Sean Doherty: SMART Drumlines Were Phenomenally Successful in Targeting White Sharks, So Why Were They Pulled Out?
COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY
The shark reportedly grabbed him by one leg, circled back aggressively and grabbed him by the other leg before taking him underwater. Another local surfer raced over to intervene, and on his third attempt was able to spear the shark with the nose of his board, at which point the shark let go. With the help of other surfers, he was able to get Mani back to the beach. Backing onto Yuraygir National Park however, the area is remote. Mani was lost before medical help could arrive.
The tributes flowed. Mani was a good lad. Bright with an artistic, free-spirited streak inherited from his folks. He was surfing a board he’d shaped himself, boldly rocking double deck grip. Fizzing with promise; the kind of kid whose loss a small town like Minnie Waters will never quite get over. Then there was everyone who was there on Saturday afternoon who helped get him to shore and tried to save him on the beach, including his parents. A bad scene in every way.
The circumstances of the weekend attack were eerily familiar. A remote stretch of beach. A surfer hit without seeing anything. Nearby surfers valiantly getting him to shore but the victim bleeding out. It was the second fatal attack on a surfer within a month on the NSW north coast. Rob Pedretti died in an almost identical manner at Casuarina back on June 8. A spearfisherman – Matthew Tratt – was killed off Fraser Island last week. Twenty-twenty is starting to feel like 2015 again. On the same day of the Wooli attack, at about the same time, a white shark cruised through a pack of surfers at Ballina’s Lighthouse Beach. They estimated the dorsal and tail fins were three metres apart. It was a sub.
The two surfing fatalities are the first in NSW since 2015, when a cluster of great white attacks between Ballina and Byron prompted the State Government to begin a five-year trial of new shark mitigation measures. The animals had been protected since 1999. White sharks reach breeding age between 12-15. You can do the maths. The expectation was that we’d see more of them.
That five-year trial ended two weeks ago on June 30, and was superseded by the NSW Department of Primary Industries’ 12-month Shark Program which began on July 1. The new Shark Program features several of the technologies trialled and developed over the past five years. It’s a mix of surveillance (drone and helicopters), physical monitoring (SMART drumlines, tagging, and VR4G listening stations), and information tech (smartphone apps). Alongside this new technology, the decades-old shark netting program on 51 metro beaches between Newcastle and Wollongong continues. On the whole it looks very much like it did last year, although it comes with a new price tag of $8 million. The cost of the whole five-year trial sat at just $16 million.
Just 11 days after being launched and on the back of the first shark fatalities in five years, the program is already being questioned.
The tragic events of the weekend highlight the challenges any kind of shark mitigation program is up against. Wooli is remote. Most surfers drive straight past the turnoff on the way to better surf up the coast. But there are Woolis all up and down the NSW coastline, spurring off the Pacific and Princes Highways. At the end of them lie hundreds of small surfing communities. Then of course there are the city beaches, and heavy rep shark zones like Ballina. Protecting all of them outright is impossible… but there’s an expectation that something is being done.
Dr Paul Butcher is well aware of this bind. He’s the lead scientist on the Department of Primary Industries’ Shark Management Strategy, and has worked on the five-year trial since the beginning in 2015. He lives at Coffs Harbour and fishes at Wooli most weekends. CW spoke with him on Friday, just a day before the attack at Wooli. He was planning to go fishing at Wooli on the weekend.
The five-year DPI trial began around Ballina and Byron after a series of attacks similar to what we’ve just seen in the past month, localised to a 30km stretch of coast. It was a challenging scene. Surfers had died; feelings were running high. However, there was a low baseline of scientific data around what was actually happening out in the ocean. “When we first went in people were thinking that it was just a couple of sharks out there,” recalls Butcher, “maybe five, six or seven sharks that might be hanging around the local area, but as soon as we started the tagging program that number soon elevated pretty quickly to the point now five years later we're at 470 white sharks that we've tagged.”
