Should the Shark Nets Go?
Shark nets that have protected Eastern Suburbs beachgoers since the late 1930s could soon be removed. With so many other marine creatures getting caught and dying in the nets, there is an official push to use more humane shark control methods.
The netting program is run by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, which reported a 59 per cent fatality rate among the 480 marine animals caught during the 2019/20 meshing season. Of these, only 50 – just over 10 per cent – were ‘target sharks’. The rest of the tally consisted of other large marine creatures, including stingrays, non-harmful shark species such as Port Jacksons and hammerheads, a substantial number of turtles and the occasional dolphin.
Now the department is asking councils to consider alternatives to the netting program. Randwick Council recently responded, with all councillors except for two Liberals agreeing to a motion by Green and former mayor Lindsay Shurey that the nets should be replaced by smart drumlines and drones.
Smart drumlines send out a signal when they catch a shark or other sea creature. A contractor then heads out to the site in a boat and releases the animal. If it is a target species – a great white, tiger or bull shark – it will be tagged.
When South Maroubra Surf Life Saving Club found out about Randwick Council’s stance on shark nets, a spokesman was quick to point out how last season a 4.6 metre great white was caught in one of the shark nets at Maroubra. The club “strongly rejected” the proposal to remove the nets.
A look at the history of shark attacks before the nets went up would seem to support South Maroubra SLSC’s views on the retention of these effective physical barriers.
In the 1920s, the waters of Coogee, Bronte, Bondi and Maroubra ran crimson, with sharks claiming four men’s lives and a woman’s legs. There was another horrific shark attack in 1935 as printing press operator Ernest MacDonald, 27, bodysurfed at Maroubra. Suddenly a 5 metre shark tore a massive hunk of flesh from his left thigh. He was trying to make his way back to shore when the shark struck again, biting off his arm. He died on the beach. One month later, on April 25, 1935, a recently-captured tiger shark on show at the Coogee Aquarium regurgitated a tattooed human arm. It was not the arm of Ernest MacDonald, but that of a murdered criminal who had been dumped at sea.
By 1937, shark nets had been placed around all the main eastern beaches. Overnight, the shark danger on our beaches disappeared. It wasn’t until February 12, 2009 that there was another local shark attack. It was 8pm and the sun was down. A shark, believed to be a juvenile great white, clamped its jaws around the left hand of surfer Glenn Orgias at North Bondi. It gave three shakes of its head, then released its grip. As fellow surfers helped Glenn back to shore, he thought he was going to die. Doctors and nurses at St Vincent’s Hospital were not able to save the hand.
Despite the attack, Glenn remains a keen surfer. But these days he does not venture into the surf so late in the day.
“I talked to a scientist who said that you should never go in when the sun isn’t shining on the water,” said the 45-year-old energy company executive, who wrote a book recounting the shark attack called Man in a Grey Suit.
What does Glenn think of the move to get rid of the nets?
“There has to be a better, more humane alternative,” he told The Beast. “Nets only cover part of the beach part of the time – they are not even up in winter. They are not a barrier, sharks can swim around them. We need more science, more funding and a willingness to consider alternatives.”
And here our case rests. On the one hand, dozens of lifeless large sea creatures hanging suspended in the nets, on the other, the horror of shark attack. Hopefully technology offers a way for us to strike a natural balance and share the ocean with the sharks.