A tangled web

Words by Andre Borell

Just a few days ago, I finished the final cut of our documentary about the ‘Shark Control’ programs in Australia.

It’s been two years of scientific research, legal inquiries, freedom of information requests, speaking to experts, personal attacks from the government bodies that run these programs and documentation of what’s happening in the water. Then I had to edit hours and hours of footage that documents the atrocities happening in Australia’s ocean, watching it over and over. I’m mentally spent, but the upcoming release of the film is just the start of the push to change these programs, so I must keep going.

I don’t have one of those lightbulb moment stories that led me here. I just remember being constantly exposed to the ocean in small ways, and always loving it. I visited an aquarium when I was very young where you could go in a perspex tunnel underneath sharks and I was mesmerised. I remember going to the beach throughout the school holidays to kick a football around and bodyboard. I loved the sand, the salt water, the waves and that fresh sea breeze that would briefly permeate the hot Australian summer. I remember loving David Attenborough documentaries and absolutely hating fishing the one time I tried it. The two big catalysts for me happened in my twenties, when I started scuba diving and I started watching more conservation documentaries. The combination of being under the surface for up to an hour at a time, and seeing all these amazing things that most people would maybe never see – except on their dinner plates – plus being exposed to films such as Blackfish and Sharkwater made me realise that I had to do something.

I knew I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how or which area of conservation to focus on. When I found it, I was so wildly embarrassed that it had been under my nose the entire time without my knowledge. The beaches I used to holiday at as a child were outlined by a ‘shark nets’. I, much like most of Australia, assumed these were some sort of barrier that kept sharks away from the beach and shallower waters. When I found out their actual purpose, I was mortified. Each shark net is only 183m long and 6m deep, sitting in 12m of water, and there are only 11 on the 30km+ of beaches on the Gold Coast. It’s clear that sharks can swim under and around these nets very easily, so they aren’t a barrier, which begs the question – what are they for? The reality is that they exist solely to catch and kill sharks. They are fishing nets. Nothing more, nothing less.

shark net shark culling Australia whale drone
shark net shark culling Australia hooked
shark net shark culling Australia drumlie

The program started in New South Wales in 1937, after a series of shark bite fatalities. We know now that these were related to the dumping of effluent and offal from abattoirs inside Sydney Harbour – but at the time it was thought that there were rogue sharks hunting people in Sydney. All sorts of solutions were dreamt up in the 1930s, including bubble curtains and sound deterrents, but they settled on culling sharks. This lead was followed by Queensland in 1962. It hasn’t changed since.

So I started digging and it got worse. Queensland also has almost 400 ‘drumlines’. This sounds fairly innocuous, but they are in fact giant shark fishing hooks, baited, hanging from a buoy, designed to catch and kill sharks. If they aren’t dead when the government contractors arrive to check the hooks, they kill them – by either shooting them, or stabbing them in the head. How was this happening and I wasn’t aware? I felt ashamed. Turns out I wasn’t alone, most of the general public still have no clue that this program exists, or if they do, they don’t know the methods used. The general belief is that the government physically separates us from sharks to keep us safe. But the reality is that the government is culling sharks in the hopes that less sharks equals less bites. This was it, this is what I was going to expose, with a feature length documentary.

I’ll never forget the day that we found a humpback whale in the shark net at Burleigh (Gold Coast). We were there getting a very specific shot for the film – flying over a shark net with a drone, top-down, then tilting the camera up and revealing the Surfers Paradise skyline. I thought it was a powerful shot to juxtapose the iconic tourist destination, with these nets that cause such hidden harm, which are so close. As we did our first flyover, we spotted something in the net. We flew down for a closer look, and it was a humpback whale calf. We couldn’t believe it. We alerted the rescue teams and then waited. We waited for hours for them to show up. Eventually, I had had enough, went and borrowed a SUP, and was on my way out there to release the whale myself (despite the $80,000 fine). Just at that moment a good samaritan turned up in his boat and released it. He got fined, but thanks to public outcry, the fine was dropped.

