Nick Carroll On: Sharks & Jetskis, The Issues On The Table
COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL FEATURE
The Value Of Something
Let’s see what these Surfing Reserves are really worth.
National Surfing Reserves, World Surfing Reserves. They’re feel-good stuff, no doubt about it. The plaques, the local histories, the opening ceremonies complete with mayors and various dignitaries.
They don’t have any real force in law, and as a result, the sceptics among us have often wondered if the real effect of Surfing Reserves has been on local tourism and real estate businesses, rather than on the well-being of actual surfers.
But the claim has always been that the Reserves’ real value wasn’t legal, but moral — that they provided surfers and their interests with a public voice for us to state our case when needed.
Well folks, we’re about to see that value be tested.
Test number one is pretty straight up: can a Surfing Reserve be used to help protect surfers from shark attack?
This week sees the end of the shark meshing trials on the NSW North Coast. The meshing is coming out two weeks earlier than planned in order to accommodate the annual whale migration. The NSW Department of Primary Industry says that data from the meshing will now be assessed by its shark science team. (You can see the results of the trial, including the drumline catch, here.) The DPI expects to have a decision on the future of the meshing by early spring.
The Lennox Head National Surfing Reserve committee is approaching both Ballina Council and the NSW government in an effort to make sure that shark mitigation continues in the area. Their pitch? You can’t have a Surfing Reserve and leave surfers at undue risk of attack at the same time.
The approach is being made on the basis of wording contained in the Reserve’s gazetting — wording to the effect that says surfers will have “primacy in the decision making process in any matter which may affect, adversely or otherwise, the surfing experience”.
And, says Reserve committee member Phil Myers rather dryly: “I don’t know anything that adversely affects the surfing experience more than shark attacks.”
Phil says things have grown calmer in the area in recent months, since the meshing and increased use of “smart” drumlines. But encounters with white and bull sharks are still occurring, and he and numerous other local surfers are concerned that any reduction in protection will lead inevitably to more attacks — especially in the coming months, when the meshing removal coincides not just with the whales’ migration pattern, but with the white sharks’.
“There’s still places where pretty much nobody’s surfing,” he says. “Everyone’s congregating together, trying to feel safe. They need to de-classify it (as a Surfing Reserve) or stand by it. That’s my opinion. I’d like to see them make that choice.”
Test number two is a bit trickier: can Surfing Reserve status inspire better behaviour from surfers?
In most places around Australia — hell, most places around the world — tow-surfing and paddle-in have found ways to co-exist.
Anyone who’s into riding bombie reefs or slabs will tell you how it works. If someone’s paddling a spot and a tow crew comes out, they all have a chat. Are you OK with us towing here? We’ll stay out of your way. Just wave us off any wave you want mate. Let us know if you want us to go down there. All good.
But that’s not the southern Gold Coast, where a sour smell lingers in quite a few everyday surfers’ nostrils — surfers for whom any session in surf six feet or bigger has become semi-unbearable.
For years now, PWCs have been used by a select band of surfers to dominate lineups like Kirra and Currumbin, in what until recently would have been considered pretty standard paddle-in conditions.
This happens despite serious questions about legality, and in the face of what seems to be complete inaction by any authorities — lifeguards, Water Police, normal police, or even the diffuse authority of the head local contingent. Maybe because by most accounts, they’re the ones on the skis.
And it’s getting worse. After the last solid Goldie swell in mid-March this year, CW was contacted directly by a number of surfers, and talked to or exchanged messages with many more, who — as one put it — “have had a gutful, but no-one says shit”.
One well-known local surfer, who asked not to be named, told us: “I don’t want to point fingers, but it’s being done by guys who already get a shitload of waves. It’s all about being greedy. It’s crazy and getting worse.”
Mark Hill, who paddle-surfs Currumbin on bigger days using an eight-foot-plus gun, says he and his brother are regularly snaked and yelled at by PWC crews at the location. But top of the list has to go to Sam Yoon, a Japanese emigre and long-time regular in Goldie lineups, who was surrounded by four PWCs and their crews while surfing Tweed Bar and physically threatened. “They tried to run me over,” Sam told us.
Sam made a report to the NSW Police, but wonders if there’s much point. Retribution is less on his mind than education — and prevention. “I want the police to monitor this, to keep it safe. I’m just an Asian guy, I’m like a haole in Hawaii. I’m gonna keep surfing and believe things can change. Surfing is not about this bullshit.”
Gold Coast chief lifeguard Warren Young, who helped draw up specific local laws banning PWC use in bathing areas like Kirra, says he feels for the surfers on the receiving end of PWC Fever. “They (the ski crews) are coming out in four to five foot surf. I don’t understand it,” Warren says.
“There’s fines in place but you’ve got to have the manpower to police it. If I’m having an argument with a couple of jet skiers and someone drowns up the beach, people are going to say ‘What are your priorities?’”
Like Sam, Warren makes the point that it’s a cultural issue as much as anything: “I’m disappointed by the lack of self-regulation in surfing. The surfing community here has to take some ownership of the problem.”
Which brings us to the Gold Coast’s proud status as a World Surfing Reserve — one of only two in Australia, and nine in the world. Surely that’s gotta count for something, when it comes to surfers breaking the law at the expense of other surfers?
We asked Andrew McKinnon, who helped convene the Reserve and chairs its stewardship committee, if it had any role to play. Andrew said — maybe! “Our meetings are open to anyone to attend,” he told CW. “There’s a lot of people involved from council, from (State) government, and all kinds of water users, so you can come along and have your say in safety and plenty of people will hear it.”
Andrew couldn’t give us a date for the next meeting, but told us you can check for it on the WSR website: goldcoastworldsurfingreserve.com (We’ll let you know too.)
So there ya go. The North Coast shark issue, and Gold Coast turbo-charged super-localism via jetski. Two solid real-world issues, both in need of a Surfing Reserve’s moral force. Let’s see if it (the moral force that is) actually exists.
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