The utility of shark nets is again being challenged, with the north coast meshing trial snagging just two targeted sharks out of 143 animals caught in its second year.
Separate data from state archives going back to 1950 also reveal almost 20,000 animals have been caught in shark nets, including in the 51 nets off the beaches of Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong. Many of the creatures caught are now endangered, such as grey nurse sharks.
The Berejiklian government removed the six nets off the north-east coast around Ballina this month, and it is yet to decide whether a third year of trials should proceed next summer.
"The results of the net trial are being reviewed alongside feedback from the community," said a spokeswoman for Fisheries Minister Niall Blair. "This information will help inform the NSW government’s future decisions on shark nets."
Deputy mayor of Ballina, Keith Williams said the public had largely made up its mind after four dolphins and four sea turtles had been caught in the mesh over the summer, compared with just two bull sharks.
There were no great whites or tigers, the other two targeted animals, caught during the season. Of the 143 animals enmeshed, 58 died before release including 11 great hammerheads and 12 pygmy devilrays.
"The community's perception [about shark nets] has changed," Mr Williams, a Labor-affiliated councillor, said. "I don't think anyone will accept this much wildlife [bycatch] for two bull sharks."
Shark nets have been in place in metropolitan areas since the 1930s. While the initial catch levels were high – 1500 sharks in the first month alone – the gradual decline of shark numbers through over-fishing and other threats has seen fewer ensnared over the years, Allyson Jennings, a Sea Shepherd spokeswoman, said.
"The nets do not go from headland to headland, and are 150 metres long and placed 500 metres out roughly from a lifeguard tower – any animal can swim over, under or around," she said. "NSW DPI considers the nets to be "passive fishing gear".
"They provide the illusion of public safety," Ms Jennings said.
That limited coverage is as true for a beach such as Bondi, or the north coast, where just six of the nets cover only a small fraction of the 30-odd kilometres of the beaches at Lennox Head and Ballina.
According to archival data, about 18,500 animals have been caught off the NSW coast in shark nets since 1950. The death rate could be much higher, Ms Jennings said, because many animals that manage to escape, or are rescued and released, are weakened or injured by the ordeal.
The known deaths include 4673 hammerheads, 4016 rays, 438 grey nurse sharks, 156 turtles and 188 cetaceans that include dolphins and whales.
"There is no justification for shark nets to go back in the water on the north coast and their wider use off Sydney beaches should also be questioned," Justin Field, NSW Greens spokesman, said.
By contrast, support for so-called SMART drumlines is mounting.
Since late-2016, 259 of the three target animals – including 219 white sharks – had been caught on the baited hooks, tagged and released from drumlines arrayed along the coast, including Forster, Kiama and Ulladulla.
Only 106 non-target species had been caught, according to DPI. Most animals survive.
Don Munro, former president of the Le-Ba (Lennox-Ballina) Boardriders Club, is among those to change his mind on shark nets because of the effectiveness of drumlines.
"We haven't had any [shark] bites for more than a year," Mr Munro said, referring to a cluster in 2015-16 that made Ballina a global hotspot and prompted then premier Mike Baird to introduce the nets.
"I'm happy for the nets not to go back in," he said, adding, however, "I'd scream for them again if there's another spate of bites."
Community surveys indicate support for shark nets dropped from 52 per cent to 33 per cent over two years, and a third poll in coming months is likely to point to a further decline, Mr Williams said.
With a lack of evidence about the long-term impact of catch-and-release programs making a difference on public safety, the government should direct its funding elsewhere, Mr Field said.
"We’d be far better redirecting efforts to non-lethal community based programs including better resourcing volunteer and professional life guarding services, drone surveillance technology and community observer programs," he said.
This article by Peter Hannam first appeared in the Sun Herald on 27 May 2018
📷: Sea Shepherd