Natalie Banks, National Shark Campaign Coordinator, Sea Shepherd Australia.
Natalie Banks, National Shark Campaign Coordinator, Sea Shepherd Australia. Andy Evans

YOUR STORY: Proof shark nets are false sense of security

Op-Ed by Natalie Banks, National Shark Campaign Coordinator, Sea Shepherd Australia

An increase in shark activity in northern New South Wales, has seen authorities and communities grasping to understand what is going on, and how best to keep ocean users safe. Nearly everyone has a theory or an opinion on the matter.

There have been calls for various potential solutions to the issue, including the installation of shark nets in the region. Authorities must play an intricate balancing act of respecting the fears within the community, and taking into account the scientific data available to them. Those calling for shark nets are ignoring the very real, and frightening fact, that there have been 39* unwanted shark encounters at netted beaches since they have been installed. This includes the fatality of surf ski champion Frank Olkulich (21) who was bitten at a Newcastle Beach called Merewether while treading water.

The realities

Shark nets used in New South Wales are all 150-metres long and six meters wide, which sit in about 10-12 metres of water; that is to say, there is a four to six metre gap between the surface and the shark net, which sharks can travel over and around.

In the past 23 years, there has been 21 unwanted shark encounters at netted beaches in NSW; almost one per year*. This doesn't include the death of a 15-year old boy, who it is believed, drowned after being caught in a shark net at Shoal Bay in March 2007. It does however include the shark incident on 12 February 2009 at Bondi Beach when Glen Orgias (33) lost his left hand after being bitten by a 2.5m white shark while surfing and the severe bite that Andrew Lindop (15) received by a suspected 2.6m white shark at Avalon Beach on 1 March 2009. It also includes the horrendous bite surfer Glen Folkard received by a bull shark at Redhead Beach, north of Sydney in January 2012.

A report provided to the New South Wales Department of Industries highlights that the overall number of shark attacks was the same (61) in the 37 years before and after the shark mitigation program however, unwanted shark encounters in the state, during the past few decades have been increasing, proving that shark nets are failing New South Wales ocean users. The rate of unwanted shark encounters at the Central Coast's ocean beaches, for example (the most recent location to receive shark nets) has increased since the shark nets have been installed, from 1 incident every 22 years, to 1 incident every 4.4 years.

The Environmental Impacts

Knowing this, it is indeed heartbreaking to see that from 1950 to 2014, there have been 16,746 marine animals entangled in the shark nets. This includes a range of vulnerable and protected species such as whales, dolphins, turtles, seals, nearly 400 grey nurse sharks (critically endangered and protected in NSW since 1984) and a dugong. (EDITOR's NOTE: SEE CATCH DATA 1950-2014 GRAPH ATTACHED)

Despite accounting for almost a third of the catch, hammerhead sharks are not a target species and have not been implicated in a single attack in NSW since 1900.

Alternative options

Two immediate solutions which have been proven to work and available right now for the Ballina and Lennox Head community are a shark spotting programme and electronic deterrents. The Shark Shield was recently proven to work 90% of the time by the University of Western Australia. Given that shark we can not ever protect ourselves 100% when entering the habitat of wildlife, and that shark encounters are rare, these are good odds.

Shark Spotters is an initiative that started over a decade ago by volunteers specifically for the surfing community in Cape Town, South Africa. They use a system of flags and alarms to alert ocean users of shark activity at eight beaches from 8am to 6pm. In close to 11 years they have spotted over 1,700 sharks and during this time there has been one fatality (low visibility spotting day and black flag up to indicate this) as well as a serious shark attack where the man chose to ignore all the warnings provided.

Again.... Given there is no 100% solution, this initiative offers a great deal more peace of mind than a 150m shark net which is not an enclosure that is in 17 days of the month, and in just the last 10 years alone, has not prevented these unwanted shark encounters at some of New South Wales most popular and netted beaches:

16 April 2005 - Bronte - Simon Letch (40) had surfboard bitten by bronze whaler

15 March 2006 - Bondi - Blake Mohair (15) had his surfboard nudged by a 2m bronze whaler

11 April 2006 - Newcastle - Luke Cook (15) received minor lacerations on his foot from a juvenile bronze whaler while surfing

12 February 2009 - Bondi - Glen Orgias (33) loses left hand after being bitten by 2.5m white shark while surfing

1 March 2009 - Avalon - Andrew Lindop (15) bitten on leg by suspected 2.6m white shark while surfing

26 December 2009 - Avoca - John Sojoski (55) received lacerations to lower leg after accidently stepping on shark

11 Feb 2010 - Mona Vale - Surfer Paul Welsh (46) bitten on left lower leg by a wobbegong shark while teaching son (10) to surf

7 December 2011 - Maroubra - Ronald Mason (14) bitten on leg by a wobbegong while surfing

3 Jan 2012 - North Avoca - Surfer Mike Wells (28) receives about 50 puncture wounds to right arm by a suspected bronze whaler

18 Jan 2012 - Redhead Beach - Glen Folkard (44) bitten by white shark on thigh while surfing

17 Oct 2014 - Avoca - Surfer Kirra-Belle Olsson (13) was bitten on left calf and ankle, and received puncture wounds to left foot while surfing

5 Feb 2015 - Merewether - Bodyboarder Ben McPhee bitten on ankle by 1.8m shark (believed to be a bull shark)

New South Wales ocean lovers deserve better than 1930's technology that lull the public into a sense of false security.

*These figures exclude fishing injuries from sharks.

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