Disturbing truth behind Australia’s shark nets

By Tracy Brighten

Shark nets and baited drum lines in Australia have killed thousands of marine animals in the bid to protect ocean users from shark attacks
whale in shark net

Whale entangled in shark net

Since 1962, a staggering 84,800 marine animals have been caught in Queensland’s shark control program alone, including vulnerable and endangered species such as turtles and whales, as well as shark species that do not threaten human life. Over 9,000 unborn pups have been lost.

The Shark Files Queensland group is analysing catch data, made available after Sea Shepherd Australia’s freedom of information request.  

The Queensland Shark Control program covers 86 beaches using 30 shark nets and 360 drum lines with baited hooks.

Shark nets sit 4 m below the surface and are not anchored to the seabed. Nets are designed to catch and kill sharks rather than provide an impenetrable barrier that keeps sharks out of an area. Sea Shepherd reports that sharks and other animals have been found caught beach side of the shark nets.

Shark nets are indiscriminate killers. Bycatch includes fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds, and rays. Shark nets have even been erected in protected marine reserves such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. In Queensland, only four species of shark are released if found alive: grey nurse, tawny, zebra, and whale sharks.

Inhumane killing of marine animals

Animals Australia describes the cruel deaths. Animals caught on drum lines and in nets, including undersized sharks, non-threat sharks, and other marine animals, can suffer for hours before dying because nets are not patrolled regularly enough.

Marine mammals, and turtles if trapped for long enough, suffocate because they can’t come up for air, and some sharks need to keep swimming to breathe. Even if animals are freed, their survival is compromised because they are traumatised and may have injuries from struggling.

Antarctic minke whale perishes

Last year, an Antarctic minke whale drowned at Billinga beach on the Gold Coast. Two local people noticed whales acting strangely near a shark net. They found a whale entangled in the net, weighed down by the weights. Helpless to free the whale, all they could do was film it dying.

The Shark File Queensland group report that fisheries misidentified the whale as a humpback juvenile and dumped the carcass at sea. Minke whales are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list and deaths should be reported to the International Whaling Commission.

The Queensland government keeps quiet about bycatch. Decisions on shark control seem to be driven by the political and economic need to allay public fear.

Human fatality statistics misinterpreted

Sea Shepherd report that fatal shark attacks were decreasing before the shark control program began in 1962. There has been no additional reduction in fatalities in Queensland since then, even though drum lines and shark nets have increased.

In areas without protective measures, fatalities have still decreased by 28 percent. Drum lines have been used in locations where fatal attacks have never occurred and these lines account for 89 percent of sharks caught since 2001.

Queensland government argues that beaches are safer, but some beaches were not reported to be unsafe to start with.

Non-threat sharks culled  

The Queensland Shark Control Program also targets a number of shark species that have not been implicated in a fatal attack. Queensland catch data from 2001 to 2013 shows that 6,250 sharks were caught on drum lines alone. Of these sharks, 97 percent are at conservation risk according to the IUCN and 89 percent were under 3 m in length and unlikely to pose a threat.

Sea Shepherd Australia National Shark Campaign co-ordinator Natalie Banks is urging Queensland Fisheries Minister to review targeted species.

“There has been 54 species of sharks that have been caught on the drum lines and in shark nets in Queensland, most of which are not a threat at all to ocean users.”

In addition to non-threat shark species, over 26,700 other marine animals, including 5,044 turtles, 18,110 rays, 1,014 dolphins, 689 dugongs, and 120 whales (all Australian government protected animals) have been caught by drum lines and shark nets, according to Sea Shepherd Australia. Turtles include endangered loggerhead and critically endangered hawksbill turtles.

Danger to ecosystems

Professor Peter Harrison, director of Southern Cross University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre told ABC News that too many dolphins are being killed.

Harrison warned of the danger of falling numbers of snubfin, spinner and Australian humpback dolphins that have small isolated population sizes.

“When you lose only one or two out of that population, you can start to see a long-term decline,” he said. “The ecological cost to these programs is much higher than most people realise.”

To date, the program has killed 763 great white sharks. Yet fatal attacks by great white sharks are rare in Queensland. An internationally protected vulnerable species, great white shark populations are also decreasing due to fishing activities.

Apex predators are important to ecosystems and killing them has knock-on effects.

Shark culling not supported by science

With a lack of scientific evidence to support the shark control program, Sea Shepherd is calling on the Queensland government to consider non-lethal control measures.