A pitched ideological battle broke out around shark nets. While they’d been in use for decades on metro beaches and proved highly successful in preventing attacks (depending where you sit on the correlation/causality spectrum) they also successfully caught pretty much everything else that swam by. To roughly characterise the feeling at the time, Ballina wanted nets, Byron didn’t. Attempts to meet halfway and install a plastic “eco barrier” from South Africa proved an unmitigated disaster. Three million dollars of plastic soon washed up on the beach at Lighthouse and Lennox. But this was where shark mitigation technology was at five years ago. Apart from nets there was none.
The real breakthrough was the SMART drumline program. Sharks were captured on baited drumlines, a sensor alerted the shark contractor who’d come out, tag the shark and move it offshore where it was released alive. “The project originally was developed around looking at an alternative solution to having shark nets in the water on the North Coast,” recalls Butcher. “There's very few by-catch species and the sharks generally get released alive. So you're not getting those other charismatic fauna like dolphins and turtles drowning.” The program worked on two fronts. It physically moved dangerous sharks out of the area (they rarely returned), but then also provided years of scientific data about the shark’s movements.
The SMART drumlines were phenomenally successful in targeting whites. In five years, the trial caught 404 whites along the length of the NSW coast, just over half of them between Byron and Evans Head… but barely any of them south of Sydney. Between Byron and Ballina 136 whites were caught, 27 tigers, 9 bull sharks and 76 unspecified “non-target animals”. Only one of the whites and one by-catch animal died. Wherever they were used along the coast, they caught more whites than anything else. Whether that was the efficacy of the technique or merely reflective of a growing white population in the water was unclear.
As the numbers of tagged whites grew, the 21 VR4G listening stations along the length of the NSW coastline – along with GPS tracing and other scientific acoustic sensors – all lit up. They were able to track the sharks and join the dots. “We can now get an idea of what time of the year they're moving up the coast, when they're moving back down, their speeds, and whether they’re spending any time in certain areas. But in general they're just moving up the coast. They’ll swim up past Fraser Island, turn around and swim all the way back to Tasmania and Victorian waters during the summertime. But there's also animals that are swimming to New Zealand, to New Guinea or New Caledonia.”
The 21 listening stations have been giving traffic reports on the White Highway. While most of the sharks were caught and tagged in the far north, they were spending more time elsewhere. Lighthouse Beach at Ballina and Lennox had the sharkiest reps of any breaks in NSW, but in terms of “pings” from their respective shark buoys, they come in at number 9 and 11 respectively. The most pinged buoy was the one off Hawks Nest. The 14,988 detections over four years (which includes multiple pings from the same shark) reflects its proximity to the Stockton Bight breeding ground. Of more concern for surfers was the 14,196 pings from the Forster buoy, just a few hundred metres from the breakwall peaks at Tuncurry. By comparison, Lighthouse and Lennox had just 1194 and 1006 pings respectively. Again, from Sydney south there were few white detections at all.
OUTSIDE OF NETS, IT’S THE ONLY MEASURE BEING USED THAT PHYSICALLY REMOVES SHARKS FROM AN AREA… THE FACT IT DOES SO WITHOUT KILLING ANYTHING HAS CREATED COMMON GROUND BETWEEN THE TWO SIDES OF THE SHARK NET DEBATE.
“We couldn't ask for a better result,” says Butcher of the SMART drumline program. “We've come up with a good system that works well and we'll keep working with that gear to make it totally effective so we can maximise catches of target species going forward.” The program has not only been successful in tagging whites and our working knowledge of white behaviour… over the course of the trial the public has increasingly come to see them as an effective measure in – as they call it in the game – “bather protection”. Outside of nets, it’s the only measure being used that physically removes sharks from an area… and the fact it does so without killing anything has created common ground between the two sides of the shark net debate. Science and surferkind both win. Butcher sees them as part of the long game. “Hopefully they are used as a permanent bather protection tool in New South Wales and they keep on doing a good job.”
Which brings us to today. During the five-year trial the SMART drumline program was used along the entire NSW coastline from Ballina to Merimbula. The 20/21 Shark Program, however, sees SMART drumlines only being used between Ballina and Evans – 32 of them in total, the same number already in place. They’ve disappeared everywhere else.
