Nick Carroll On: Sharks One Year Later – What's Changed? Part II

21 Sep 2017 22 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer


It’s been almost a year since Coastalwatch convened our NSW north coast Shark Summit, in the wake of the worst shark attack cluster in Australian history. Back then, tensions were running high and many locals were demanding answers regarding the sudden influx of great white sharks along the coast. People had died; people were being attacked seemingly every few weeks.

Following the Summit, the NSW Department of Primary Industry took various actions. Smart drumlines were deployed, and meshing was tested at critical points along the coast. The CSIRO has been tasked with making an accurate estimate of white shark numbers in Australian waters, in an effort to decide whether or not the species's vulnerability status is justified. The attack rate has faded but concerns persist.

We asked some of our panellists to tell us what they’re seeing from their points of view.

PHIL MYERS Long time Lennox local, surfboard designer

“I don’t see anything that’s really changed. The surf is crowded again, but there’s still plenty of sharks around. They’re still being tagged on a regular basis. I think it’s only a matter of time before there’s another attack. There’s been a lot of stories going around about the nets and the toll they’ve taken, but not many people consider the toll being taken on turtles and dolphins by increased numbers of sharks. The fact is that while the nets were in, there were no attacks. The nets will come back in again in November and there’ll be another outcry. But there’s still no common sense in the argument.

“I think businesses have bounced back to an extent and people are surfing again, although they’re all surfing in groups now. But when I talk to environmental scientists they say the next four or five weeks are going to be the danger period, as the whale migration passes through. The whales haven’t been as close in to the coast this year for some reason. They seem to have gone a bit wider, from what I’ve seen in the past few months.

“It has changed people’s behaviour. One person I’ve heard of has had to go to a psychiatrist and is on medication for anxiety as a result. There’s all sorts of stressors in modern society, money, relationships, other things, and this is the kind of thing that can push people over the edge. I know a lot of mothers are very anxious about their kids surfing. But if they let the population of great whites continue to grow it’s only going to end one way.

“People are trying repellents. The numbers of people with striped boards and stuff, it’s amazing. Your diehard blokes, they’ll go surfing anyway, but a lot of surfers aren’t like that. They check their phone apps before surfing. They’re hard-wired to social media where the word gets out instantly. It’s just not the same carefree atmosphere it once was.”

DAVE RASTOVICH Surfer, Byron Bay

“Because I haven’t travelled overseas this year, due to baby etc, I can’t say how other coastal communities are dealing with increased shark encounters currently, but over the last three years I had felt appalled by the continued colonialist approach we were adopting here in Oz. Our typical response to the wild aspects of this vibrant country is nothing to be proud of, and should be something we have learnt from and grown out of. You don’t see Hawaiians putting nets and drumlines around their islands when more shark encounters occur. Yet here we fearfully react with violence and dominance to anything we can’t control or don’t understand. The first European settlers did this to the indigenous peoples of this country and the big scrub that dwarfed them and sadly a lot of us choose to continue to interact with culture and ecology in this way.

“Those of us surfers, divers, or fishers who enter the ocean for recreation and/or our livelihoods could do well to acknowledge that it is our choice and one we should be responsible for. We are an organism within this bio-sphere that has its place beside all creatures great and small, not above or below any other species.

“Our collective efforts to better understand sharks is a great pursuit, and I feel it should be encouraged. Though we should also collectively be aware of our negative impact on marine species through the participation and continued use of commercial fishing methods that have us on a course to total fishing industry collapse by 2040 and even further ecological imbalance.”

DAVID WOODS Ballina resident, former professional shark fisherman

“I might not be the best one to ask — I haven’t been fishing for 12 months, so I’m a bit out of touch. But this is from what I know. They’ve tagged a lot of sharks now off the drumlines and from the size of the shark they’ve been catching, around three metres, I would say put a mark on your calendar for five years from now. In five years, all those sharks will be four metres long, and they’ll be a completely different proposition. There’s a huge difference between a three metre white shark and a four metre one. That’s when they begin looking for the bigger prey, the seals and smaller whales. They won’t just attack you or bump into you, they’ll eat you. The attack rate may not go up but the fatality rate will.

