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A shark net at Coogee Beach in Western Australia. Image: Gnangarra, Wikimedia Commons
Against the advice of scientists and many conservation officials, the state of New South Wales in Australia has fast-tracked legislation to deploy shark nets on five popular swimming beaches. The controversial plan is being deliberated this week, and it proposes a six-month trial along the state's north coast.

There are currently 51 nets deployed in New South Wales (NSW), and the government initially resisted calls for an expanded rollout. This latest development follows a notable shark policy turnaround by premier Mike Baird. Over the past year, his focus has been on non-lethal management practices, and he even ushered in a AUS$16 million initiative that prioritised shark surveillance, community outreach and education. 

This week's move has sparked vocal opposition from many locals, who are largely concerned for the health and wellbeing of the marine ecosystem.

NSW has seen six shark bites over the past year, and while that number sounds alarming, it should be viewed in context: Australians make an estimated 100 million beach visits each year. All six bite victims survived. In as much time, over 100 marine animals – including sharks, whales, dolphins and sea turtles – were killed by the nets already in place.

Just last month, a humpback whale calf was rescued after becoming entangled off the Gold Coast:
"The suggestion that nets prevent shark accidents is an oversimplification of a complex story, a misrepresentation of both technology and data, and it misinforms the public," says Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research scientist Dr Leah Gibbs

There is little evidence to support the idea that shark netting is an effective management tool. For starters, it's a misconception that the meshing completely encloses popular swimming beaches. Set in the water between ten and 12 metres deep, the nets themselves are only six metres tall. This means sharks can (and likely do) swim in and out. Many sharks, including great whites, are also highly migratory, so the death of one doesn't necessarily affect bite risk in an area. 

"Five nets in 50 kilometres, it's a way to make people feel that something is being done rather than actually keeping people safe," Ballina councillor told the Australia Broadcast Company

The loss of just a single shark, on the other hand, can affect the health of a species. It's thought that great whites take between ten and 12 years to reach sexual maturity, and for bull sharks that number is between 14 and 18. The death of just one adult female, therefore, can have lasting effects.

Many of NSW's bite victims have themselves publicly opposed the additional netting. Jade Fitzpatrick, a 36-year-old surfer who was bitten on the leg last month, sustaining only minor injuries, is among them. "[Nets] will maybe keep us a bit secure at the cost of [sharks'] lives, or maybe they will give us a false sense of security," he told The Guardian. He also noted that media hype helps to present the experience of being bitten as "bigger and scarier" than it is in reality. "[The shark] bit down and spat me out," he said. "I thought, that is definitely not a dolphin." 

Craig Ison, who was bitten by a great white last year, would prefer to see solid, near-shore barriers only. "F
or people who are swimming, like [babies]," he told ABC. "Short ... walled-off barriers, not netting for the surfers, because that won't work up here." 

Not everyone agrees, however. In an official statement, Blair and his team explained that the five new beaches selected under the plan had been chosen because communities had called for nets. Many supporters look to Queensland, where just one fatality has occurred since a netting programme began in 1937. Despite that perceived success story, however, over 30 incidents of varying severity along the 51 netted beaches have occurred in that time.

It's not just local residents who disagree on this issue. Regional government councils have also expressed varying degrees of support for the plan. Some have welcomed the nets, while also acknowledging uncertainty about their effectiveness. Elsewhere, officials have opted to pay for their own shark-spotting programmes instead.

The NSW government has committed to continuing non-lethal measures throughout the planned trial, but some regional councillors have expressed concern that requests for funding haven't been answered.

"[Shark-spotting] was highly successful," said Byron Shire councillor Simon Richardson in an interview. "We've asked again for support to trial beaches ... we've asked for support for a year and a half to use gyrocopters. I think the community is getting a little bit frustrated that what independent research commissioned by the state government has said — and that the Byron Council is doing — is being ignored."

Just like many wild animals, sharks can be dangerous, and we face some risk when wading into their domain. But the reality is that most of us have probably spent time in the water with them without even knowing it. 


Top header image: Shutterstock