Nicole McLachlan's Hunger Strike To Save Us & The Sharks
Interview by Alice Forrest
Alice is an Environmentalist, Biologist and Adventurer. She is currently researching plastic pollution in our food chain, in the South Pacific Ocean.
Sharks have been on everyone’s minds this summer, after a spate of incidents resulted in public fear, and made the ‘Jaws’ tune an unwelcome mental soundtrack for many surfers. In 2015, there were 14 unprovoked shark attacks in NSW (a huge increase from 3 in both 2014 and 2013), heating up the shark cull debate. Some have been calling for increased protection of beaches, while others have accepted the inevitability of sharks existing as a potential threat in the ocean. A Gold Coast conservationist has taken matters into her own hands, putting her body on the line to draw attention to the need for better protection both for people, and the animals we share the ocean with.
Nicole McLachlan is a marine conservation campaigner and underwater photographer. On Saturday, she decided to take this debate to a new level by beginning a hunger strike. We had a few questions about the reasons why she wanted to put her body on the line, how effective she thought her campaign would be and how long she would hold off eating?
What is your goal with the campaign?
I started the hunger strike on Saturday 6th February, I will continue until my demands are met. The end goal for me is to increase the protection of both humans and marine life off the coast of Queensland. I want to raise awareness about the reality of the current shark net programs, highlight the destructive nature of the nets & drumlines, and mobilise the QLD government to transition to non-lethal alternatives and phase out lethal shark control methods.
What are your demands?
I will go without food and liquid (except water) until the following policy changes and commitments are met by the Queensland State Government's Department of Primary Industries. I have three demands I've put forward to the government. After putting an open letter to the DPI on Saturday, I'm yet to hear anything but am confident there will be a conversation started this week.
My demands are;
- A commitment of at least $16 million (to match the NSW State Governments’ recent commitment) into the trial and implementation of non-lethal alternatives along Queensland beaches (to ultimately replace shark nets and drum lines).
- A commitment to phase out all shark nets along the Queensland coast within the year 2016. These nets are a high risk to beachgoers and marine rescue crews and should be removed as soon as possible.
- A commitment to phase out all drum lines off the Queensland coastline over 5 years, by replacing these with nonlethal alternatives (e.g. shark spotters programs).
What are your expectations with your demands? Do you think the Government will move towards a compromise with you?
I am confident that the will come to the table in an effort make the necessary changes because the alternatives and evidence that is supporting the claims about the dangers of the Shark Control Program (SCP) are becoming clearer and louder in the media.
How long do you think you can realistically survive without food, is it something you're prepared to die for?
This is something that I'm very passionate about and I don't think It will come to a stage where my health is compromised. There is a lot of research supporting fasting and I have people monitoring me around the clock. I've had numerous health checks and I feel great. I think the government will enact the necessary changes to the policies so that I can end the hunger strike before anything serious happens.
SEE ALSO: To Cull Or Not To Cull
You've put together an in-depth documentary around the issue and concerns about the existing netting system to help the momentum of your awareness campaign.
Yes, it's called ‘The Strike’ we aimed to reveal the nets may actually be more of a threat than any protection to ocean users. I've put forward evidence that swimmers, surfers and even rescue crews are at risk, and the current Shark Control Program (SCP) is not effective. In May 2015 for example, 11 nets and a drum line were dislodged in storms and ended up drifting on the coast, with one even ending up in the surf at Burleigh Heads. While no one was entangled this time, in 1992 an 8-year-old boy was killed when entangled in a drum line on the Gold Coast – the acidity levels in his body showed that he struggled for some time to free himself before he drowned. A similar incident occurred in the NSW town of Shoal Bay in 2007. A 15-year-old boy became entangled in a shark net whilst spearfishing and drowned after being trapped underwater for ten minutes.
It's not only humans that are at risk, the SCP poses huge threats to sea life, causing significant negative impacts to marine ecosystems. More than 78,000 marine animals have been caught in the past 50 years, including 120 whales, 1014 dolphins, 5044 turtles, 18100 rays and 49 000 sharks, many of which are critically endangered or federally protected.
In your opinion, why are the current systems in place in Queensland, a problem?
The SCP can provide people with a false sense of security as many believe they are safe on protected beaches. A common idea is that the nets provide a protective barrier, keeping sharks on the outside and swimmers safely within. In reality, they are sections of net 186m long, which sharks can swim around or under. Many sharks are found on the beach side of the nets, and there have been more than 30 shark-human interactions (one fatal) on ‘protected’ QLD beaches since 1962, including a possible shark bite yesterday at drumline protected North Stradbroke.
The negative sides of the SCP are accepted by government as a necessary trade-off to protect human lives. However research by Jessica Meeuwig (Professor & Director of Marine Futures, University of Western Australia) showed that the SCP’s “success in reducing human fatalities is hard to validate”. Although shark-related fatalities have declined, this decline began 40 years before the nets or drumlines were implemented.
Do you think there a better alternative that is available for the government to pursue?
I'm not pushing for the immediate removal of all nets and drumlines, but a transition to alternatives that better protect people, without killing marine life. The NSW government committed $16 million last year to research and implement alternatives, as well as better educate the public about the reality of shark attack. They are trialing helicopter surveillance, shark tagging, listening stations, barrier nets, a SharkSmart app and shark detecting sonar. Many other modern alternatives are available, such as the Shark Spotting Program in South Africa, and a range of personal ‘shark repellent’ devices now on the market.
Ultimately, sharks are always going to be in our salty backyard, and they play a critical role in maintaining the healthy oceans we depend on for our survival. Shark policy researcher Chris Neff said “trying to govern ungovernable events distracts us from real shark bite prevention.” It’s time to implement real protection, based on the facts, to protect our oceans and the people who love to use them.
To view Nicole's documentary and follow her strike, visit www.nicoleshungerstrike.com
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