ENVIRONMENT: Sharks…love ‘em or hate ‘em?

Attitudes towards the men in grey suits have changed over the last few decades.

SHARKS were back in the news recently with an early morning swimmer being bitten by a grey nurse off Manly’s Shelley Beach, near the Cabbage Tree Bay marine protected area. Everyone was pretty relaxed about the incident, including the guy who got bitten.

Grey nurse had a bad wrap up until the 1960s…Zane Grey wrote about catching these “fearsome man-eaters” off Sydney in the 1930s, and during the 1960s Saturday evening TV often ran underwater documentaries featuring spear fishos blasting grey nurse with powerheads. Then some researcher or other worked out that their needle pointed teeth were really designed to catch fish, not sizeable mammals, and that these sharks weren’t aggressive towards humans anyway. To get bitten by one you really need to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the early morning swimmer, or really pester it.

Sometime in the 1980s grey nurse sharks became the “labrador of the seas” and in NSW their known aggregation sites were protected from fishing activities. The late Peter Goadby, game fisher and author, who was on the NSW Fisheries Conservation Advisory Council with diver and film maker Val Taylor and this writer, managed to get them delisted internationally as an IGFA target species.

While no one targets grey nurse these days, and great whites are also protected, there are still a few fishos who will have a go at tiger sharks, makos, whalers and bull sharks. It’s not publicised much, as it was in the 50s and 60s when magazines such as Life ran features on Alf Dean (“My Six Fish Over a Ton”) and TV personalities Bob and Dolly Dyer’s world record catches. These days a shot of a fisho with a big dead shark brings nearly as much negative comment as a photo of a shooter with a dead elephant or giraffe. Times and attitudes change. Personally, having lost many fine sportfish to sharks in the NT and WA, I just wish that they’d leave me alone and then I’d be happy to leave them alone.

A few diehard old commercial shark fishers whose quotas have been dramatically cut over the years still claim that there are more sharks than ever, and that protection has gone too far. There doesn’t appear to be any solid evidence to support this, but there have been some dramatic attacks on swimmers in the last few years in NSW, WA and SA, which has prompted calls for protective action. Shark meshing and drum lines, the methods used over the last 80 years or so across different states, do seem to work. Trouble is, they’re not discriminatory and kill protected sharks and by catch species as well as targets. It’s doubly problematic when one of the attack species, the great white, happens to be protected.

So, politicians, who get to make decisions on public safety and conservation measures, are really faced with a dilemma. Take away the nets and risk kids being taken off their boogie boards or continue to sanction killing the “wrong” species?  Smart drum lines, which allow sharks to be hooked, tagged and then transported away from high human-use areas, are the latest approach.  In NSW, the recent trial period saw 23 sharks caught on the North Coast, 16 on the South Coast and 14 on Sydney’s northern beaches. Species included tiger sharks, whalers, hammerheads, great whites, bull sharks, makos, blacktips and grey nurse. A real mix of dangerous and non-dangerous. Next steps will be dependent on an analysis of the trials.

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