This story was first published in Critic Magazine.
Bottlenose dolphins, grey nurse sharks and green turtles were among the dead hauled out of shark nets around Sydney in 2015.
The New South Wales government’s most recent performance report details the marine life captured by the Shark Meshing programme.
2015 recorded 748 “marine life interactions” with the nets, up from 189 in 2014. Of the animals caught by the nets, 86% were threatened, protected, or non-target species, while the other 14% of animals caught were target shark species.
To many, the results of the report are horrific. Environmentalists who excoriate the state’s meshing program will likely describe the results as an abysmal, archaic, atrocious failure.
Unfortunately for all marine life, shark nets are blind and indiscriminate. The mesh size is designed to entangle sharks, which is also well suited to catching dolphins, rays and turtles.
Since 1937, shark nets have been deployed seasonally at 51 beaches around Sydney. In theory, shark nets reduce the risk of humans and sharks encountering one another, by lowering the number of sharks in close vicinity to popular beaches. However, 2015 saw a huge surge in marine life being entangled in the nets.
The report describes two performance indicators; the first being to reduce the risk of shark attacks in the meshing programme region. Just one water-user was bitten at a beach while nets were set in the Sydney meshing region. The second performance indicator is to “minimise the impact on non-target and threatened species”.
The report doesn’t explicitly state whether the performance indicators were achieved. While the NSW Department of Primary Industries might argue that the programme was a success in protecting the beaches around Sydney, their aim of minimising ecological harm seems to be a hopeless failure. The vast majority of marine life caught was non-target.
Given the spike in marine life caught by the programme, it seems surprising that the report hasn’t initiated meaningful discussion about how the risk of shark attacks can be better managed in Sydney.
In contrast, West Australia’s 2014 Imminent Threat Policy, dubbed the ‘shark cull’ by media, was hugely controversial. Following an unprecedented string of seven fatalities between 2010 and 2013 in WA waters, Premier Colin Barnett announced the state’s Imminent Threat Policy. The policy saw the deployment of 72 baited drum lines near popular WA beaches.
The programme was simple - if a shark was hooked, alive and over three metres in length, it would be shot in the head. The premise of the policy was that, by lowering the population of large sharks, the likelihood of humans and dangerous sharks encountering one another would be reduced.
The announcement of the policy saw instantaneous public outcry. Scientists excoriated the programme as an immoral, unscientific witch-hunt. Protests saw thousands turning out to condemn the cull at localities like Cottesloe Beach in Perth (which experienced a fatality in 2011), Manly NSW (where, perhaps ironically, a shark net was set a few hundred metres off shore behind the protestors) and even internationally in New Zealand and South Africa.
The shark cull was depicted worldwide as an environmental catastrophe, an unjust calamity driven by irrational, emotional fear. Over 100 shark experts signed an open letter decrying the cull. It even saw the vandalisation of WA Premier Collin Barnett’s office by a protester, who took to his office windows with a hammer, before spraying the words ‘EGO MANIAC’ in fluorescent, splattered all caps.
On 26 January, the programme’s first victim, a tiger shark, was hauled up, shot in the head four times with a 22. calibre rifle, dragged out to sea and dumped. Media documented the execution-style death and pandemonium ensued. Social media erupted into a furore of frenzied protest.
Images of the tiger shark being shot in the head offered a potent narrative for those who opposed the cull. It flipped the criminalised media portrayal of sharks as worthy of prosecution. It depicted sharks as vulnerable and man as dangerous.
Barnett’s catch-and-kill dictatorship in the waters around WA was in full swing. As sharks continued to be hauled up, shot and dumped, the torrents of criticism directed at the WA government only intensified. The popular media, who have for so long offered sensationalised and damaging reports of sharks as man-eaters, had a field day tearing into the government’s drum lining policy.
The drum lining trial ended in April, and in September Colin Barnett announced the discontinuation of the programme. During the ten-week drum lining trial, 172 sharks were caught. Fifty of the sharks caught were tiger sharks measuring over 3 meters, which were subsequently shot and dumped. No great whites were caught.
While no shark attacks were recorded in WA waters during the drum line trial, any statistician would be hesitant to attribute success to the policy. Correlation does not mean causation. Shark attack statistics are patchy and variable, meaning that making sense of a miniscule sample size over such a small amount of time is inadvertently flawed and wildly inaccurate.
When drum lining had kicked off in February, WA fisheries minister Ken Baston was asked by the media for a response to the protest in Manly against the shark cull. Baston rightly pointed out that shark nets had been used around Sydney for years.
Baston’s answer insinuated hypocrisy - how could the NSW public protest the shark cull, when sharks were also being killed in NSW for the same purpose of protecting water-users?
