Shark kill program hits choppy waters
A legal battle has broken out between the State Government and environmentalists over the use of baited hooks to kill sharks. The Government says it's protecting swimmers. But the state is out of step with the rest of the world and has hit troubled waters. Top officials at Queensland's fisheries department are in a scramble.
IT'S early afternoon in September when an urgent email hits the inbox of Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority director Kirstin Dobbs in Townsville.
Shocking news has emerged that a girl has been attacked by a shark in the Whitsundays.
It's the second in 24 hours in Cid Harbour - a popular anchorage spot for boaties.
Top officials at Queensland's fisheries department are in a scramble.
"This is an emergency situation and poses a risk to human safety," Fisheries Queensland executive director Claire Andersen emails Dobbs that frantic afternoon last September.
"We are proposing to deploy 3 drumlines in the area temporarily," she writes to Dobbs, who is a director of environmental assessment for the authority.
More than 100 drumlines - hooks threaded with chunks of bait - already surround beaches in the marine park to catch and kill 19 shark species known as "man eaters." But not in Cid Harbour.
An internal briefing paper early the next morning advises how to handle media questions about whether they are hunting "the" shark that attacked 12-year-old Melbourne girl Hannah Papps.
The reply: "It would be difficult to identify one particular shark but we know drumlines work."
Six months on, and the claim drumlines "work" is shattered by the powerful Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
In April it found "overwhelming" evidence killing sharks on drumlines in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park does not cut the shark attack risk as Queenslanders had long been assured.
The tribunal bars Queensland from continuing a deliberately lethal shark control program.
Sharks should instead be caught and released and new technologies trialled, it orders.
The State Government, though, is fighting back. It is preparing for a final showdown in August, when the Federal Court hears its appeal to reject the tribunal's findings, which have been put on hold.
But an examination by Insight of court documents, expert witness testimony and government emails obtained under Right to Information raises the question of whether the stance on using drumlines to kill sharks is being led more by a desire to appear tough on a feared predator than the science.
Most tellingly, its own expert witness in the shark case, Daryl McPhee, contradicted a key justification for the killings - that statistically, the shark control program is an "outstanding success."
In the courtroom:
Months have passed since the Cid Harbour crisis, when McPhee, a Bond University environmental science associate professor, steps into the witness box at the tribunal hearing in Brisbane.
The drumlines debate has been simmering since a third attack in the harbour - this time deadly.
Melbourne doctor Daniel Christidis, 33, had jumped off a paddleboard at about 5.30pm on November 5 when he was mauled.
Young Papps lost a leg in the earlier attack in the harbour.
And Tasmanian Justine Barwick, 46, who was attacked the day before Papps, has undergone reconstructive surgery.
But this day in January, it is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's permit allowing the State Government to target and kill sharks that is under review.
The permit allows targeted sharks snared on up to 173 drumlines set 500m offshore from popular beaches in the marine park to be killed.
Global animal welfare group Humane Society International wants that stopped.
It points out Queensland is now the only place in the world to deliberately kill sharks on drumlines.
HSI argues there is no scientific evidence that indiscriminately killing sharks protects humans.
In the hearing McPhee agrees "there is no correlation between the abundance of sharks in the local area and the risk of shark attacks".
Put simply, attacks are random and the oceans are brimming with sharks that never bite humans.
McPhee supports the Government's claim the Reef's ecosystem is not being damaged by the shark control program.
But his entry turns out to be a legal blunder by the State Government when things take a U-turn during his cross-examination by HSI's barrister Saul Holt.
New Zealand-born Holt has stepped in on the side of sharks, working the case pro-bono.
He is known for big criminal cases.
But Holt is also keen on environmental law, dives for fun and likes sharks.
That's bad for the Government. His courtroom style has a touch of showmanship. He's animated, quick-footed and, better still for HSI, is happy to waive his fees.
Today he's asking McPhee whether the claim that drumlines "work" is statistical nonsense.
He zeroes in on one of the Government's key justifications.
That is that there has been no fatal shark attack at a protected beach in the marine park since the shark control program started in 1962, but in unprotected parts of the marine park there had been 57 shark attacks and 11 deaths.
McPhee says it's "highly plausible" if drumlines were removed tomorrow there would be "no discernible change in unprovoked shark bites".
He adds that he would not recommend a lethal shark program.
McPhee also does not dispute the "wicked statistical problem" of drawing conclusions from the seven-year incidence of shark attack fatalities in Queensland, which is as low as 0.1 a year.
There is a higher chance of being killed by a cow or vending machine, McPhee agrees.
The tribunal's decision blasts the Government for its "superficially attractive albeit non-scientific approach" in citing the absence of shark attack deaths as a justification.
It finds the logic is flawed in that there have been no shark attacks at many beaches that were not part of the shark control program, and fatal shark attacks at beaches outside the park that were.
For example, one in five of the fatal shark attacks in the state occurred at Queensland beaches that were in the shark control program, even though they represented a tiny part of the coastline.
