When a baby humpback whale became entangled in shark nets off Australia's Gold Coast this week, a rescue team got a bit of unexpected help setting it free: the calf's mother kept the youngster afloat so it could breathe during the ordeal. 
Staff from Sea World marine park set off to save the four-metre calf after reports surfaced that its tail had become entangled in the netting near Coolangatta Beach. The 150-metre barrier was launched against the advice of local scientists, and this incident highlights an ongoing, highly polarised debate about the use of shark nets. 

According to Mark Saul, a spokesperson for the Fisheries Patrol, which helped in the rescue effort, the whales remained calm as the team cut the net loose. "Mum had just pushed into the nets slightly to help keep the calf up on the surface, which she was doing quite well," he told The Australian Broadcast Channel. In the end, the stuck cetaceans swam free – but not all marine mammals that become trapped in these nets are so lucky. 

The swathe of netting was put up after a surfer sustained minor injuries to his leg from a shark bite recently. It was the sixth such incident in the area since last year, and while that number sounds alarming, it's important to remember just how many people enter the water every day along the coastline's popular beaches. To put things into perspective, 116 marine animals – including whales, dolphins and sea turtles – died in the nets around Australia in that same period. 

"There are extraordinary circumstances that have happened, we have to respond," New South Wales premier Mike Baird said in an official statement following the latest shark-bite incident. Many organisations, however, including some of the Australian government's own agencies, continue to oppose the nets.

Baird himself has pushed back against the use of additional netting for nearly a year, opting instead to direct funding to non-lethal approaches that help to reduce shark-human conflict. In fact, he ushered in a AUS$16 million initiative that focused on shark surveillance (both aerial and with the aid of underwater acoustic listening devices), as well as community outreach and education. 

Among those who support the use of nets are local business owners, who have seen a dip in tourism and sales in recent months. "We need to have some kind of protection," a surf shop owner told The Sydney Morning Herald

Yet it's a common misconception that these floating barriers create an enclosed bathing area, and scientists continue to emphasise that they're not a fail-safe. In fact, the jury's still out on whether the nets are effective at all. Set in the water between ten and 12 metres deep, the nets themselves are only six metres tall, which means marine animals – sharks included – can (and likely do) swim in and out. 

It remains to be seen what steps officials in New South Wales will take next, but the situation is reminiscent of Western Australia's infamous shark cull, which was also implemented – against the advice of scientists – after a spike in shark bites, before it was eventually cancelled. This point was highlighted earlier this month by Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research scientist Dr Leah Gibbs, who opposes the nets.

"[The nets] go directly against our international responsibility to protect threatened species ... and our national priorities for protecting marine environments and species, including several shark species," she said. "We know that shark nets in NSW kill on average at least 275 animals per year ... and that the majority of animals killed pose no threat to people. We can do better than this." 

Top header image: Demed, Flickr