“The CSIRO are supposed to be doing a count to find out how many sharks there are, but they’ve got no way of telling really. In the past they’ve just done surveys of fishermen, collated the surveys, translated it into Fisheries language and that’s been it. I wouldn’t mind betting that this time they’ll just take the drumline records and draw off that, but white sharks are everywhere, not just where the drumlines are. I reckon whatever they say, it’ll be about 10% of what’s actually there.

“As for nets, in one way I think they’re a waste of time — up here they might catch one or two sharks and a ton of other stuff, while drumlines will catch a lot more. But I know in Sydney they’ve had nets for years, they hardly catch any white sharks, but there’s no attacks. Big sharks know where they’ve swum, it’s almost as if they have a GPS device in their heads, and I think once a shark knows the net is there it’s deterred from going into those waters.

“Most of the surfers I know don’t surf any more. I’ve got a mate who’s been a professional diver who used to surf everywhere around here, and he’s given it up. He doesn’t like the odds. Because there haven’t been any attacks for a while, everyone’s sorta forgotten about it a bit. But now’s the time, when the whales are coming back down the coast. Now, all the way into January. I’ve caught four or five metre white sharks off this coast in January. That guy at Iluka recently, he was extremely lucky. That was a bigger shark and it just nicked him with a tooth on the way past. He oughta buy a lottery ticket.”

RICHARD BECKER Ballina surf shop owner, long time surfer/fisherman

“Business went down with the attacks and it’s pretty much stayed the same. The surf hardware side, simple things like legropes and wax are way down. We used to sell 15 blocks of wax a day, it’s down to three or four. The older hardcore crew are still surfing but softboard sales are way down and my kids’ wetsuit sales are in the toilet. That used to be big but mums aren’t pushing their kids into the ocean any more, they’re shying away from it. That’s understandable, but we need surfers, my business needs surfers in order to survive.

“As far as attacks go, I think we’re running on luck more than anything. The nets gave people a sense of confidence while they were up but it was a placebo effect more than anything. As for the smart drumlines, why the fuck would you hang a baited hook behind every surf break in the area? Then pat the shark on the head and let it go, and re-bait the hook? My mind boggles at the thinking behind it.

“People are behaving differently for sure. I live at Byron and I’m mates with all the crew up there and they won’t come down here any more, they used to come surf North Wall all the time but not now. I don’t really have answers to it all and I’m not sure how it’s going to change. There needs to be some solid research into numbers so they can be aware of just how big the (white shark) population really is. They’re everywhere; they’re not endangered any more that’s for sure. It might be as simple as taking the big ones out of the water.“

SEAN DOHERTY Byron resident and journalist

“Sharks are still dominating conversation around the place, especially coming into the same time of year. The collective paranoia isn’t what it was last year due to the fact that there have been no incidents except the attack at Iluka this month. It feels like they’re around, it still feels really sharky but there haven’t been so many people chased out of the water, despite the fact it’s like Wild Sea World stuff with whales, dolphins and fish going crazy.

“There have been plenty of guys in the water, but there really just aren’t as many encounters. The pingers on the smart buoys and nets are picking up plenty of sharks on the coast but they’re not hitting people.”


“Surf Life Saving NSW has supported the NSW Government implementation of a number of strategies over the last year which included a six month trial of nets on beaches in Northern NSW, additional aerial surveillance and the installation of smart buoys with VR4G receivers as part of the tagging and tracking program.

“The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in particular offers exciting and innovative opportunities to better protect the public from the threat of shark encounters. Surf Life Saving NSW will expand the trials of drone technology this season to assist in the surveillance and detection of sharks, including training more volunteer surf lifesavers to become UAV operators.

“Surf Life Saving continues to communicate information from DPI to our members and the public about ongoing shark mitigation strategies and what people can do to make informed decisions about the risk of shark encounters.”

We asked Kim Wolfenden, the DPI’s Ballina community liaison officer, to contribute. As a result, the DPI has sent us a full summary of what they’ve done and learned over the past year. We’ll publish that in a special report all on its own tomorrow


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