Further, 83 per cent of the park's drumlines are off beaches with no history of a fatality.
But McPhee raises another factor. "It comes down to - we fear sharks," he says.
"We actually fear what our evolutionary ancestors have feared."
He references the movie Jaws and its chilling theme music.
"There's this need for people ... to want to do something or have something done, and governments are put under pressure to do things."
Holt asks: "We feel better when we see governments doing something, so governments do stuff?" "Yes," McPhee replies.
A political problem:
Back to Cid Harbour. Emergency drumlines have been in for several days. Six sharks have been hooked and their photos are in the media. Tourism operators are alarmed.
The "media is portraying the Whitsundays as being shark infested," one moans.
Meanwhile, the Marine Park Authority is also "getting nervous" its dragging on, emails show.
An urgent brief is prepared for the Premier recommending removing drumlines from Cid Harbour.
But one senior government official is cautious. He "will not move until Prem's office is comfortable," one email notes. The drumlines are removed days later.
But that comes under attack by the State Opposition after Christidis's death.
"Pull your finger out, a man has died," then-LNP Whitsundays MP Jason Costigan fumes.
Tourism Minister Kate Jones warns against a "knee-jerk reaction".
"We certainly would not want to give people a false sense of safety in an area where we could not guarantee it," she says.
State Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington this week told Insight the drumlines should be put back in to Cid Harbour and backed the
legal battle to keep them in the marine park.
"The LNP's position couldn't be clearer - people before sharks,"
Fisheries Minister Mark Furner is also fixed on continuing a lethal shark control program.
He maintains the shark control program has an "outstanding record," despite the tribunal ruling.
"The Government values the safety of Queensland residents and visitors above the concerns of interstate campaign organisations," he says.
However, the Government has set aside $1 million a year for researching new technologies. For HSI head of campaigns Nicola Beynon, the point has been won.
"All they are doing is appealing it on a technicality and there will still be no scientific basis for continuing to use Queensland taxpayers' money to cull sharks," she says.
More than 100,000 people signed its petition against killing sharks.
Katter's Australian Party MP Robbie Katter was not among them.
Culling sharks should be considered just as it could be for bats or feral pigs, he tells Insight.
"I think we are well within our rights to treat the science around this with severe cynicism.
"I'm not going to stand here and say it's a great solution and it's going to make the water safer but we've got to do something."
He is in lock-step with locals such as ex-fisheries worker turned charter fishing operator Daniel McCarthy, who insists shark numbers "are out of control".
"We should be turning them into money," he tells Insight.
"At the end of the day there are that many bloody sharks on the Great Barrier Reef now if we harvest them we'd pay off the national debt. People think I'm exaggerating. That I'm a crazy redneck or whatever and it's rubbish. Come out and spend some time on the water and I'll show you the sharks.
"We are going to get more shark attacks. It's sad to say but statistically it is going to happen."
A FIN LINE
TIGER sharks are public enemy number one when it comes to the Government's shark control program in the Great Barrier ReefMarine Park.
Along with bull sharks, they are the species most commonly associated with attacks.
And they've paid a heavy
price for their fearsome
reputation - about 144 are killed a year. That's more than 1000 over a decade.
But an Administrative Appeals Tribunal hearing has raised questions about whether the deaths have been necessary. It heardmost tiger sharks killed were less than two metres long.
That puts them under the size linked to human fatalities and has triggered questions as to whether the deaths were for "literallyzero purpose".
Analysis of the State Government's shark control program data shows 216 sharks caught on drumlines in the marine park in the12 months to May 2019 were recorded as having died.
Just 21 of those deaths were recorded as "euthanised". It indicates the rest were found dead when the drumlines were inspected,which is usually every second day.
That included 31 spot-tail whalers - a species not on the target list of 19 species.
A spokesman for Department of Agriculture and Fisheries responded to questions about the deaths by saying "catch data indicatesthe program does not threaten the long-term sustainability of this species".
Fatal and non-fatal shark attacks trigger a shark control program in Queensland including in the Great Barrier Reef MarinePark.
June 30, 2017
Humane Society International (Australia) takes legal action against the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority over it permittingthe State Government to kill 19 species of sharks caught on baited drumlines off beaches in the marine park.
Sep 19, 2018
46-year-old Tasmanian tourist Justine Barwick attacked by a shark at Cid Harbour.
Sep 20, 2018
Melbourne schoolgirl Hannah Papps attacked by a shark. Her leg is later amputated.
Sep 21, 2018
Emergency drumlines put in Cid Harbour, catching six sharks.
Sep 27, 2018
Drumlines removed from Cid Harbour.
Nov 5, 2018
Melbourne doctor Daniel Christidis, 33, killed in Cid Harbour shark attack.
Apr 2, 2019
Administrative Appeals Tribunal orders the Government to quit killing sharks on drumlines in the Great Barrier Reef MarinePark. Government pulls drumlines out.
Apr 5, 2019
Federal Court stays AAT order pending a State Government appeal. Government puts drumlines back in.
Date of the Federal Court appeal hearing.