Tangled politics: why shark nets are still being used on NSW beaches

Tangled politics: why shark nets are still being used on NSW beaches

It was a six-minute masterclass in the politics of shark nets in New South Wales.

On Wednesday, the Waverley council mayor, Paula Masselos, appeared on Sky News to talk about her opposition to the continued use of shark nets off Sydney’s Bondi beach.

Chris Kenny opened the segment by reminding his audience it had been six months since a man had been killed by a great white shark off a Sydney beach – 35-year-old diving instructor Simon Nellist, who had publicly opposed shark nets, was attacked at Little Bay.

Kenny then peppered Masselos with a series of loaded questions. “Have you told them enough about this?” “Do you believe that your policies reflect the public world?”

Masselos attempted to explain her position. Waverely council wanted a better, smarter approach to shark mitigation, one that actually protected people and did not indiscriminately kill marine life.

But as she attempted to explain, Kenny cut her off: “Are you prepared to take the nets away and just take the chance we’ll see more fatalities at some of our most popular beaches?”

It was a frustrating exchange. The nets are owned and operated by the state government, meaning Masselos doesn’t have the power to pull them from the water.

Masselos is not alone in her opposing the nets. Until recently, the campaign to scrap them was the domain of environmental activists and animal rights groups. But increasingly, local councils, mayors and state MPs have been getting on board.

A year ago, Waverley council was one of eight local government authorities to pass motions opposing the continued use of shark nets, reflecting work that had been underway for years to find better alternatives.

Adam Crouch, a state Liberal MP, has been actively campaigning for his Central Coast electorate to trial a net-free summer – and the state government has invested $85m in developing better shark management strategies.

Politics has been catching up with science, but the fear of potential shark attacks makes the fight a hard one for those pursuing change.

Nets don’t work

“The real shark of this story is the politician – that’s my analysis from having worked on this issue for 16 years,” says Dr Christopher Pepin-Neff, a political scientist with the University of Sydney. “The fact is the nets don’t work. It’s a lie that’s told to the public to help ensure politicians are re-elected.”

Pepen-Neff says there was a recognition from the start of New South Wales’ meshing program that nets didn’t really help.

The program began after a committee was convened in 1935 to investigate mitigation measures following a spate of shark attacks. Nets came dead last on a list of proposals to manage the risk and were only agreed to show the public that something was being done.

It took two years for the NSW government to follow through and even then, it was driven by concerns a shark attack during celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the state would make bad headlines.

Later, it would be suggested the increased number of fatal attacks in the 1920s and 1930s was due to the blood and gore dumped from Sydney’s abattoirs at the time, which drew the animals closer to shore and swimmers.

Nevertheless, Pepin-Neff says, the nets came to be associated with safety in the public’s eyes, and removing them became too politically difficult.

They are now installed across 51 beaches from Newcastle to Wollongong. At 150 metres long, six metres high and set at a depth of 10 metres, the nets don’t cover the full length of beaches and often the public don’t know where they are.

The Department of Primary Industries states “the nets do not create a total barrier between swimmers and sharks” but are “designed to intercept sharks near meshed beaches which reduces the chance of a shark interaction”.

But two in every five sharks caught in nets are actually found on the beach side of the net and attacks still occur at meshed beaches. Laurence Trebek, from the Humane Society International, says the nets may not be very good at stopping target sharks but they are good at killing marine life.

“The best guess I can give is some 20,000 marine animals have been killed in the program and what we’re now realising is that it’s for nothing more than a false sense of security,” Trebek says.

According to a recent DPI report on shark net performance, 376 marine animals were tangled in NSW nets in 2021-22. That number included 51 “target sharks” and 325 “non-target animals”.

The target sharks included 28 white sharks, 12 bull sharks and 11 tiger sharks. The other marine life caught by the nets included 149 non-target sharks such grey nurse sharks and hammerheads, 130 rays, 40 turtles, one dolphin and one humpback whale.

Of all the animals caught in nets, just over a third – 142 – were released alive.

Trebek believes the shark meshing program is in its “death throes” as public awareness grows but admits “it takes significant political courage to make this happen”.

Pepin-Neff says that despite a groundswell of support by local and state public officials, he is skeptical about whether they will ever be removed.

A spokesperson for the NSW agriculture minister, Dugald Saunders, says there are currently no plans to remove existing nets.

“I sometimes talk about ‘loser issues’,” Pepen-Neff says.

“These are issues for which there is a social and political infrastructure which is built around not giving them oxygen, not giving them attention, and not helping them cross the finish line, even when they have widespread support.

“Public support is clearly building for education, for non-lethal methods, but taking shark nets out of the water is a ‘loser issue’, politically.”

A false sense of security

As an ocean swimmer herself, Masselos has skin in the game.

In the 20 years since she first stepped out of the Bronte baths and into the saline waters of Nelson Bay, she’s regularly swum from Bronte to MacKenzie’s beach and back.

The mayor says the ocean offers a “lovely sense of freedom and a sense of wellbeing” that allowed her to share a world with leafy sea dragons, turtles, rays – and sharks.

She has never seen a shark but says there was no swimming without risk, which is why there are rules about ocean swimming: “If there are lots of fish in the water, get out. Don’t swim at dusk. Don’t swim at dawn – and just use your common sense.”

Masselos says she appreciates the nets are an “emotive issue” for many but she believes they offer little more than a “false sense of security”.

“I know that people I’ve been speaking to are shocked when they hear that turtles and dolphins and dugongs are caught up in these nets and die.

“We share our oceans with marine creatures. We’re in their habitat. So what can we do to keep our people safe but also reduce the terrible by-catch? We’re in the 21st century, we’ve got the technology. Let’s be smart about this.”

The mayor says the council would like a combination of smart drumlines, drones and sonar listening buoys deployed. Smart drumlines send a signal to authorities when marine life is caught, allowing potentially harmful sharks to be tagged before being released. When these sharks later come within range of sonar listening buoys, a warning can be issued and the situation monitored using drones.

This article by Royce Kurmelovs was first published by The Guardian on 20 August 2022. Lead Image: A recent government report found 51 ‘target sharks’ and 325 ‘non-target animals’ – including endangered hammerhead sharks – were caught in NSW shark nets in 2021-22. Photograph: Nicole McLachlan/Humane Society International/Australian Marine Conservation Society.

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