By Kristy Henderson
With summer just around the corner, making swimming safe for tourists is a priority for the Queensland state government and tourism operators, but conservationists argue that its shark management strategies are outdated and put shark populations and other marine animals at risk.
After three recent shark attacks in Queensland, the sustainability of Queensland’s Shark Control Program has come under the spotlight. All three shark attacks occurred at Cid Harbour in the Whitsundays in Northern Queensland, a popular holiday spot for scuba divers, swimmers, and yachties. The victims were a 46-year-old woman from Tasmania, a 12-year-old girl from Melbourne, who lost her leg in the attack, and a 33-year-old man who died as a result of his injuries. Two of the attacks happened within 24 hours of each other.
Fisheries Queensland was quick to respond after the first two shark attacks, reporting that it had killed six sharks caught in its baited drum lines in the following week. The baited drum lines attract the sharks, which either die after taking the bait or, if found alive, are killed and then dumped further out at sea. A tiger shark measuring 3.7 metres long and a blacktip shark measuring 1.2 metres were killed in the cull. It will never be known if these sharks were responsible for the attacks, but according to Fisheries Queensland, the aim of the Shark Control Program is to make the beaches safe for swimmers by reducing the number of sharks in the area, even if they haven’t been involved in an incident with swimmers.
Since 1900, there have been 65 unprovoked shark attacks leading to death in Queensland and 175 unprovoked shark attacks in which the victims survived. Yet the man who died in this week’s shark attack is only the second person to die in an area controlled for sharks in Queensland since 1962.
Since this time, the Queensland government has used shark nets and baited drum lines to manage shark risk at 85 beaches along the Queensland coast. In this time, there have only been two fatalities, including the one this week, compared to 27 human deaths between the years 1919–1961. However, shark control nets and drum lines also catch and kill many other species, including dolphins, green and loggerhead turtles, humpback whales, rays, and even crocodiles, casting doubt on how effective they are in light of their environmental impact.
In the past month alone, two humpback whale calves have been caught in shark nets off the Gold Coast. In the most recent case, the distressed mother whale waited by her calf until rescuers arrived to free it from the net. Both of these whale calves survived with only light injuries, but many other marine animals are not so lucky. Out of the 231 animals caught in shark nets between June 2017 and July 2018, 172 were already dead when found, with only 17 released alive. Tiger sharks, the species believed to be most responsible for shark attacks in Queensland, were, however, the most common species caught, with 38 found dead in the nets and 37 subsequently killed.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society argues that shark nets and drum lines are a bad way to manage shark risk because they give swimmers a false sense of safety given the nets do not stop sharks entering areas used by swimmers. They also argue that the nets and drum lines have negative ecological consequences with the majority of shark species killed listed as ‘endangered’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘threatened’ or ‘near threatened.’ As sharks mature slowly and have a low reproduction rate, a reduction in their numbers due to shark finning and culling puts shark populations under pressure, which has consequences for other marine species lower down in the food chain. As a predator species, sharks are also important for keeping the populations of other species at sustainable levels.
Conservationists and surfers alike also argue that killing sharks for human safety is simply wrong because sharks have just as much a right to live in the ocean as humans do, and everyone enters the ocean at their own risk. From this point of view, the key to finding a solution that balances human safety and conservation lies in developing technologies that help humans better understand shark behaviour in order to predict when sharks are in areas used by swimmers and surfers.
After much public protest in Western Australia in 2014, a planned cull of sharks was called off. Instead, a program was developed that could track tagged sharks so that they could ‘tweet’ their location while moving through the ocean. Professor Jessica Meeuwig at the University of Queensland says that much more could be learnt about sharks if more were tagged and released. A survey by UMR Research in 2014 found that 78% of Australians were not afraid of shark attacks, with 83% against culling. A similar result was shown in a 2015 and 2016 survey of people in Perth and Ballina in NSW conducted by researchers at the University of Sydney.
Fisheries Queensland says it’s committed to researching the best way to reduce the death of other marine species caught in its shark nets and drum lines and, where possible, to relocate and release non-threatening shark species. However, until better technologies are developed, they will continue to kill sharks in order to reduce the risk of shark attacks in areas used by swimmers. Marine conservationists say that the government is just trying to make people feel safe, and a better response is to educate beach users about sharks. Respecting sharks means respecting their territory and accepting the risks of unknowingly entering it.*
*Since the publication of this article, a ruling by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) in Queensland has prohibited the baiting of the sharks within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park due to concerns about the impact on the reef’s ecosystem.
Click on the links to read more about shark-human interactions.
- Gibbs, L & Warren, A. (2015). Transforming shark hazard policy: learning from ocean-users and shark encounter in Western Australia. Research Online. University of Wollongong. 58. August. 116-124.
- Gibbs, L. & Warren, L. (2015). Killing sharks: cultures and politics of encounter and the sea. Research Online. University of Wollongong. 45 (2) 101-107.