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Beachgoers from Newcastle to Wollongong caught in the middle of shark politics this summer

Twelve years ago the Dunedin council in New Zealand made the controversial decision to remove shark nets from three beaches.

They were installed after three men lost their lives to shark attacks in the 1960s which led to widespread panic among the locals.

Ditching them was a sensitive issue, with veteran surfer Gary Burton telling local media someone would soon be “munched up”.

But since their removal in 2011, not one person has been attacked by a shark at these beaches.

Some conservationists were hopeful this “success story” could be replicated in New South Wales this summer but Premier Chris Minns has now struck that possibility out.

His government has decided to put the nets back from September 1 — they are removed every winter as whales migrate along Sydney’s coastline.

There was significant pressure on Mr Minns to ditch the nets, which are considered to be “archaic” by some marine biologists, and a recent government report about their marine by-catch was not favourable.

It found almost 90 per cent of animals caught in the 51 shark nets along NSW in 2022/23 were “non-target” animals; such as turtles, dolphins, seals and threatened species such as the grey nurse shark.

Many of these animals died as contractors only check the nets every three days.

Common dolphin found caught and drowned in NSW shark net.(Supplied: Humane Society International)

But the premier is playing it safe. He says he doesn’t have confidence that alternative shark detection technology (drones, listening stations and drum lines) is ready to replace nets.

“I’m not going to get rushed into it, I mean this is an important decision,” he said last week.

His decision ruffled many feathers on the all-important crossbench, which the Minns government relies on to pass legislation, and a number of MPs from the left and right united in opposition to nets.

“This is lazy government. At the very least, they could have committed to some trials where the councils have been calling for these nets to be removed,” Animal Justice Party MLC Emma Hurst said.

“Labor had an election commitment about shark nets and around a phase out and the use of alternatives.”

Coalition of anti-net MPs

Emma Hurst fronts an alliance of politicians fighting against shark nets.(AAP: Bianca de Marchi)

Liberal MP for Terrigal Adam Crouch has pleaded with the government to trial the removal of nets at Killcare, Lakes and Ocean Beaches on the Central Coast, describing them as “walls of death”.

But he says they won’t commit to providing the three extra drum lines to replace the nets.

So why is the government sticking to the status quo?

Going net-free is considered a huge political gamble, says shark policy expert Christopher Pepin-Neff.

No government wants to remove the nets and then see the dreaded headline ‘surfer dies at previously netted beach in Australia’.

“They think they will have blood on their hands if someone dies” Dr Pepin-Neff said.

“They are afraid of the media and the beating they might get. This is despite there being no scientific evidence nets do anything.”

Christopher Pepin-Neff

Christopher Pepin-Neff says reluctance to ditch shark nets comes down to fear.(Supplied: University of Sydney)

Timing is very sensitive for any decision making in this space.

In fact, when nets were introduced in 1937 it was because Australia’s 150th anniversary was coming up and politicians were worried there would be a shark attack during the celebration.

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The NSW government was worried about any shark interactions during the 150th anniversary of Australia.(Supplied: National Museum of Australia)

Shark attacks are rare so receive plenty of media attention.

Just last Friday a man in his 40s was bitten by a shark near Lighthouse Beach at Port Macquarie. He survived but sustained serious leg injuries.

There are no shark nets at this beach, as the government hasn’t installed any north of Newcastle, but drum lines are in place.

Shark politics is ‘fraught’

Roi Fine surfs every day but nets aren’t on his mind when he’s out amongst the waves.

“To me it’s more important to know how close the hospital is if something happens because a lot of shark deaths are caused by loss of blood,” he said.

“Nets don’t seem effective, I still see huge fish and dolphins this side of the net.”

Roi Fine

Roi Fine says shark nets kill too much marine life.(ABC News: Paige Cockburn)

Mr Fine says he thinks the government should conduct a trial where nets are removed at a limited number of beaches for a year.

“If it works, remove more.”

Bondi surfer Peter Connor wants them to stay.

“If they save one life it’s worth it,” he said.

“I think it’s understandable the government is being cautious. I think they’re really needed at popular spots like Bondi where there’s many surfers and swimmers.

“The other kinds of shark technology needs to be up to the task.”

Peter Connor

Peter Connor says he feels safer in the ocean with shark nets.(ABC News: Paige Cockburn)

The government’s own SharkSmart program has concluded drum lines are the “most effective tool” for catching target sharks and reducing marine by-catch.

It says nets don’t provide any guarantees but have been “effective in greatly reducing the potential number of interactions”.

However, it acknowledges there have been 36 shark interactions at netted beaches since they were introduced, including one fatality in 1951, and sharks can swim over, under and around the 150 metre long nets.

In fact, 40 per cent of sharks caught by the nets are found on the beach side.

A diagram of how the system works.

The catch alert drumline system.(Supplied: Queensland government)

Professor Pepin-Neff says the government is somewhat hamstrung if the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) stands by shark nets in any way.

“They have to take the leash off DPI,” he said.

“I’m not pretending it’s easy, shark politics is fraught, but it requires really strong leadership.”

Although governments might fear being blamed for any attacks if nets were abandoned, research doesn’t support this.

Earlier this year the University of Sydney found 70 per cent of residents in Sydney’s beachside council of Waverley would not blame the government if nets were removed and there was a subsequent shark attack.

Over 70 per cent of respondents also believed “no-one” was to blame for shark attacks and they would return to a beach where nets had been removed.

Waiting it out

The previous NSW Coalition government indicated their willingness to shift away from shark nets.

In December 2022 they made an $85 million commitment over four years in “modern” technology such as drum lines, listening stations, and drone trials.

This came around 11 months after the death of diving instructor Simon Nellist, who was fatally attacked at Sydney’s Little Bay by a great white shark.

a man under water smiling

The family of shark attack victim, Simon Nellist, say they will miss him terribly.(Supplied: Facebookk, Simon Nellist)

The following summer was the first-time drum lines, drones and shark listening stations were used at beaches that also have shark nets.

Minister for Agriculture Tara Moriarty said the government wanted to continue all four measures for one more summer season to have more thorough data.

Shark researcher Daryl McPhee from Bond University thinks the government is right to wait it out.

“I think he [Chris Minns] is on the money,” Dr McPhee said.

“I just don’t think [the technology] is there yet.”

He said while drones had shown good early results in parts of NSW and personal shark deterrents had their place, there was no “silver bullet”.

“It’s always going to be a range of approaches.”

However he said even if the governments did nothing, the number of bites would still be incredibly low.

“You’re 20 times more likely to drown at an Australian beach than you are to be killed by a shark.”

On this, Professor Pepin-Neff agrees.

“Are sharks really a governable issue? Lightning strikes aren’t, floods aren’t.”

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-08-28/the-politics-over-the-removal-of-shark-nets-in-nsw/102778172 Beachgoers from Newcastle to Wollongong caught in the middle of shark politics this summer

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