|Shark meshing program in
need of urgent review
Dr John Paxton,
Research Fellow in Ichthyology, Australian Museum
How many more sharks and other animals must be killed before beach meshing is removed?
Shark nets off Sydney beaches are part of our culture, having given
comfort to swimmers for over 65 years. However, it is a common
misconception that shark nets physically prevent sharks from entering
shallow waters. The nets, which are set on the bottom, do not reach the
surface and are open at both ends, so sharks swim over and around them.
Those that try to swim through them (from either direction!) become
entangled and immobilised in the wide mesh, and ‘drown’. This is the
only purpose of shark nets – to reduce the population sizes of sharks
and thus the threat to swimmers.
In July 2003, the NSW Fisheries Scientific Committee (an independent
group of scientists) released, for public comment, a proposed
recommendation to list the current shark meshing program in New South
Wales waters as a ‘key threatening process’. Today 49 beaches in
greater Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle and the central coast, covering some
200 kilometres of coast, have nets set at least 13 days per month.
Mesh nets were first introduced off Sydney beaches in 1937, when shark
populations were abnormally large and shark attacks numerous. The sharks
were attracted to offal from the Homebush abattoirs which was discharged
through the sewage outfall at Malabar between 1916 and 1970. In the first
17 months of meshing, 1,500 sharks were killed. But the number of sharks
killed each year has progressively declined due to falling populations.
The 2001–02 figure was just 69.
A combination of relatively late maturity and low reproductive rates
means that sharks are unable to replace depleted numbers. Shark
populations around the world have dramatically decreased due to various
human activities. In Australia, seven shark species are listed as
threatened, including the endangered Grey Nurse Shark and vulnerable Great
White Shark, while two species of wobbegongs have declined in NSW. All
four of these are killed in shark nets, as well as numerous other animals
(whales, dolphins, Dugongs, seals, turtles, rays and bony fishes).
There have been only three fatal shark attacks in NSW since 1970, the
last in 1993. This is surprising, considering that Australia’s
population has increased by 50 per cent, Sydney’s population has almost
doubled, and the numbers of international tourists and water users have
greatly increased. Clearly, individual risks of shark attack are very low.
Nevertheless, NSW governments of both major parties have failed to make
public any review of the shark meshing program. The press has reported
that the Premier has refused to remove shark nets off the NSW coasts,
citing swimmer safety. The move by the NSW Fisheries Scientific Committee
to put the shark-meshing issue out there for public discussion is a step
in the right direction.
Those people in favour of shark netting cite the lack of fatalities and
serious shark attacks on Sydney’s surf beaches since it began as
justification for its continuation. However, such reasoning ignores the
cessation of meshing for three years during World War 2 (that is, even
without meshing, there were no fatalities). It also ignores the fact that
over 1,300 kilometres of NSW coast are unmeshed, yet attack rates are
Shark netting has not occurred during the winter months of June and
July since 1983, and May and August were added as non-meshing months in
1989 with little public fanfare. Meshing should now be stopped during
September and October, as there has never been a Sydney beach attack in
these months since the first record in 1791.
A detailed risk analysis, starting with data for the three dangerous
shark species (Bull, Tiger and Great White), must be conducted and made
available to the public. If the results indicate protection is still
warranted, alternative methods such as drum lines as used in Queensland
In its attempt to guarantee the impossible – that is, freedom from
shark attack or any other accident for every individual human that enters
the water – the Government is paying a high environmental price, and
without public debate. How much time must pass, and how many more sharks
and other harmless animals must be killed, before the meshing is gradually
but steadily removed?
Further information: John Paxton on firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: This article was originally published as an opinion piece in
the ‘The Last Word’, Nature Australia Spring 2003. ‘The Last Word’
does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Museum.
Editor's note: According to Dr Ern Grant
(interview in Matthew Eisen (2000) Great White Down Under,
Discovery Channel, London) when the first beach mesh net was established
at Sydney in 1937, large numbers of sharks were captured. Catches of over
40 large sharks in a half-day set were not unusual. The nets were set
about 500 m from shore, running parallel with the beach.