OPINION: Shark nets kill animals but fail to protect people
THE question isn't whether or not we should use shark nets. The question is: why are we still talking about them?
It seems bizarre that the debate over whether shark nets on Northern Rivers beaches continues to rage despite experts repeatedly pointing out they will not actually stop shark attacks.
The most recent call came in a comment piece by one of my Sunshine Coast colleagues, Kathy Sundstrom, who wrote, based on her experience in South Africa, that the protection afforded by shark nets was worth the risks involved - specifically the injury and death of turtles, dolphins, and whales.
Personally, I don't feel comfortable with that. Large parts of the Northern Rivers coast are supposed to be a marine sanctuary specifically to protect animals such as these.
Australian Seabird Rescue, one of our region's most celebrated organisations, spends months at a time nursing individual injured turtles back to health. The release of those turtles frequently attracts large crowds of people who come to cheer them on as they return to the ocean. Are we really then going to turn around and sanction a piece of infrastructure that will indiscriminately kill them?
Who hasn't gone down to North Wall at Ballina or up to the Byron lighthouse and watched in delight as pods of dolphins surf and leap from the waves? Are you really comfortable with some of these animals dying just so you can swim at the beach or surf without fear?
I could go on for ages in this vein, all of which assumes we'd be making some kind of trade-off - our own safety for that of marine animals. The thing is, though, there is no trade off to be made, because the nets don't stop shark attacks.
A shark net is not some kind of underwater equivalent of the rabbit-proof fence. Some sharks (and other animals) get caught in them and some sharks (and other animals) get around them.
Southern Cross University-based shark expert Dr Danny Bucher has said the nets are not effective at keeping sharks away from beaches and, perhaps more critically, surf breaks.
Sea Shepherd activist Natalie Banks is, granted, possibly more partisan on the issue, but makes some solid points in noting there had been 21 "unwanted shark encounters" on netted beaches in NSW over the past 23 years, including some serious injuries from shark bites. On top of that, Ms Banks said the nets themselves had been responsible for a human death - a 15-year-old boy believed to have drowned after becoming entangled in a shark net at Shoal Bay in 2007.
Beyond all of that, it seems most people on the Northern Rivers don't even want the nets.
The Northern Star has run two web polls on the issue over the past couple of months, one in July and one this week. In both polls a majority of respondents rejected the idea of using shark nets.
In the July poll only 20% of respondents backed the use of shark nets with 68% preferring to look to new shark repellant technologies or simply accept that entering the ocean is a risk.
What should we do about sharks?
This poll ended on 31 July 2015.
Use shark nets to keep them out
Develop new shark repellent technologies to drive them away from beaches
Hunt down and kill any shark that bites a human
Nothing. It's their environment, not ours. We take a risk when we enter it and we need to be aware of that.
This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.
This week's poll, despite having a wider distribution than the one in July, has so far found 57% of respondents opposed to nets to 42% in favour (the discrepancy in the figures is due to rounding).
Should we use shark nets to protect Northern Rivers beaches?
This poll ended on 09 September 2015.
Now, our polls aren't intended to be a reliable indicator of broad public opinion - they can't be. However, their results are consistent with the comments from local people that have appeared on our website and Facebook page.
Do we have a shark problem? Of course we do. Two people have been killed and another two seriously injured. Over the past 12 months we have had 11 encounters on the Northern Rivers serious enough to make the papers - and that's not including the recent attacks at Port Macquarie and now near Forster.
The trouble is we don't know why we are having the problem. There have been some great-sounding hypotheses floated - everything from overfishing driving great whites into the marine park, the whale migration, abundance of bait fish, even high concentrations of heavy metals effectively driving great whites nuts. None of them really answers the question or gives us a solution.
The impulse to search for a quick fix to shark attacks is understandable and there is now a parliamentary committee reviewing deterrent technologies to try and find such a fix while the scientists try and work out just what the sharks are doing.
Unfortunately shark nets aren't a quick fix. They're a placebo.