Shark nets are set to make a return to the waters of Australia’s New South Wales next month, despite calls for the program’s discontinuation. Shark nets serve as a protective measure deployed at select beaches worldwide, including various coastal areas of Australia, such as along NSW’s beaches. Functioning as a physical barrier, these nets are strategically placed in the ocean along specific stretches of coastline, typically running parallel to the shoreline but positioned a few hundred meters offshore, depending on local conditions. The primary objective of shark nets is to mitigate the risk of shark-human interactions, specifically shark attacks on swimmers and surfers.
Constructed from a mesh-like material, shark nets are designed with a specific mesh size that is intended to capture larger sharks that might pose a potential threat to humans while allowing smaller sharks and other marine species to pass through without entanglement. However, this isn’t the case. These nets often a wide array of non-target marine animals, such as dolphins, turtles, rays, and various other species that become entangled in the nets, leading to injury or death. The capture of protected and endangered species is particularly troubling in regions where shark nets are in use. Furthermore, the effectiveness of shark nets is selective, as they do not offer comprehensive protection against all shark species. Smaller sharks, which may still pose a minimal risk to beachgoers, can frequently bypass the nets by swimming beneath or around them.
Annually, from September to April, 51 beaches spanning from Stockton in Newcastle to south Wollongong are ensnared with these nets in an effort to safeguard beachgoers. However, local councils have been advocating for the substitution of these nets with alternative methods that ensure swimmer safety without adversely impacting marine life. Local Government NSW, an organization representing councils, passed a resolution last year, urging the NSW government to phase out the use of shark nets. Premier Chris Minns stated, “Sydneysiders can expect the nets to be in place for this coming summer. It is our ambition to work with councils to remove them in the years ahead. But that technology, particularly in relation to shark detection, needs to improve.”
Although the shark meshing program has been in place since 1937, there has been only one fatal shark attack at a netted beach in NSW. However, mounting pressure to discontinue the nets arises from the significant bycatch of non-target species. An annual performance report by the NSW Department of Primary Industries for the 2022-23 season reveals that nearly 90 percent of animals caught were unintended species. Of the 228 entangled animals, just 24 were the intended target, which included 18 white sharks and six tiger sharks. Twenty-six percent of animals caught last season belonged to threatened or protected species, including greynurse sharks, loggerhead turtles, dolphins, and seals. Alarmingly, only 37 percent of the entangled creatures were released alive.
Minister for Agriculture, Regional NSW, and Western NSW, Tara Moriarty, defended the program, emphasizing that the duration the nets are deployed avoids the majority of the whale migration season. She also noted that the nets are equipped with acoustic devices to deter marine mammals from interacting with them. “The NSW government will continue to listen to coastal councils and their communities to ensure that local preferences are balanced against effective, evidence-based shark mitigation for beachgoers,” she added.
Marine biologist Lawrence Chlebeck of Humane Society International Australia disputes the assertion that safer alternatives to shark nets are not yet available. He points to the former Coalition government’s investment of nearly $90 million in shark mitigation, which includes smart drum lines for tagging and tracking sharks, drone surveillance, and the SharkSmart education program. “These are all much more effective at reducing the risk of shark bite,” Chlebeck said. “It is just hanging on to this nearly 100-year-old program that we’re having trouble letting go of.” Shadow environment minister Kellie Sloane agrees, having also voiced the need for government to continue investing in technology to reduce reliance on the nets: “The government has a role to play in helping the community become more involved in this process though education and awareness, as well as localised trials of different mitigation approaches.”
However, Minns has dismissed these options and expressed his lack of confidence in the available alternatives, stating, “We’re not in a position at the moment where we can say hand on heart for this coming summer that these new technologies are as good a replacement as shark nets for Sydney beaches.” Chlebeck argues that using alternatives to nets would be much more effective at reducing the risk, asserting that “the nets do less than nothing, and anything in their place would be much more effective at reducing the risk, and we have those alternatives right now.”
Shark nets or similar shark mitigation measures have been deployed in various coastal regions around the world to reduce the risk of shark-human interactions. Countries like South Africa, Brazil, the United States, and regions like Reunion Island and Israel have employed shark nets or other strategies in response to shark incidents. Another net-like mitigation approach are shark exclusion nets (barriers) that form a complete barrier preventing sharks and many other animals from entering the ‘exclusion zone’ due to the small mesh size and bottom lead rope that keeps the net on the sea floor. For example, the net in Fish Hoek (South Africa) is a shark exclusion barrier.
Unfortunately, the nets are here to stay this summer. And as they’re deployed for the Southern Hemisphere summer, conservationists are gearing up for another round of efforts to have them removed while advocating for alternative methods to safeguard ocean users.