Debate continues over Gold Coast shark nets

CRYSTAL FOX AND ROSE MANSON

The use of controversial shark nets to reduce the chances of shark attacks on Gold Coast beaches continues to cause debate, with many believing the nets are too much of a danger to other marine animals.

Great White Shark Gerald Schombs/Unsplash

Shark control measures are designed to protect the public from the possibility of a shark attack, but many believe current methods are dangerous and inhumane. Photo: Courtesy Gerald Schombs/Unsplash

 

The majority of the nets in question are gillnets, which are designed to entangle the targeted sharks.

Sea Shepherd’s Operation Apex Harmony is one organisation that is on a mission to defend, conserve and protect sharks.

They are currently campaigning against lethal shark control programs in both Queensland and New South Wales.

Operation Apex Harmony campaign coordinator Jonathon Clarke said the organisation believed there were no good reasons to justify the use of shark nets.

“The current focus of Apex Harmony is on the destructive shark nets and drum lines of Queensland’s Shark Control Program,” Mr Clarke said.

He said Apex Harmony were the leaders in the campaign against shark nets, and had many other organisations following them.

“It is heartening, too, that several of the organisations working in this space have joined forces and are working together to see the removal of lethal methods used for shark bite mitigation and are campaigning strongly for their replacement with non-lethal technologies,” he said.

Mr Clarke said the shark nets also killed thousands of other marine animals, including whales.

He said since 2001, approximately 55 humpback whales had been caught in Gold Coast nets.

Mr Clarke said during this migration season alone, at least five whales had become entangled in the nets between Southport and Burleigh Heads, a situation that could prove fatal without human intervention, particularly for whale calves.

Sea Shepherd’s Operation Apex Harmony

Sea Shepherd’s Operation Apex Harmony is on a mission to defend, conserve and protect sharks. Photo: Courtesy Sea Shepherd

 

Mr Clarke said approximately 90,000 animals had been caught by the shark nets in Queensland since 1962.

He said Operation Apex Harmony were trying to partner with the state government to find a healthy and equal solution to the problem.

“We believe that a forward thinking, progressive government could implement such a program and produce a win-win situation,” Mr Clarke said.

“The public would be able to enjoy safer beaches, marine life would benefit, tourism would benefit and the government that implements it could benefit,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Fisheries Queensland said in a statement in August the Queensland Government were looking into replacing shark nets along the coast with drum lines.

Drum lines physically attract sharks from the immediate vicinity using bait lines, while shark nets have more room for the sharks to pass through them.

The Fisheries spokesperson said drum lines would be used as a shark control measure and to minimise the possibility of shark bites.

The strategy is a part of the Fisheries Shark Control Program, which was last updated in August this year.

“Nets do not prevent sharks from entering a particular area,” the Fisheries spokesperson said.

“They’re intended to catch ‘resident sharks’ and sharks that pass through the area while feeding on bait fish.”

“Drumlines catch actively feeding sharks using only fresh, natural bait attached to shark fishing hooks suspended from a large plastic float, which is anchored to the seabed,” the spokesperson said.

Whale in shark net

Whales and other marine animals continue to get trapped in the shark nets off the Gold Coast, which are intended to prevent sharks from entering the area. Photo: Courtesy Sea World

 

Fisheries Queensland has strategies in place as part of its Shark Control Program to help minimise catching other marine animals.

These strategies include using drumlines instead of nets when possible, releasing ‘non-dangerous’ sharks, fitting all nets with acoustic alarms to warn whales and dolphins of the presence of nets, and using baits that reduce dolphin and turtle interaction.

However, despite the Palaszczuk Government in September 2019 committing $1 million per year for four years to create alternative solutions to the current shark nets, and in the same month the government’s Scientific Working Group for shark control recommending the nets be removed during migration season, nothing has been put into practice yet.

What the Queensland government has done is promote its SharkSmart campaign to encourage people to take shark-safe precautions when they are in the water.

The campaign, which includes public service announcements on commercial television, advises people to swim between the flags at patrolled beaches, to have a buddy when swimming or surfing, to avoid swimming at dawn or dusk, to avoid being in the water around schools of bait fish or where there are diving birds, to keep fish waste and food scraps out of the water where people swim, and to swim in clear water away from people who are fishing.

But Cruise Whitsundays ecologist and marine biologist Brendan Hoffman said the government hadn’t done enough and said the issues created by shark nets for whales and their young this winter could have been prevented.

“If the recommendations had been followed, and I’m not entirely sure why they weren’t, the whales could have had a predominately stress-free migration in Gold Coast waters,” Mr Hoffman said.

“Instead, we’ve seen multiple whales get trapped, as well as calves, so the little amount of action we’ve seen is disappointing,” he said.

“There have been petitions, recommendations from within their own government as well as from third parties, I do wonder what it will take for this to be taken more seriously.”

Free diver Shaun Snell

Local free diver Shaun Snell has been diving off the Gold Coast for six years and has never seen a Great White shark. Photo: Courtesy Shaun Snell

 

Meanwhile local and Gold Coast business owners have their own opinions about the use of shark nets.

Teuila Judd, who manages water sports and snorkelling company, Water Sports Guru, in Kingscliff and in Tweed Heads waters, said although shark nets provided a sense of security for beachgoers, she didn’t consider the nets to be a sustainable solution.

“There are other ways to go about it, smart drum lines, for one, could be the way to go,” Ms Judd said.

“They’re non-lethal, and other marine life passing by won’t be impacted by them,” she said.

“Either that or drone surveillance, I mean if it’s going to save whales, turtles and really any other animals, why would people not be on board?”

Gold Coast local Shaun Snell is a free-diver and fisherman.

Mr Snell said he didn’t believe shark nets were practical or necessary.

“I’ve been free diving and spearing off the Gold Coast and Tweed for six years, and I’ve personally never once seen a Great White Shark or Tiger Shark,” he said.

“That’s not to say they’re not there, but I think it kind of speaks to how unnecessary the nets are, especially when the sharks can easily swim under and around the nets.”

Surf school

Currumbin Surf School has been open for 27 year, but owner Sam Chilcott says he has never seen a shark in the water. Photo: Courtesy Currumbin Surf School

 

Currumbin Alley Surf School owner Sam Chilcott is another Gold Coast local who spends a lot of time in the water.

His surf school, which is located is at the mouth of Currumbin Creek, has been running since 1993 and holds lessons every day of the year.

Mr Chilcott said in all the time the school had been running he had never seen a shark in the water.

“We don’t really see sharks [but] we know they are out there,” he said.

Mr Chilcott said they saw whales and stingrays seasonally.

He said he was on the fence about whether or not the Gold Coast should have shark nets but said having the nets there gave him some “peace of mind”.

“It’s not really public knowledge what gets caught and what gets killed,” Mr Chilcott said.

“As far as whether I support them… I don’t know,” he said.

Following the death of a man who was attacked by a shark while surfing in Coolangatta in September, Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate brought up the issue of shark attack prevention.

Mr Tate said in a press conference there had been a 60-year gap between shark attack incidents on the Gold Coast, which was commendable.

“There’s shark nets and the hook lines, we haven’t changed any shark nets or [taken] it away… maybe there is sonic solutions that could do better,” Mr Tate said.

“Together with the minister, I will be analysing what is the better remedy, maybe a bit of both,” he said.

“Let’s be guided by the experts and I am sure we will come up with the best solution for our beaches.”

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