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Local Shark Sightings Fail to Overturn Drone Trial Snub

By Heidi Dickens on December 26, 2018 in News

Bronte Reef’s resident great white, by Greg Norman

Towards the end of November, the Eastern Beaches area saw a disconcerting spike in the number of shark sightings.

Bondi Beach was closed after an estimated four to five-metre shark surfaced behind a surfer – the second sighting that day – while Maroubra Beach was evacuated after a four-metre great white was spotted near the bay.

These sightings came just days after local surfers and swimmers were shaken by a picture of a 4.65-metre great white caught in a net off Maroubra.
The sightings have ignited talk about what is being done to mitigate the risk of attacks at our beaches.

The responsibility of shark management lies with the Department of Primary Industries (DPI). When it comes to our beaches, the DPI currently employs contractors to monitor shark nets and there is a VR4G ‘Clever Buoy’ shark listening device stationed at Bondi.

The buoy provides real-time tracking of tagged sharks. While anyone can obtain information about sharks from this device by downloading the SharkSmart app, a shark detected by this buoy does not prompt an evacuation.

Shark encounters in NSW have been a growing issue over the past few years. Niall Blair, NSW Minister for Primary Industries, has said that aerial surveillance including drones and drumlines will be key to this summer’s defences.

However, the Eastern Beaches will not be receiving either of these devices just yet, with most of the trials taking place in the state’s north.

Drones are the latest technology being tried in an effort to avoid shark attacks, and some amateur pilots have already spotted sharks at our beaches using these devices.

Over summer, the DPI is launching a trial in partnership with Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA), which involves training drone pilots (both professional SLSA lifeguards and volunteers) to spot sharks. So far 18 beaches have been selected to participate, but again, this does not include any Sydney beaches.

Surf Life Saving NSW’s Duty Media Officer, Donna Wishart, said the decision on what beaches were chosen was made predominately by the DPI, driven by data on previous shark activity.

When asked if, given the recent spike in sightings, any Eastern Suburbs beaches would now be brought into the trial, the DPI said the current trial will first be evaluated and the findings will inform future trials of shark management technologies.

It looks like official shark-spotting drones for our beaches are off the table until at least next summer then, which gives Eastern Suburbs residents some time to answer an important question: Do we want drones spotting sharks at our beaches?

While smart-drum lines, which allow animals to be tagged and released, have proven to be far more successful at capturing target species compared to regular shark nets, drones are less tested.

Speaking to The Beast, local surfer and Tracks Magazine editor Luke Kennedy raised some concerns regarding the introduction of drones.

Mr Kennedy believes that while drones have the potential to mitigate risk, they may also significantly increase the number of shark sightings and fuel hysteria by spotting sharks that were always there but never really causing a problem.

He also said that it would be difficult to determine when a shark is actually a risk.

“A drone can probably go well beyond the headland of the beach; at what point does the drone notify lifeguards?” Mr Kennedy asked.

Mr Kennedy said he thought drones were “not a bad idea”, as long as those flying them are empowered to use them with some common sense. However, he realised that there would be issues of liability for trained pilots.

Mr Kennedy said he thought this legal responsibility could potentially affect a pilot’s judgment when assessing the risk.

North Bondi, Tamarama and Bronte SLSCs have all said they would be interested in participating in the drone trial if the opportunity was presented to them.