Of all marine life caught by the WA drum line programme, only 4.6 percent was non-target. The statistic provides a stark contrast with the NSW Shark Meshing programme, whose non-target marine life comprised 86 percent of 2015’s total catch.
So why, then, does a programme that did seem to manage to successfully “minimise the impact on non-target and threatened species” come under intense public scrutiny, while a programme that kills a huge amount of non-target and endangered marine life is largely ignored? The answer may lie in the historical longevity of the meshing programme.
The Shark Meshing programme dates back to the mid 1930s. Between 1927 and 1930, NSW recorded nine fatal shark attacks. The string of fatalities installed a new breed of post-war paranoia in the NSW public.
The harbinger for NSW’s war on sharks was Victor Coppleson, a doctor and advisor to the Surf Lifesaving Association of Australia. Coppleson believed the public were being misled by research stating that sharks do not intentionally bite people. Coppleson believed sharks were responsible for attacking humans and set out to change the rhetoric that explained shark attacks.
In 1933, Coppleson published “Shark Attacks in Australian Waters” in the Australian Medical Journal. “The evidence that sharks will attack man,” he argued, “is complete”.
Sharks were no longer benign and mysterious creatures of the deep, but prowling monsters waiting for man to enter the ocean. Coppleson ignited an all out war on sharks, a battle of man against beast. In 1937 the NSW government introduced the Shark Meshing programme.
Ever since, shark nets have been deployed every summer in Sydney. They’re out of sight and out of mind. Their success in reducing fatal shark attacks has been trumpeted by the NSW government and the public rarely questions their deployment each summer. They were installed at a time when sharks were believed to intentionally hunt man.
Nowadays the prevailing scientific rhetoric is that shark attacks are commonly a case of mistaken identity. If sharks did want to hunt humans, many more would die by shark attack every year. Science has taught us that the ocean’s eco-systems badly need sharks.
Our modern understanding of sharks means that the implementation of any new policy that involves killing sharks is often met with fierce opposition. But at the same time, we rarely question the continuation of old policies that have killed sharks for decades.
After the WA shark cull in January 2015, the then NSW Premier Mike Baird announced, “One thing we will not be doing in NSW is culling sharks”. Baird continued to offer this sentiment of not “culling sharks” throughout 2015.
His tactful choice of the word “cull” instead of “kill” suggested to the public that his government would never do 0a thing as barbaric as the WA government, while ignoring the fact that his government does indeed kill many sharks, as well as dolphins, turtles and rays, each year.
Considering the vast array of non-target marine life caught by the Shark Meshing programme it seems bizarre that the issue is swept under the rug in NSW. Why are we so critical of new policies that involve killing sharks, but comparatively complacent when it comes to criticising old ones?
An image of a shark entangled in net doesn’t seem to elicit the same panicked emotional response that an image of a shark with a hook in its mouth and a gun to its head does. Hooking and shooting a shark seems barbaric. Entangling and drowning a shark doesn’t.
Reporting of the WA shark executions created a simple narrative for the public: sharks bit people in WA, so the government, led by a myopic tyrant on a violent vendetta, tasked his fisheries goons with the simple mission of hunting and executing all large sharks, guilt or innocence irrelevant. The policy was understandably controversial.
In December last year, the NSW government announced the forthcoming trial of five shark nets on the North Coast. The announcement came in the wake of an unprecedented spate of attacks around Ballina. While the deployment of the nets has been controversial for many environmentalists living in the area, the Baird government has managed to avoid significant criticism by the NSW public and media.
The narrative surrounding this deployment of nets on the North Coast was significantly different from the narrative in WA: sharks bit people on the North Coast and Mike Baird, the good-guy surfing premier, who didn’t want to “cull” sharks, employed scientists to research and study them, so water-users could better learn to co-exist with them. But, when tensions heightened, he had to protect the people, so he deployed shark nets fitted with whale and dolphin pingers, to be rigorously checked by fisheries staff.
The six-month trial of the shark nets on the North Coast ends in May this year. At that point, the NSW government will decide whether the seasonal deployments of nets on the North Coast will carry on in unison with the Shark Meshing programme. The decision is likely to be marred in controversy.
Removing shark nets from any beach would be a high-risk political move. If someone were to be attacked at that beach, the government would be in the firing line and, in the public eye, responsible for the attack.
If the nets are discontinued, North Coast surfers will undoubtedly ask why beaches are protected around Sydney, but not around Ballina. If someone is attacked there next summer, the NSW government will be in the firing line. It’s a risk the NSW Government may not want to take.
So, for now, it’s likely that shark nets are here to stay.