interested in purchasing or trialing them, the company is looking to move offshore and set up in California.
Also discussed were personal protection devices, including bands or boards that transmit frequencies that sharks apparently dislike.
A member of the audience also volunteered his product, a surfboard wax impregnated with the pheromones of dead sharks – phew!
The group agreed the most promising new technology involved drones, which are already being rolled out to Surf Life Saving Clubs, mostly as a search and rescue device, but which are already showing that they can spot sharks beneath the water line.
As with all risks we take in life, however, the panel reinforced that far more people are killed on the road than they are by shark attacks. Ultimately, personal responsibility is the key.
On this note, Peter concluded by saying that work is being undertaken to establish a ‘shark danger’ tool, much like the way the RFS assesses fire danger.
We know that murky waters are an issue for bull sharks, that tigers tend to be an evening and morning predator and whites tend to bite in the middle of the day. What this research would do is to drill down further into things like weather conditions, tide and bait balls to come up with a tool that can more accurately predict shark danger.
At the end of the day, we don’t need to kill sharks – we just need to avoid them.