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Sharks: are they the danger, or are we?

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Late in November 2018, a Great White shark was discovered dead in a government-scheme shark net near a popular beach in Sydney, Australia.

A spokesperson for the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries said: “We can confirm a 4.65 metre White Shark was removed from the Maroubra shark meshing net this morning by contractors during a routine check.”

 

A photo shared online by local fisherman Jason Moyce, also known as Trapman Bermagui, claimed on social media that the shark tail was “over two metres tall and the shark’s weight was over a ton".

According to the Sea Life Trust in Australia, the NSW Shark Meshing programme is estimated to cost $1.4 million per year for an eight-month contract that operates on 14 days of the month, only on beaches between Wollongong and Newcastle.

I spoke to Madi Stewart, Australian Geographic’s  Young Conservationist of the Year 2017, who is also known as 'shark girl'. An environmental activist and filmmaker, she has dedicated her life to helping others understand and respect these amazing creatures.

I asked Madi why shark nets are a danger to shark populations. She says: "Shark nets have been successful in catching and killing many species of sharks since their instalment in Australia over 30 years ago.

"Their impact on the population of not only sharks, but lots of other marine life, can be seen by the decrease in catch numbers since their placement, suggesting they have successfully culled a local population of wildlife."

Madi goes on to discuss the 'effectiveness' of shark nets: "A lot of people think we oppose shark nets because they kill animals... but it's more than that," she says. "I personally oppose shark nets because they are ineffective in protecting people. Not only has there been a fatal attack at a beach with drum lines in the past, but the notion that a small stretch of beach that has a tiny net that doesn't even touch the ocean floor is going to save anyone is flawed.

"The reality of the environment (that) we live in here in Australia, and anywhere around the world, is a reality we have forgotten. It's not ours, and it's dangerous, and it means we may have to abandon a perfect break every now and then to avoid becoming a victim to a shark attack... the very real threat of sharks needs to be taken into our own hands sometimes, and not just that of the government's.

"Sharks are not a mystery; they are not an enigma - there are many things you can and should learn about the dangerous predator you enter the water with, as hikers do with bears, and many other examples. 

"So my advice to you is this; know your place in the ocean, and accept that risk and make your own personal attempts to make it safer for yourself, but never forget that it is not our ocean."

I asked Madi what we can do to raise awareness of endangered species, in particular how to work against shark finning processes. She said to "be careful not to buy shark products" and to "raise local awareness, and lobby governments". 

It is estimated that 11,000 sharks are killed per hour (100 million every year) as a result of shark finning practices, and even more endangered species are at risk with the implementation of shark nets and drum lines.

But what actually are shark nets? And do they work to prevent shark attacks?

Contrary to popular belief, shark nets are not a continuous barrier protecting bays and beaches, nor are they intended to entrap animals.

Instead, they act as disruptors to territorial sharks’ natural hunting patterns, in theory, discouraging them from hunting close to beaches where people swim and surf. They are usually 150m wide, 6m tall, and set in aboutten metres of water, therefore allowing sharks to swim over and around them without much difficulty.

The main issue with shark nets is that although their purpose is not to ‘trap’ marine life, inevitably, there is a huge amount of by-catch, including endangered sharks and other creatures. In 2017, during the six-month North Coast Shark Net Trial, statistics released by the Department of Primary Industries revealed that just 3% (9 sharks) of the animals caught were target species. It was also stated that just 47% of the other marine wildlife caught were released alive.

Another major issue that arises is the fact that shark nets don’t really work. According to a government report in 2009 “the annual rate of attack was the same both before and after meshing commenced”. Although the number of shark attack fatalities has reduced since the nets were put into the water, this is mainly due to improved medical assistance. As stated by the Sea Life Trust in Australia: “These deaths [of marine wildlife] are not a trade-off for the protection of people, but are unnecessary deaths in an out-dated system that doesn’t protect anyone".

Recent advances in technology mean that shark nets really are becoming outdated and ineffective. As reported by The Independent in 2016, lifeguards at the popular tourist destination, Bondi Beach, trialled the Clever Buoy, a system designed by Shark Mitigation Systems. Over the three-month trial, the buoy detected 33 sharks over two metres in length, five of which were tracked during daylight hours. This led to a more effective use of the lifeguards’ time as they were able to track the sharks and direct a jet ski directly towards them in order to coax them back out to the open ocean, as opposed to relying on witnesses and manually checking the shark nets.

There are three species of sharks that make up the large majority of shark attacks on humans - great white, tiger, and bull sharks. Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean mainly has an issue with bull sharks, considered by many shark experts to be the most aggressive.

In 2017, Deeper Blue published an in-depth article, looking at the increase in shark attacks around the island. The attacks in Reunion became prevalent in 2011, suggesting it is a recent development. They identified one cause as the rapid urban expansion taking place on the island, and the run off from the developments having caused muddy inshore waters – an ideal hunting ground for bull sharks. This makes it more difficult for ‘shark spotters’ to communicate effectively, as they are unable to observe sharks in the murky waters. 

Natural shark populations flourished in Reunion after the island banned the fishing of sharks for food in 1999, after evidence of shark meat containing dangerous levels of the toxin ciguatera. However, the larger species of sharks that are prevalent in Reunion is in part due to overfishing. The population of smaller reef sharks has collapsed, and the consequent ecological vacuum (similar to situations that arise after shark culls) has allowed for larger sharks to infiltrate the waters as they try to take control of the territory, thus resulting in bull sharks becoming more aggressive.

 

SHARK NETS FOR HUNGER STRIKE // Credit: Madison Stewart

To find out more about staying safe in the ocean, and the huge effect sharks have on our environment, visit Madison’s website: https://www.madistewart.com/

To read more on the decline of sharks, click here.

Lead Image by Fiona Ayerst, From Marine Photo Bank




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