Now, I grew up in Forster, and I noticed with macabre interest the number of whites picked up by SMART drumlines off the town during the trial. In just seven months from late 2017, the contract boat picked up a staggering 65 white sharks. That’s a shark every second day, the highest rate in the state, and yet this year under the new program there’ll be no drum lines. My working assumption was that Forster was too close to the breeding ground and they’d been pulling in pups.
Turns out the locals didn’t want them.
“The main reason is that the community really didn't want something there,” offers Butcher. “There hadn't been any major shark incidents at that location in Tuncurry and Forster… obviously there’d been an incident further south at Pacific Palms. But you look at the crew that swims along the beach or out to the buoy every day, the retirees and that swimming group. I worked out roughly on 75% of the days out the course of 12 months there's either a white, a tiger or a bull shark pinging off that beach. And the community is still enjoying both Forster and Tuncurry like they always have. We certainly don't want as a government to bring in some of these bather protection measures if we can coexist together, and Forster’s a good example.” Speaking with surfing mates in Forster none were aware of any kind of consultation process with the trial. To a man they wanted the drum lines then and still do today.
The catch here is that SMART drumlines are technically still considered to be in a trial phase. “They’re moving out of the back end of that now. It was nine trials across the state from the North Coast to the South Coast and we’ve pulled those trials right back and are writing up the results and collating all that together. And then I think the government will look at those results over the next 12 months and have a look at where they could be implemented on either a permanent or temporary basis, either where nets are or other locations along the coast.”
Meanwhile, the shark net program between Newcastle and Wollongong rolls on. Not surprisingly. It would be a game politician to even consider removing them considering their track record of preventing attacks (yes, yes… correlation/causality etc). However, the by-catch bodycount builds. An example: for the netting program off Sydney’s southern beaches to nab 14 white sharks, it also killed 140 other sharks, 144 rays, 15 turtles, 5 dolphins and a dugong. The social license is eroding, and they won’t be able to net forever… but they’re going to need an alternative. Wouldn’t it make sense to phase in something like SMART drumlines now, so that one day soon you might begin to phase out the nets? Instead, the drumlines are gone altogether from Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong.
The DPI’s Shark Program for this year places a strong emphasis on surveillance, in particular drones. Butcher is currently working on AI software that identifies white shark outlines from live vision. But as we’ve seen in a hundred YouTube clips, there is nothing more powerless than a drone hovering over a white shark swimming through a pack of surfers. No surfer watching those clips will feel any safer with a drone overhead. Maybe the opposite.
And that’s the thing. As they say in the courts, “Not only does justice need to be done, it must also be seen to be done.” This is more a public confidence issue than a public safety issue. Surfers always accept they’re rolling the dice, surfers are never safe… but if you gave them the choice between a drumline or a drone looking after them nearby, which one do you reckon they’d feel better about?
IF YOU GAVE THEM THE CHOICE BETWEEN A DRUMLINE OR A DRONE LOOKING AFTER THEM NEARBY, WHICH ONE DO YOU RECKON THEY’D FEEL BETTER ABOUT?
The DPI’s current Shark Program offers no real insight into what the State Government’s long game shark plan looks like. This feels like the plan before the real plan. When this thing all started five years ago, it was going to be a matter of how quickly new technologies could be adapted, and how quickly science could fill in the blanks. Both the program and the science is hugely advanced on where it was five years ago – night and day – but it’s going to need to keep evolving. The one number the program can’t give is the number of white sharks off the east coast. There’s a 2018 CSIRO number that sits somewhere between 2909 and 12,802. Whatever that number is, there’s a feeling on the coast that number is only going up. Those 15,000 pings on the Hawk’s Nest buoy adjoining the breeding grounds, well, those sharks aren’t there holidaying.
At the end of the day, of all the numbers being rolled out – shark populations, budgets, pings – there’s only one number that really matters, and in the past month that number has gone up by three.
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