Following a drop in community support for shark nets on the NSW North Coast and the state government’s decision last month not to carry out a third shark net trial, experts and residents are looking to alternative technologies to keep beaches in the area shark-free.
The main technology currently being trialled by the Department of Primary Industries is SMART drumlines, although other non-lethal shark management methods are also being trialled, including helicopters and drones for aerial surveillance, and VR4G listening stations.
The Department of Primary Industry’s snapshot report of the second trial revealed that SMART drumlines caught eight times as many target sharks as shark nets between November 2017 and May 2018, and that the drumlines caught only 16 non-target animals, compared with the 143 animals caught in shark nets.
In a statement in May 2018, Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair said the NSW Government had deployed up to 100 SMART drumlines in multiple locations along the coastline since the beginning of the trial in 2016.
The statement said the current drumline trial was tracking 251 white sharks, 60 bull sharks and 36 tiger sharks.
Research into the effectiveness of SMART drumlines is still in the early stages.
In Mr Blair’s statement he was happy to sing its praises.
“NSW is now leading the world in trials of SMART drumlines, which are proving successful for both mitigation and research,” the statement said.
But no matter how the SMART drumline research goes, it seems that current public sentiment prefers non-lethal shark management techniques over older methods, such as shark nets.
During the course of the controversial two-stage, $16 million shark net trial, which began in 2016 under former Premier Mike Baird, support for nets from residents of Ballina, Lennox Head and Evans Head halved, dropping from 52 per cent to 26 per cent according to community surveys conducted by the Department of Primary Industries.
The nets were installed at five beaches across Ballina, Lennox and Evans Head after six serious shark attacks – two of which were fatal – took place in the area between September 2014 and November 2015.
Former Greens MP Kudra Falla-Ricketts said the removal of the nets from local beaches was a long overdue process.
“The DPI promised to solve the issue of by-catching innocent creatures after hundreds were caught and killed in the first trial, which they have clearly not delivered on,” Ms Falla-Ricketts said.
“There are methods of reducing the risk of shark attacks that have nowhere near as drastic an effect on the marine ecosystem,” she said.
“Hopefully people who were for the nets to start with are beginning to see that it comes at a heavy cost.”
Shark nets were first introduced to Australia in the 1970s, where multiple nets were installed at beaches in Bondi and Wollongong.
Stuart Rowland is a retired saltwater species scientist who worked with NSW Fisheries on shark catching and tagging expeditions between 2000 and 2011.
Mr Rowland said there was evidence that shark nets could be very useful in reducing the likelihood of shark attacks.
“People forget to mention that since the nets were put in at Ballina and Lennox in 2016, there hasn’t been a single attack at those netted beaches,” he said.
“The absolute priority with shark deterrents should be safety, and nets have proven to drastically reduce the potential for an encounter.”
Mr Rowland said, however, the effectiveness of shark nets was often overshadowed by the negative publicity that catching other marine animals in the nets created.
“There is a huge disparity between those in favour of shark netting and those against,” Mr Rowland said.
“One of the most quoted arguments I hear that come up against the rolling out of nets is that it traps and kills large amounts of dolphins, turtles and stingrays,” he said.
“In my experience working with Fisheries, I’ve never witnessed unintentional trapping of innocent species to that extent.”
With the nets removed from the beaches involved in the trial, the focus is now on continuing to trial alternate technologies to help keep beachgoers safe.
Which is where SMART drumlines come in.
SMART (Shark-Management-Alert-in-Real-Time) drumlines comprise of an anchor and rope, two buoys, and a satellite-linked communications unit, which is attached to a trace and baited hook.
When a shark is hooked, the pressure on the line triggers the communications unit, which alerts DPI scientists or contractors, who are dispatched to catch and relocate the animal.
SMART drumlines are deployed approximately 500 metres offshore away from swimmers and surfers to allow sharks to be intercepted beyond the surf zone.
In August, Ballina Deputy Mayor Keith Williams confirmed that the 35 SMART drumlines that were installed earlier in the month along the coastline from Lennox Head to Evans Head would continue to be trialled until 2020.
So do SMART drumlines really work?
According to the statement by Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair, the preliminary results look positive.
The statements said information taken from white sharks with satellite tags suggested that after sharks are caught, tagged and relocated 1 km offshore their immediate response is to move away from the coast for up to several weeks, with some travelling as far as WA and New Zealand.
Mr Williams said government funding had also been requested for continued helicopter and drone patrols and the maintenance of VR4G listening stations, which are used in conjunction with the drumlines to notify local surf clubs of sharks in the area.
All of which certainly sounds like promising news, but a new type of personal shark deterrent technology is offering another level of safety for surfers and swimmers.
It’s called the Shark Shield and it has been receiving increasing attention since the 2016 shark attacks.
Shark Shields are personal devices made by Western Australian company Ocean Guardian, which can be used by surfers or divers.
A statement from Ocean Guardian in November 2017 explained how the technology used in their FREEDOM + Shark Shield, which retails for $749, worked.
“Sharks have short-range electrical receptors in their snouts used for finding food,” the statement said.
“Shark Shield’s patented technology creates a powerful three-dimensional electrical field, which causes unbearable spasms in these sensitive receptors turning sharks away, including Great Whites.”
In August, footage was posted online of three great white and two tiger sharks feasting on a whale carcass, which had drifted to within 100 metres of the shore off Angourie, a coastal village an hour south of Ballina.
Angourie is renowned for its point break, and the heritage site is a popular surf destination for tourists.
Having sharks feeding in the vicinity creates danger for anyone using the beaches and can have a serious effect on tourism.
Department of Primary Industries research scientist Paul Butcher said a multitude of factors should be considered before declaring a break like Angourie safe after a whale carcass was sighted in the area.
“As whale tissue breaks down it releases oils that sharks are extremely attracted to,” Mr Butcher said.
“This is combined with the fact that as sinew degrades and drifts towards shore, it can get wrapped around rocks, which, thanks to the shifting tide line, is very hard to remove,” he said.
“The reality of it is that untagged sharks can be present at any time so surfers will continue to take to the water regardless.”
“It’s really a case of proceed with caution.”
“There’s no law stopping them.”
Safety in the water is an ongoing issue for those who rely on surfing culture for their livelihood.
Barry Jones, who has owned and managed Ballina surf store Country Style for 11 years, said the attacks of 2016 had transformed the town’s once thriving surf industry.
“The businesses in town are in a depression because people aren’t choosing to surf here anymore out of fear for their own safety,” Mr Jones said.
“People who have lived and surfed in Ballina their whole lives are packing up on the weekends and heading south.”