Our Green Gurus

Guest bloggers share all you need to know to lead a greener lifestyle.

Out of the shark net

shark-net

Kate found this shark net while doing a Clean Up Australia Day dive a couple of years ago at North Bondi. No shark net was ever reported as lost in the area, but it's a good thing Kate was there to retrieve it so it didn't become another 'ghost net'.

Credit: Kate Kilgour

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By Kate Kilgour, G guest blogger

Ten years ago I watched some footage of a family of sperm whales entangled in a gill net in the Mediterranean Sea. I vividly remember the echoing whails as the local authorities attempted to free one whale at a time over a period of days, and the perturbation evident in the behaviour of the freed family members who remained close to the entangled mess made up of their offspring.

Gill nets, like the one wrapped around this pod of sperm whales, are simple contraptions. They are often a hundred or more metres long, with a mesh size of 20-50 cm, although the mesh size ranges depending on the species you’re targeting. The nets are weighted to stand upright in the water column, trapping by their perfectly-shaped gills any fish that are too big to swim through the mesh. The nets are usually set at, or within, a few metres of the surface of the sea (as this is where most marine life dwell) for a period of weeks or months.

Gill nets are illegal in most parts of the world for innumerable reasons. Apart from killing a huge number and range of animals, they also frequently become lost at sea, to travel the world as indiscriminate traps of death, also known as 'ghost nets'. Gill nets are old school technology, designed over a century ago, and have long been superseded by more effective and less destructive methods of fishing.

This is why I cannot fathom the continued use of gill nets as a method of reducing shark populations, thus keeping Australians ‘safe’ from terrifying man-eaters like 'Jaws' (please... nothing could be further from the truth!). In 1937 and 1962, New South Wales and Queensland reacted to public fears by setting a number of gill nets near our popular beaches. With the benefit of hindsight, in the 1930’s, there were many unknowns. Inherently, people fear the unknown. When all we knew of sharks is their jaws, fear is unsurprising.

Now however, we know without doubt that sharks are a vital inclusion in healthy marine ecosystems; we know that without apex predators, collapse of marine ecosystems is certain; we know sharks are no more threatening to Australians than emus or bees; we know that killing animals painfully and slowly is unethical and inhumane; we know that gill nets are very effective at killing large numbers of a diverse range of sea life; we know that most targeted sharks are not territorial but highly migratory and often just passing through; we know most of the sharks caught in shark nets were swimming away from the beach; we know many of the target sharks are at the brink of extinction and that we have legal and ethical obligations to protect them; and we know that despite all efforts shark nets become adrift transforming into untraceable death traps.

The list of species killed under the pretense of our ‘Shark Control Programs’ is evidence of the effectiveness of the use of shark (gill) nets in killing animals; whales, dolphins, dugongs, turtles, rays and sharks. However the fact that many of the interactions between people and sharks have occurred near shark nets is evidence that they are ineffective in ensuring the safety of beach-goers. Although Australia’s population has increased three-fold in the last 60 years, the number of deaths from shark attacks has remained constant at around 1 per year.

Whether you like them or not, we need sharks. They are at the top of almost every food web in the world. Without sharks, our marine environments are at risk of collapse, including our iconic seafood industry. In the coastal northwest Atlantic, loss of top predator sharks due to overfishing led to a boost in Cownose Ray populations locally, which then ate all the scallops, ending a century-long scallop fishery.

Shark nets are nothing more than a fallacy, set every summer to put people’s minds at ease - people unfortunately who don’t know better. So, get informed on the facts, and learn more about how we can peacefully share this planet with the creatures that live here.

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Kate Kilgour is the founder of Grey Nurse Guardians, which run inspiring tours and workshops about the sea and all the wonderful things that live in it.