“It is time for Australia to move on from the 1930’s when shark nets were first installed in the country, and to embrace new technology which protects both ocean users and our precious marine life,” says Sea Shepherd’s Natalie Banks.

Western Australia

Western Australia is thought to be one of the most dangerous places for shark attacks with 14 fatal attacks occurring since 2000.

After an increase in fatalities, the Western Australian Government proposed to extend its baited drum line catch-and-kill shark cull trial last year. Unlike Queensland, WA targeted only bull sharks, tiger sharks and great white sharks over 3 m long.

Sea Shepherd called on the Environmental Protection Agency to reject the proposed extension citing evidence that shark attacks had increased not because of an increase in shark numbers, but because human population increases and coastal urbanisation means more people are using the water.

Baited drum lines ineffective

There is no scientific evidence to show that baited drum lines and shark nets improve safety. Human fatalities are rare events, making it difficult to determine a random event from one in a pattern.

After heated public debate, the EPA rejected baited drum lines for three years, but Western Australian authorities will erect more shark nets this summer.

New South Wales

The New South Wales government has used shark nets as the main shark control policy for over 60 years. However, according to Animals Australia, half of sharks caught off NSW beaches in 2013 posed no threat. Only 5 percent of sharks caught in nets survived.

Although according to the Conversation, 17 percent of attacks in NSW between 1937 and 2009 occurred at beaches with nets, recent shark attacks have prompted calls for more nets.

Shark hysteria

Killing sharks regardless of their threat is a political decision based on fear rather than scientific evidence. The hysteria stirred by the film Jaws has harmed sharks and other marine animals.

This irrational response to sharks was on display recently when a journalist wrote in the Australia’s Daily Telegraph about why sharks must be culled. Her view that sharks have waged war on humans does little to inform the debate and highlights how sharks have been demonised.

“The ocean is our domain and sharks have no place destroying lives and livelihoods; these predators are lurking out there ready to cull humans and we as a community must find a permanent solution.”

The fatal shark attack average is one person per year. We take a risk in the ocean, but we take part in many daily activities that carry a much greater risk.

From 1853 to 2013, there were 71 deaths from shark attacks. Interestingly, there have been 70 deaths in Australia from box jellyfish attacks, yet these seem to pass under the fear radar. Likewise, deaths from rip currents and drowning are much more common than shark attacks.

Non-lethal measures for human safety

On average, 700-800 sharks and 100-200 other marine animals are killed in Australian shark control programs each year. Conservation groups advocate non-lethal methods to protect ocean users and marine animals.

Experienced and professional ocean users may be more in tune with the ocean as the shark’s habitat and take precautions to reduce their risk. A public education program can inform more people on reducing their shark attack risk.

Lifesaving patrols

Surf Life Saving and aerial patrols provide an early warning system and are effective in clearing the water, and assisting people in distress.

In Cape Town, South Africa, a Shark Spotters program using flags and alarms has been very effective in keeping water users safe.

Eco shark barriers

Made of durable but flexible plastic panels anchored to the ocean floor, the eco shark barrier acts like a fence between ocean surface and seabed. The barrier doesn’t trap marine life or swimmers and fully protects an area from sharks, unlike nets where sharks can swim over, under, around, or through holes. The cost effective eco barrier system has been used successfully at Coogee Beach in Western Australia.

Shark Shield

Shark Shield is an electronic device that deters sharks by creating an electromagnetic field. In a government funded study by University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute, the shield was shown to be 90 percent reliable.

Capture, tag, release

Capture, tag and release programs have been used successfully in Brazil where sharks are towed and released offshore, well away from popular beaches. Tagging allows  population movements to be studied to better understand shark species.

In the following footage, Sea Shepherd Australia witness and record the cost of preserving the myth of shark free beaches. A juvenile dolphin is caught on a drum line hook that has punctured her lung. The young dolphin’s mother fights to keep her calf alive, lifting her to the surface to breathe. Close to death and blind in one eye after her struggle, the dolphin was rescued but will remain in captivity, unable to survive in the ocean.


We should not be assigning greater or lesser value to human and animal life, but preserving both. We have a choice to enter the water and to protect ourselves if we do. Although governments can minimise risks, they can’t eliminate them. But they can eliminate marine species if they continue with catch-and-kill programs.

Also published on The News Hub   September 8, 2015

Image credit: Whale caught in shark net (Sea Shepherd Australia)