Sean Doherty: The East Coast White Attacks – Where To From Here

12 Sep 2020 77 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Photo: From the User Photo Gallery by MikeBJ

Photo: From the User Photo Gallery by MikeBJ


On Tuesday afternoon, Nick Slater was surfing on the inside at Little Marley. The bank is so stacked right now that waves run mechanically along the edge of the drop-off, and that’s where Nick was enjoying an after-work surf. While a dozen young bucks prowled out near the rock at Snapper, Nick found himself all alone on the inside. Nobody within cooee. Anyone who’s surfed the bank knows this is a priceless moment. You’re never alone out there. Nick was sitting there waiting for his wave when he was hit. Poor bugger.

You probably saw what happened next. The race to the bottom to rip the footage from the surf cam and publish it was pretty dark. The publishing of the attack however may have at least had the benefit of bringing the shark issue into some kind of sharp relief. As recently noted, this recent run of great white attacks has seen their reporting almost become matter of fact. This one was hard to ignore, however. Rainbow Bay is not only the most popular surf break in the country. It’s generally also full of kids.

Greenough rang the following day. He couldn’t believe it. “He got attacked in a kid’s playground! You’re not safe anywhere!”

A fatal shark attack in Rainbow Bay. Twenty-twenty, huh. But while daily life around the country has been turned on its head to prevent an invisible virus taking hold, there’s been a muted response to the more primal threat of shark attack, in NSW anyway.

When Rob Pedretti was hit and killed at Casuarina back on June 8, the unspoken dread was there’d be another. Nick Slater was the fourth. As pointed out Wednesday, the global average of shark deaths is about four a year. We’ve now had four in three months, just between Wooli and Fraser Island.

As with the corona bug, the shark problem is largely a matter for the states.

Tuesday’s attack was only a three-iron from the NSW border, but technically happened in Queensland. That hit a popular narrative. The attacks happened inside placid Rainbow Bay, but more tellingly it happened inside the Rainbow Bay shark nets. Queensland doesn’t muck around and has run a hard line on shark nets – 85 beaches to NSW’s 51 – and until Tuesday had proudly claimed to have never had a fatality on a netted beach. Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate was running around like Amity’s Larry Vaughan yesterday in damage control mode. The contract boats meanwhile were busy dragging in juvenile tigers off the Snapper drumlines.

While Queensland had the boats out looking for the shark, their counterparts in NSW were heading back across the Richmond River bar at Ballina after filming for an upcoming documentary about the successful operation of their SMART drumline program. A source claims this documentary has a strong shark conservation message. This said a lot about the respective approaches of the two states.

As noted here earlier, the NSW Department of Primary Industry’s shark mitigation trial had huge success in targeting great whites with their SMART drumlines. It allowed whites to be tagged for science, while at the same time removing the shark from the immediate area without killing it. The SMART drumlines seemed like a workable transition between nets and whatever comes next. Curiously, however, when the 20/21 NSW Shark Program was announced, the SMART drumlines – which had been used along the length of the NSW coast – were now restricted to a small stretch of coast between Evans and Lennox.

Greenmount grommet. Photo: From the User Photo Gallery by PapaJones

Greenmount grommet. Photo: From the User Photo Gallery by PapaJones

When asked in early July, the head of the NSW Shark Program, Dr Paul Butcher explained the drumlines were still in a trial phase, and the Lennox drumlines were the last ones in the trial. The drumlines weren’t seen as a frontline measure. Surfers however were seeing them differently.

When asked why they’d been removed from towns with high white traffic – Mid North Coast towns like Forster and Port Macquarie – he responded, “We certainly don't want as a government to bring in some of these bather protection measures if we can coexist together and that's [Forster’s] a good example. Port Macquarie is another one.” His comment popped straight to mind when a few weeks later a woman was attacked by a white on a Port Macquarie town beach.

By the time the woman had been attacked at Port, three people had died from white attacks in the space of three months along the east coast. I contacted the DPI and requested another interview. They asked me to supply questions and told me they’d get back to me.

• Is the DPI considering boosting the Shark Program in light of the recent attacks?

• What is the official status of the SMART drumline program? Is it still a trial or is it considered a frontline mitigation measure?

• Was there a release date on a white shark population paper the DPI has been working on?

• And finally, could I see a breakdown of the NSW Shark Program’s $8 million budget?

That was August 20. I followed up on August 31. No reply. Nothing since. The Shark Program, it appears, remains unchanged despite two fatalities in NSW, another two fatalities just over the border in Queensland, and numerous great white “interactions”.

The DPI scientists have an impossible job. We get it. But nobody expects them to be making the beaches perfectly safe. At the same time though, the public needs to have faith that they are doing something, and that the program is at least acknowledging what’s happening. There’s been no change to the Shark Program and no comment from the DPI or the Minister, Adam Marshall.


The DPI have another job however, but I don’t think they’re aware of it. The shark debate has become a hyper-partisan shitshow between the cullers and the huggers, cheered on by the mainstream media. The cullers want revenge. The huggers keep rolling out statistics about how many sharks are killed globally every year, despite this having nothing to do with the east coast white shark population, which anecdotally at least seems to be on a fair upward curve.

The situation is crying out for moderation. Somebody with some hard data and some kind of authority to step in as a voice of reason. The DPI. They have gleaned incredible data from the five years of the white tagging program, and could dispel three-quarters of the bunkum backyard misinformation out there filling the vacuum right now, but they don’t. There has been no real dialogue at all between the Shark Program and the public it protects… the same public who pays for it. That dialogue would at least ease some tension that’s brewing.

A paper released earlier this week might explain the radio silence. A survey of 200 Australian environmental scientists found those working for government agencies experienced “the highest rates of suppression or interference in communicating their work publicly.” One respondent put it this way: "We are often forbidden from talking about the true impacts of say a threatening process ... especially if the government is doing little to mitigate that threat... In this way the public often remains in the dark about the true state and trends of many species.” The study noted much of the suppression was around declining numbers of threatened species. The white shark might be the only case of suppression due to increasing numbers.

But it feels like something needs to happen. The public mood with surfers, if it hadn’t shifted before Tuesday, has certainly moved now. How many kids surf Rainbow every day? What if it had been one of them? Sadly, it appears the fact Tuesday’s attack was captured on film has contributed to the needle shifting. There’s a growing cohort of surfers who feel the Shark Program is more on the side of the shark.

Five years ago, two white shark fatalities on the North Coast sparked a huge response. The NSW DPI moved in and set up a five-year shark mitigation trial, dropping $16 million on it. The Primary Industries Minister fronted the press whenever there was an incident. They held community forums. They did something.

The two recent NSW fatalities have resulted in an eerie silence.

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