POLL: Should shark nets be used to protect swimmers?

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Mike Baird has this week announced a plan for a six-month trial of nets off the beaches of northern New South Wales. This would extend the state’s net program from the 51 beaches now netted between Wollongong and Newcastle.

The premier’s announcement was triggered by a surfer receiving minor injuries on Wednesday after he was bitten by a shark at Sharpes beach near Ballina.

The decision marks a turnaround in Baird’s position on sharks. For more than a year he has acknowledged the importance of addressing the issue and has adopted a measured, long-term, non-lethal approach towards managing shark hazards. Specifically, the NSW government has, in the past year, allocated funding and resources to non-lethal strategies including surveillance, research and education.

sharks has become highly controversial in , and in NSW shark nets have been a focus of ongoing, polarising debate.

‘Shark nets cannot be a long-term solution. They are outdated technology based on outdated thinking, developed 80 years ago.’ Photograph: Alamy
Three common misunderstandings about shark nets

The decision to introduce nets in the state’s north invites us to revisit some common misunderstandings about this strategy.

First, there is wide misunderstanding about what shark nets are and what they do. The nets used in the NSW shark meshing (bather protection) program do not create an enclosed area within which beachgoers are protected from sharks.

They are fishing nets, which function by catching and killing sharks in the area. Nets are 150 metres long, 6 metres deep, and are suspended in water 10 to 12 metres deep, within 500 metres of the shore.

A 2009 map of Bondi beach showing the location of shark nets. Photograph: Department of Primary Industries

Second, whether the nets work is still up for debate. Shark nets have been used in NSW since 1937. Since then, the number of netted beaches, methods for deploying nets, and data collection and record-keeping methods have changed, and data sets are incomplete.

Our use of the beach and ocean has also changed dramatically. There are more people in the water, in new areas, and we’re using the ocean for different activities. At the same time, our observation of sharks and emergency response have improved dramatically.

The suggestion that nets prevent shark encounters is an oversimplification of a complex story, a misrepresentation of both technology and data, and it misinforms the public.

And finally, shark nets cannot be a long-term solution. They are outdated technology based on outdated thinking, developed 80 years ago.

They go directly against our international responsibility to protect (under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and our own Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act), and our national priorities for protecting marine environments and species, including several shark species.

We know that shark nets in NSW kill on average at least 275 animals a year (measured between 1950 and 2008), and that the majority of those killed pose no threat to people. We can do better than this.

Learning from the (very) recent past

Right now we have an opportunity in NSW to learn from experiences in Western Australia. In 2012 the WA government, under Colin Barnett, introduced hooked “drumlines” to kill sharks in an attempt to reduce the risk of shark bites.

The response to the new policy was a highly polarised debate and extraordinary public outcry, including two public protests at Perth’s Cottesloe Beach that attracted 4,000 and 6,000 people, and protests in 11 other cities around the country, including 2,000 at Sydney’s Manly Beach.

The state’s Environmental Protection Authority received a record number of 12,000 submissions from scientific and other experts presenting reasons to cease the cull. The WA government heeded the EPA’s recommendation and cancelled the policy.

Our research with ocean users conducted during this period showed that perspectives are diverse (we surveyed 557 WA-based ocean-users using quantitative and qualitative research methods).

Among people who use the ocean regularly, some strongly oppose killing sharks; others are ambivalent; and a smaller number of people are in favour. People’s views and understandings are nuanced and carefully thought through.

But within this group the strategies for managing shark hazards that were most strongly supported were improving public education about sharks, and encouraging ocean users to understand and accept the risks associated with using the ocean. Other widely supported strategies included developing shark deterrents and increasing surveillance and patrols.

The most strongly opposed approaches were those that killed sharks including , proactive catch-and-destroy measures, baited drumlines and shark nets.

We have been making good progress in Australia on public discussion and investment in more effective and ethical approaches for reducing shark bites. This week’s move to introduce an outmoded technology to the north coast promises to further divide the community.

We should continue to invest in developing strategies that better reflect our contemporary understanding of marine ecosystems. Perhaps we also need to consider (temporarily) altering the way we use the ocean, avoiding areas of higher-than-usual shark sightings.

This article was first published by The Guardian on 13 Oct 2016.


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Founder and Executive Editor

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Gigi Brandford
Gigi Brandford

TAKE A LESSON FROM WHALES HUNTING FOR FOOD- THEY FORM A NET OF BUBBLES – NO OTHER PREDATORS WILL CROSS THIS WALL OF BUBBLES AND THEY EAT WITHOUT HARM OF ANYONE BESIDES THE FOOD THEY ARE HUNTING – A WALL OF BUBBLES WILL KEEP ANY PREDATOR FROM CROSSING THRU IT PEOPLE CAN SWIM SAFE WITHOUT KILLING ANYONE!!

Charito Love

To protect the sharks from wrongful charge of harming the human swimmers sound like a good plan.

Robert Piller
Robert Piller
Robert Piller
Robert Piller

These nets ensnare Dolphins,Turtles, Rays and Sharks, and are a terrible idea.

Jean O'Donovan

Nets are really a bad solution, in my opinion, it is not a deterrent but, actually kills our marine life who cannot get back through the nets. l saw a very interesting program where they have introduced long poles/ sticks in such a way that the sharks are put off from entering, they actually swim away. Now to me that makes sense!!

casey
casey

No! reason being the nets do not actually stop the sharks from getting through them, it is only when they are leaving shore for Backline that they get stuck in the nets plus every other aquatic animal ends up dead in the nets too, nets are not the right solution!

Mark McCandlish
Mark McCandlish

This is a tough question for me; I’ve been in the waters of the Pacific Ocean with a pair of white tip sharks swimming within 20 feet. The difference I suppose, was that I was scuba diving off Hawaii at a forty foot depth, so I wasn’t a typical target splashing around on the surface where most shark vs human attacks occur. Still, I floated there, fascinated by what I was observing, with the knowledge that, if either of those fish wanted to take a bite out of me, there was very little I could have done to prevent it.… Read more »

Janet Kenedy

Your Idea sounds good, however, how would this work without harming other Sea Life?. In particular: Dolphins, Whales, etc.

Mark McCandlish
Mark McCandlish

Hard to say. The shark’s tracking physiology if unique- and perhaps quite different from the Dolphin or other cetaceans– so it might not harm or affect them negatively.

Terence Hale
Terence Hale

“Should shark nets be used to protect swimmers?”. Yes. Not only to protect swimmers but also sharks.

Robert Piller
Robert Piller

These nets ensnare Dolphins,Turtles, Rays and Sharks, and are a terrible idea.Join the discussion

Mike Collins
Mike Collins

Understanding Shark’s from a Predator standpoint as Sharks are the Keystone Species of Oceanic Predators so in Essence, Sharks are
Essentially as important to the health and diversity of the Oceans as Gray Wolves are to the world’s continuing
sustainability and diversity here in Oregon’s Out Back…