shark net shark culling Australia hammerhead
shark net shark culling Australia white shark

Australia, between the two states, has killed thousands of great white sharks, tiger sharks and hammerheads. The exact numbers are impossible to know because records prior to 1950 don’t really exist, but we do know the highest catch rate was at the start of the program. We’ve made a conservative estimate that more than 100,000 sharks have been killed through this program. Then comes the bycatch. Humpbacks, minkes, orcas, dolphins, turtles and rays have all been entangled, as well as sea snakes, seabirds, dugongs and even crocodiles. Harmless sharks like the angel shark, the grey nurse and the Wobbegong. The documentary gives more insight into this, at times pretty graphically, but I can promise you one thing… it’s horrific.

So, the big question remains, does it work? Is this a philosophical argument about human lives versus animal lives, and is this death and destruction worth our safety? The government likes to paint it that way. The implication is that this death is a necessity for the government to keep us all safe. However, the data says otherwise. All the death and ecological destruction does absolutely nothing for human safety.

Shark culling was disproven in Hawaii as a viable method of reducing shark bite incidences*. Shark culling was disproven in Australia to provide any real safety during a federal senate inquiry in 2017 (these programs are run by states, but there was a federal inquiry). Shark culling was disproven once again in Australia to provide any real safety when Humane Society International took the Queensland Government to court, to stop them culling in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. To stop the program, they had to provide proof that it harmed the environment, and contributed no safety benefit. They won resoundingly. Tragically, it was again proven to be a placebo program when a surfer lost his life at Greenmount Beach earlier this year (Gold Coast). A beach that the government called a “protected beach” because it has two nets and 10 drumlines in the vicinity. It’s most densely netted and drumlied square kilometre in the country.

shark net shark culling Australia drone
shark net shark culling Australia humpback
shark net shark culling Australia entaglement

These programs are defended and protected out of political fear. A government cannot defend a program, tell society it keeps them safe for decades, then overnight admit that it was wrong, that it’s ineffective and that it should try something new. It just won’t fly politically. They could introduce new technologies and alternatives, but then that in itself is a risk – what if something terrible happens where this new technology is used? It’s just not worth the risk. Unfortunately the focus is on optics, not safety.

Our documentary lays all this out in graphic detail. When the public, both in Australia and around the world see the reality of what is happening, I’m confident the government will modernise the program. Shark Barriers that don’t entangle animals. Drone surveillance. Personal deterrents. Education programs, so people can make their own decisions on when it is a good idea, or a bad idea, to enter it water. It’s all there and it’s all ready to implement. It’s not even that expensive – after some upfront infrastructure spend, it’ll be half the cost ongoing.

We have recommended the use of drones for shark spotting and even the dropping of flotation devices for drowning victims. We suggest that drones be operated by Surf Life Saving Queensland, using trained full time on-staff pilots, and using volunteers to supplement this only if and when required. Additionally, the installation of an Eco-shark barrier will offer a much safer environment for both marine life and swimmers. The Eco-shark barrier is a strong physical barrier made from a sturdy, flexible nylon with steel cables that is expected to last at least 10 years and can be recycled at the end of its life. The barrier does not harm marine life but provides a unique marine habitat while it is in place.

Hopefully, this marks the end for these archaic programs, but the government has fought us at every step – I think they have some fight left in them. Let’s take the fight to them and give them no other option but to stop the deception, stop the decimation and stop the destruction. We owe it to the beautiful animals we all enjoy filming and photographing so much, and to the humans this program is supposed to keep safe.

*Wetherbee, BM et al’s (1994) “A review of shark control in Hawaii with recommendations for future research.”

Photography courtesy of Andre Borell, City of Gold Coast, Nicole McLachlanAustralian Marine Conservation Society and Humane Society International.