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It’s the same old story every year as we approach another Australian summer. To shark-net our beaches to keep predator numbers down, or not to shark-net our beaches. To drum line or not to drum line? Should we even bother trying to find measures to protect ourselves from sharks or just accept the risk?
Here’s a simple equation. Humans have explored the outer reaches of space, most recently landing a module on the dark side of the moon. Sharks have not. Humans have sequenced our own DNA, along with the DNA of more than 3000 other species. Sharks have not. Humans have perfected life-saving organ transplants. Sharks have not.
A young grey nurse shark off the headland at South Bondi.Credit: Edwina Pickles/Duncan Heuer
Large sharks often snack on smaller versions of their own species. Humans do not. Sharks hunt whales for food, humans … Actually, let’s put a pin in that one.
Until sharks manage at least one of these scientific triumphs and give up their penchant for cannibalism, they will not surpass humans as the dominant species on the planet.
This nullifies that age-old argument that by entering the ocean “we’re entering their territory”. No, the sky, the ocean and the land are overseen by the dominant species on the planet – humans.
Of course, this oversight comes with an obligation to take care of the land, the oceans, the skies and all the creatures that abide in them. It also gives us the mandate to protect ourselves in the most effective way possible, to enjoy land, sea and sky.
Beachgoers as seen through the shark net at Shark Beach in Sydney.Credit: Steven Saphore
Naturally, some don’t see it that way. Conservation website One Green Planet rejects the need to use measures such as shark nets, stating online, “humans kill way more sharks every year than sharks kill humans.” So sharks should be allowed to even the score?
Meanwhile, some scientists think the best way to keep both sharks and humans happy is to rename “shark attacks” as “shark incidents” so as not to engage in “inflammatory” language. The science is not yet in whether mandating politically correct descriptors is an effective shark repellent.
Many marine scientists also contend that sharks do not intentionally “attack” humans but are simply curious. Be that as it may, a shark’s curiosity can only be sated by taking a huge chomp out of whatever has attracted its attention.
Another myth is that shark numbers in Australia are falling. Anecdotally, if you were to ask my fishing guide Dave in Weipa, Far North Queensland if shark numbers have declined, he’d either collapse into laughter or throw you overboard to see just how few sharks there are. On my last fishing trip to Weipa, a bull shark snapped my fishing rod, and we were circled by a 10-foot tiger shark on the same day.
Taronga Conservation Society’s Dr Phoebe Meagher recently commented that the number of shark attacks in Australia doubled from an average of nine per year between 1990 and 2000, to an average of 22 per year between 2010 and 2020, although Dr Meagher does say that the increase in attacks isn’t necessarily related to an increase in shark numbers. Still, it seems clear from the sheer amount of anecdotal evidence that if the numbers or predatory species hasn’t increased, something has certainly got ’em riled up.
It wasn’t always like this, particularly in Sydney. When I was young, you’d be lucky to catch a cold fishing in the Harbour. It was an aquatic wasteland.
Then, in January 2000, former NSW premier Bob Carr introduced licences for recreational “fishos” and used the funds to buy out 90 local commercial fishing licences. The impact was tremendous.
In the following years bait fish swarmed to Sydney bringing with them kingfish, Australian salmon, tailor, bonito and more. Unfortunately, the increase in marine life also attracted the multitudes of sharks we’re now seeing in the rivers, estuaries, and beaches of Sydney.
As Dr Meagher notes, hard data that bull shark numbers have increased is inconclusive, however the anecdotal evidence of their increased activity and presence in Sydney Harbour is pretty strong, with Sydney fishing charter operators saying they’ve never seen so many bull sharks and other species in the Harbour.
Every summer it seems there are more attacks and near misses involving sharks in NSW than you can poke a dugong at, and more “big bulls” caught in Sydney Harbour than anyone can remember. Many catches have been filmed, like the giant bull shark caught in January this year with the Sydney Harbour Bridge providing a picture-perfect backdrop.
No one wants to see any marine species unnecessarily harmed. However, if we want to enjoy our beaches more safely, we need to implement the most effective protection available.
If that means shark nets, string them up. If it means drum lines, set them out. If it means flotillas of environmental volunteers in kayaks dragging tins of cat-food behind them to lure sharks away from beaches, let’s make it happen.
Whatever the method, humans should have the right to enjoy all creation while protecting ourselves from animals driven by their instinct to hunt.
Brad Emery is director of communications at the NSW Minerals Council and a freelance writer. He’s also a fisho.
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