Environment News: The ongoing grey nurse saga

Grey nurse shark critical habitat rules came into force on December 1, 2002. Lots of us in various capacities (including the late gamefishing icon Peter Goadby and diver Val Taylor) were involved in coming up with protective measures aimed at giving the east coast population of these sharks at least some chance of recovering from years of exploitation by, at various times since white settlement, spearos, commercial fishermen, charter boat operators and yes, rec fishos.

Writing that has probably upset all these groups a bit, but it’s true. Equally true is that most of the exploitation is now a matter of history and regret to those old enough to remember their parts in grey nurse killing. I’ve seen old spearos in tears over their memories of powerhead excesses.

The Greens and some researchers never considered the measures sufficient and are again, as readers know, trying to get tighter controls over grey nurse critical habitats. As it stands, you can’t anchor and fish with a wire trace in a critical habitat zone, or fish commercially. You can’t use bait at all while anchored in a critical habitat zone, but you can in a buffer zone. And you can troll or drift using bait, fly or lure with or without a wire trace in both, and rock and beach fish without a wire trace. Sounds OK to me … but not to our Green brothers and sisters, who seem to have a dread of grey nurse sharks rising to a trolled bait or taking fish being played off lines.

So the arguments are on again, but really the logic used by both sides is quite wonky.

The “shark protectors” say there are only a few hundred grey nurses left, so protective measures must be increased. Logical flaw: if this is true, and we accept all the claims about the shark’s ineffective breading habits, then protecting these few hundred won’t make a jot of difference to the population’s long term survival. In a few years, they’ll be gone, whatever we do. Finished, but only as a population, not a species. Plenty left in WA, South Africa, California. Maybe this population’s eventual demise is just harsh reality. But the species won’t die out, just this east coast population. Sad, but not the end of the world, as some would have you believe?

But lest the anti-grey nurse protection lobby members get too smug, consider their key argument for not increasing protection, used to date. They reckon there are in fact thousands of these sharks left in eastern Australian waters, not hundreds, so increased protection isn’t needed. Logical flaw: if there really are thousands, then increased protection might save them, which it wouldn’t do for hundreds.

And the last big problem: while grey nurse sharks like to aggregate and rest up at known, protected sites, they regularly travel hundreds of kilometres between these sites where there’re at the mercy of long liners and shark finners. How do the “shark protectors” plan to counter that?

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