ENVIRONMENT: Sharky politics


DISCUSSIONS of how to respond to a spate of recent shark attacks in NSW continues, fuelled by explorations of the effectiveness of both current and proposed measures in both the print and electronic media. The ABC’s 4 Corners devoted a full program to these issues and were reasonably balanced in giving pro and anti-shark meshing “experts” equal time, although the anti-brigade seemed to be convinced that the current program of meshing 51 beaches between the Hunter and the Illawarra in the warmer months was primarily about catching sharks that might otherwise attack someone. It’s not. It’s about deterring sharks from entering the zone where people are swimming or surfing. And it’s been very successful since it was put in place in the 1930’s. But it does kill some sharks, including some protected species, and some unintended species.

There’s a heady mix of interests involved, with issues spilling over between groups with quite different objectives. Passionate anti-mesh folk continually talk about swimmers and surfers “entering the sharks’ domain”, as if this gives the sharks the OK to take chunks out of them. The SMH’s Good Weekend magazine ran a very good cover story recently where a group shark attack survivors reflected on the fact that they’ve at times been blamed and vilified for what happened to them. Pretty tough.

Surfers not unreasonably would like to think that some action should be taken at known attack hot spots to mitigate the risks of further deaths or injuries. Local business people and councillors have a slightly different motive: they don’t want summer tourists deserting their areas with the resultant risks to communities and peoples’ livelihoods. Both seem fair concerns.

NSW politicians end up in a very tricky position. While some media articles criticise them for not extending the meshing program with cute banner headlines such as “Net result is too many beaches undefended”, others go the opposite way and suggest they’re supporting the killing of valuable animals by not removing the existing nets. Their own agencies are reviewing program effectiveness via a new Joint Management Agreement for the Shark Meshing (Bather Protection) Program. They’re also trialling barriers, drone patrols, tagging, hooking and releasing and sonic deterrents on the north coast, where most of the recent serious attacks have occurred.

So what’s going to happen? As inshore bait fish stocks continue to improve through better fisheries management it seems likely shark attacks will continue, particularly as there are now far fewer professional shark fishers and more protected shark species. The shark supporters will continue to criticise meshing and agitate for its removal. Realistically, you’d have to expect that politicians won’t agree to remove mesh netting from current locations but probably won’t extend it.

But rest assured of one thing: if you catch a big shark, kill it, photograph it and display the photo on social media or in the local paper, you’ll be attacked, abused and trolled like you wouldn’t believe.

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