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Byron Shire
May 19, 2021

How do we live with sharks – without getting bitten?

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Charles Boyle

Byron-Ballina is the official shark-attack capital of Australia – and with 12 attacks since 1990, the numbers are increasing. Over the past thirty years, shark attacks (fatal and non-fatal) in NSW have increased by 1,500 per cent. The major government strategy for preventing shark attacks is the use of shark nets to kill all large sharks that venture near our beaches, but the rapid increase in attacks shows this primitive approach isn’t working. With our tourism-dependent economy and beach culture, we urgently need to find effective alternatives.

Majority of attacks at netted beaches

The last peak decade for NSW shark attacks was the 1930s. When two people were killed by Great White sharks on Sydney beaches in a single week in 1935, NSW Fisheries invited public submissions to address the problem, and came up with the idea of shark nets. The first shark nets were installed in Sydney in 1937 and in the eighty-one years since, there has been only one human fatality caused by a shark at a beach protected by shark nets. However, in the same period, 63 per cent of all NSW shark attacks happened at beaches protected by shark nets.

False sense of security

The shark nets, installed on 51 beaches covering 250km of NSW coastline, simply boost public confidence through a display of government action. Worse, they encourage a false sense of security and cause massive damage to marine ecosystems – while more people than ever are being attacked.

Sharks nets were never meant to be a barrier to stop sharks mixing with swimmers; they are specifically intended to trap and kill sharks and cull their numbers – but they pose a deadly threat to all large marine creatures. The NSW Department of Primary Industries Shark Meshing (Bather Protection) Program 2018/19 Annual Performance Report, found that of 395 marine creatures killed in shark nets last year, only 23 (5 per cent) were the targeted Great White, Bull and Tiger sharks. 95 per cent of the victims were cow-nosed rays, dolphins, harmless hammerhead sharks and, of course, whales.

Today ‘Smart’ Drumlines can accurately target dangerous sharks using baited lines that trigger a signal when activated. Although Drumlines offer a strategy that doesn’t kill harmless marine creatures, the indiscriminate destruction of sharks is increasingly unacceptable to the general public. For every one person killed by a shark, there are 2 million sharks killed by humans across the world. It’s time to seek intelligent solutions to the problem of shark attacks.

The United States has twice the number of recorded shark attacks as Australia does, but they don’t use shark nets. Instead the US (including Hawaii), South Africa and New Zealand are trialling new approaches to raise public awareness about shark safety using signs, flags and shark tracking. The recent game-changer is the use of drones to provide real-time assessment of shark threats.

Behaviour change

Today 80 per cent of shark bite victims survive due to improved first aid, but until the invention of a shark repellant, the best strategy for preventing shark attacks is to change people’s behaviour.

The University of Technology Sydney, in partnership with CSIRO and James Cook University, are trying to do just that by holding public workshops to find out how the threat of shark attacks has affected our behaviour. If you’re a local or tourist who regularly ventures into the ocean to swim, surf, snorkel or dive, you’re invited to attend free public workshops at the Ballina Lighthouse and Lismore SLSC on Tuesday, October 15 at 6pm, and at Byron Bay Surf Club on October 16 at 6pm. These workshops will provide a chance for community members to share their experiences, knowledge and views to feed into government policy on shark management.

To register your interest for the workshops, go to: www.sharkworkshopsnsw.net. For details, contact Nick McClean 0415 775 531, [email protected]

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