Heart pounding and fins thrashing, the dolphin twists frantically trying to escape the hook embedded deep inside her abdomen. Unable to help, her mother circles her desperate to try and save her baby who is now blinded in one eye by the constant friction of the drum line chain. There is nothing she can do. Her baby is just one of thousands of victims of the Queensland Shark Control Program and it’s time that something changed.
In 1962, the Queensland Shark Control Program was set up; its creation fueled by the numerous and fatal shark attacks along the coast-line. With 30 nets and 260 baited drum lines along the coast line, the program is designed to catch and kill any actively feeding and resident sharks which may pose a threat to the public and in doing so, reduce any human-shark incidents. However, in their attempt to eradicate one problem, it seems as though others have inadvertently been created.
According to figures released by Sea Shepherd Australia, since its establishment the SCP has reportedly caused the deaths of 103,000 marine animals, 53,000 of these classified as by-catch. This means that many animals which do not pose a threat to humans, including many species of sharks, have been killed unnecessarily, trapped in nets unable to breathe or hooked on baited lines sometimes suffering for hours. Not only is this catastrophic on an individual basis, it is also devastating to the whole marine ecosystem.
Between 2009 and 2014, 406 non-target species died due to entanglement. Out of these, 76 were dolphins, some of which are listed as vulnerable or near threatened like the snubfin dolphin and the Australian humpback dolphin. As these species take years to mature, this is having a serious impact on populations, some of which are very small. Likewise, the dugong population is also facing a significant threat after having lost 689 individuals since the project began as are turtles, who have seen a loss of 5,044; 33 of these have been the endangered hawksbill turtle. In addition to these shocking losses, humpback whales have been found entangled in nets along the Gold Coast which is part of their annual migratory route and an Antarctic minke whale was discovered drowning, weighed down, with people unable to rescue it.
Sharks are also suffering. Catch data from 2001 to 2013 have revealed that out of the 6,250 sharks caught on drum lines, 89% were less than 3 metres long so less than likely to pose a threat to people and 97% were at risk according to the IUCN. Only four species of shark are released if found alive – the grey nurse, tawny, zebra and whale sharks, and even then there is no guarantee that they will survive. Along with other sea life, some are simply too traumatised or injured to make it through.
All these examples show that many species are being caught up in a system which is having a much higher ecological impact than many people are aware of. With claims that the decrease in shark attack fatalities cannot be clearly linked to the installation of drum lines and nets in Queensland and with shark control programs in New South Wales and in Western Australia impacting upon marine life in those areas as well, there is significant doubt as to whether this loss of life is truly worth it.
So what can be done to help reduce the impact on non-target species?
The official Queensland Shark Control Program website states that for the past five years, research has been conducted into reducing by-catch whilst maintaining the shark deterrent aspect. This has involved the establishment of Marine Animal Rescue Teams (MART) who are trained and equipped to release marine animals trapped in the nets as well as volunteer marine spotters posted in high rise buildings along the coast. This, along with a shark hotline, various assessments of the nets and baited drum lines and advances in acoustic deterrents for cetaceans, has seen some improvements in terms of animals caught and released. However, one of the most promising prevention methods appears to be the Eco Shark Barrier, independently created by Craig and Leanne Moss.
Trialled in Western Australia’s Coogee Beach, the Eco Shark Barrier is made of a strong and flexible nylon, which creates a shield from the seabed to the surface. Rather than aiming to catch and kill sharks in the area, as the current shark program does, the barriers simply section off the beach without causing any harm to marine life and to date, no by-catch has been recorded. With openings measuring 30cm, any marine creatures smaller than this are able to swim freely through the barrier whereas the larger animals simply find themselves unable to pass through without the risk of entanglement. It has been praised for creating a marine life haven with fish and crabs having been spotted using the barrier as an artificial habitat and dolphins have been seen swimming alongside it, a clear indication that they are able to locate it.
In addition to these successes, a recent study has shown that 75% of beach visitors questioned said that they were more likely to swim there with it in place and many people have visited to see the marine life it has attracted. Instead of fixating upon the threat that the sharks may pose, the Eco Shark Barrier focuses upon the preservation of both human and marine life, refusing to raise one’s importance higher than the other and it is truly promising in the protection of our marine ecosystems.
Whilst there are currently concerns about the barrier in terms of cost, along with other methods such as lifeguard patrols, capture-tag-release and the electromagnetic shark shield, the positive implications it will have upon sharks and “non-target” wildlife is surely worth it. New South Wales has announced a trial for the barriers after a spate of shark attack fatalities with the hope of reducing both attacks and its environmental impact, something which is hoped will continue along the continent’s coastlines. No animal deserves to suffer a slow and painful death in their own environment and so it is these advancements in protection that are vital in protecting the future of our ocean habitats.
Something needs to change before the ecosystem does.