Speech on the decision to trial shark mesh nets to reduce shark interactions on the North Coast

In Parliament | 09.11.16

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE ( 18:33 ): I contribute to debate on the Fisheries Management (Shark Management Trials) Bill 2016. I understand how we have come to this place, given the serious and fatal attacks on humans that have occurred in New South Wales in recent years and the impact they have had on North Coast communities. I acknowledge the contributions made by those members who live on the North Coast. No-one in this place is suggesting that they are trivialised or not important. I am concerned about the impact of shark nets on marine life. The objects of this bill are to reduce the risk to swimmers posed by sharks; to minimise the impact of shark management measures on fauna; and to inform future decision-making about shark management.

Recently Labor released a six-point plan of what it believes needs to occur to manage sharks on our coastline. While Labor acknowledges there are significant concerns about the impact of shark nets on other marine life, in particular dolphins, turtles, grey nurse and hammerhead sharks, and many more, Labor will support a trial if it is accompanied by resources and technology that provide alerts, when something is caught in the nets, and is supported by human patrols that can remove marine life that is caught. The other parts of our plan include more watchtowers; increased drone use for surveillance—supporting smart phone technology; more tagging of sharks; more support for local shark watch organisations; and further education for swimmers and surfers to reduce the likelihood of coming into contact with sharks. All members acknowledged that there is little debate about or dissent to that list of things.

The bill sets out a framework for the operation of shark management trials, with the development of a trial of shark management plans in certain geographic areas for a period no longer than six months within a 12- month window—if and only if the Minister is of the opinion that sharks pose a significant risk to the safety of swimmers. There is a great deal of consensus from the community, environment groups and even the political parties in this Chamber, on the non-lethal measures that could be included in the shark management plans. Indeed, we are all looking forward to seeing what comes out of the development of those plans. Where there is a divergence of view is the extension of the use of nets beyond their current operation on 51 beaches from Newcastle to Wollongong. It is worth understanding the shark net program that is seeking to be extended by this bill.

Shark nets have been use in New South Wales since 1937. They operate at 51 beaches between Newcastle and Wollongong and there has been only one fatal shark attack on a netted beach since 1937. The nets operate eight months of the year, from 1 September to 30 April, and they are in the water around 14 days each month. The nets are sunk below the surface, in about 10 to 12 metres of water, within 500 metres of the shore. They are fitted with acoustic warning devices, often referred to as pingers, to alert dolphins and whales and to try to deter them from coming near the nets. Since 2009 the program has operated under a joint management plan between the Fisheries Management Act and the Threatened Species Conservation Act. These nets are not barriers; they allow sharks to swim around, over and below the nets. While it is difficult to compare data on their use due to changes over time some important facts about these programs need to be understood.

The shark net process is far from perfect. It is listed as a key threatening process under both the Fisheries Management Act and the Threatened Species Conservation Act because of its impact on threatened species. The nets also impact on other protected species and non-target marine animals. In plain language, the nets catch the target sharks that are dangerous to humans—the great whites, bull, tiger and whaler sharks—but they also catch critically endangered grey nurse sharks, dugongs, turtles, whales, seals, stingrays and even the odd penguin. Data from the Department of Primary Industries shows that from 1990-91 to 2007-08 some 3,944 animals were caught in the nets. Of those 728, or 18 per cent, were great white, whaler or tiger sharks, and 3,216 of the animals caught were not target animals, including a penguin, four seals, 47 turtles, 15 grey nurse sharks and 1,292 hammerhead sharks. The 2014-15 report on the program that operates from Newcastle to Wollongong showed that 189 animals were caught in the nets. Of those 44, or 23 per cent, were target sharks and the remaining 145 animals included 50 non-target sharks, 86 stingrays, six turtles, and three dolphins, and 73 of the animals were released alive.

We know there are significant issues that impact on other marine life as a result of the use of nets. We also know that technology and active disentanglement, release and revival strategies have to be deployed to minimise this impact. If we look at what has been caught in the nets over time it can be seen that the bycatch kill has been reduced and the successful release of animals has been improved through active management. That is what is needed to be done in this instance. We also know that there is no substitute for eyes on the beach, eyes on the water and active education to mitigate the risks of shark attack and to deal with any marine life caught in nets. This is recognised explicitly in the objects of the bill, which seek to minimise the impact of shark management measures on fauna. Indeed, we know that nets do have an impact. We also recognise that there should be exemptions from current legislation, including the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, National Parks and Wildlife Act and the Protection of the Environment Operations Act. As I have indicated, Labor will be supporting this bill but as the shadow Minister for the Environment I seek a response from the Minister on a number of issues. I acknowledge that the Minister has mentioned some of them in his second reading speech. What additional resources will be provided to the communities that will have a shark management plan put in place beyond the current $16 million in the shark strategy?

If we accept that other marine life will be helped we propose also to accept the need to trial nets. What is there and are there additional resources? Beyond the pingers that seek to deter sharks, whales and dolphins, what other technology will be on the nets to alert humans to any animals caught in the nets? There has been a reference by some members to this issue. I am particularly interested in the accepted time frame and window relating to human patrols that back that up—that get there and ensure that these animals are not drowning in the nets. What resources are available for human patrols who will then act to remove anything caught in the nets in a timely manner? It is critical in relation to this trial for us to understand that.

I welcome the information provided by the Minister relating to the collection of data and the public release of that data. I seek further information about how often the patrols will be collecting data. Will it be in real time? It is only a six-month trial but will it be every month? I know that people on the North Coast are particularly attached to the dolphins that live in the Richmond River and they will want to know quickly whether any of them are getting caught in the nets. I also want to know what marine rescue activity and agreements with local organisations will be put in place to deal with any marine life that is harmed in the nets. Will they receive additional resources to deal with the trial?

Beyond the rescue of whales, we know there is an active sea rescue on the North Coast. They deal particularly with turtles but also seabirds. I want to know whether they will have extra support. I am also concerned that yesterday the Minister was not able to tell the Parliament how many sharks have been detected in Bondi under the Clever Buoy trial because that information was commercial in confidence. I know it is not directly relevant to this bill but it worries me that if we are trialling these things and shark detections have been occurring off Bondi we are not able to share that information. If we are to educate the community they need to trust that we are sharing information with them. Alarm bells always ring with me if the reason we are not providing information is a commercial in confidence issue. I seek information from the Minister whether any other technology will be trialled that will not be providing public information because it is considered commercial in confidence.

As members can probably tell, I am uncomfortable about the impact of nets, but I accept that there is a real problem with saying that Newcastle to Wollongong can have nets but the North Coast cannot. We have witnessed the level of attacks. We are not sure scientifically what is happening but we know that the impact on that community is high. That is why it is important for Labor to support this trial, as uncomfortable as it makes me feel. This trial gives us a chance and gives nets a chance to show their worth and their ability to protect surfers and swimmers. Labor will be watching the trial with interest.