Turning the Tide

Shark Netting, Turning the Tide"Have you ever had that dream where you turn up for work naked? Well....", laughed Sacha Dench as she started a speech on the topic of shark meshing at Sydney Aquarium.

When Sacha, scientist and champion free diver, got together with Argentinean photographer, Alejandro Rolandi, they started developing a scenario to bring the hidden world of shark nets out of the water and into the public eye and hopefully the public conscience. The result is Turning the Tide, an extraordinary and controversial photographic exhibition. The images are evocative, haunting and perhaps disturbing yet incredibly beautiful.

Shark Netting, Turning the TideIt really had to be an issue that Sacha felt strongly enough about to agree to take her clothes off and spend hours and hours in freezing cold waters tangled up in shark nets. Sacha has spent several years diving as well as being heavily involved in marine research and writing. She (along with others in the marine world) has become increasingly frustrated with the continuing level of ignorance with regard to the issue of shark meshing. The practice of meshing and its effects outrage her.

Alejandro has been exploring the underwater photography of dancers and performers for four years now, and has noticed the very strong identification people feel for submerged figures. He too shares with Sacha her deep passion for marine life issues.Shark Netting, Turning the Tide

When I walk along the waters edge on the harbour side of Sydney's famous Manly Beach, and see the net enclosures, I instantly felt anxious. I have to stop myself. I am a scuba diver and actually get in the water to look for sharks. A sighting is a rare treat! Although I am not in reality scared of sharks, looking at the nets creates a knee-jerk fear from within. However, shark nets are not to be confused with mesh exclusion nets that are permanently in place around protected waters such as the swimming areas at Manly and Balmoral on Sydney's coastline.

So what are shark nets exactly?

Shark Netting, Turning the TideThey are a simple straight section of gill net (like the nets used for fishing) that start 2-4 metres below the surface of the water. They are 150 metres long and are set a couple of hundred metres off shore. The beach may be several kilometres long, yet usually only one, or perhaps two, 150 metre nets are in place. Sydney's Collaroy Beach for example is 5 kilometres long and has two nets one at the northern and southern end of the beach. The nets are not permanent fixtures. It depends on whether there are one or two nets on the beach as to how often they are put out or taken in. They are only in place on average 9-14 days of each month, 8 months of the year, from 1st September until Shark Netting, Turning the Tide30th April. So, for 4 months of the year there are no nets at all and it has been noted that there have been no increase of shark incidents when they are not in place. They are usually out for a 24-hour period but this is dependant on weather. So too is where they are placed. One net (150 metres long) is considered one unit. Sometimes two are strung together and this constitutes two meshings. The NSW State Fisheries Department sub-contract the meshing program out to individual fishermen. The contract states that there must be 9 weekday meshings (out for a minimum of 24 hours) and 4 weekend meshings (set in place from dusk on Friday until dawn on Monday).

Shark nets are a culling device and other animals die too. They are set up to trap sharks. Sharks become entangled in the nets and drown. Most sharks need to be swimming to get the oxygen required around their gills. Aside from popular belief shark nets are not actually a physical barrier between sharks and swimmers. Sharks can swim over them, under them (in Queensland, not NSW), and around them. In fact 40% of sharks are caught on the beach side of the nets.

Shark Netting, Turning the TideThe problem is that the nets don't discriminate. Not only do sharks become entangled in them and die, so too do whales, dolphins, turtles, seals, dugongs, rays, sea birds and other animals and their young. Out of every 40 animals that die in the nets only one is a shark. A juvenile humpback whale was caught and killed in the nets off Austinmer, Wollongong, NSW as recently as 13 November 2005. The nets only exist in NSW and Queensland. All other states are net free, including South Australia the "Great White Capital". There is no greater incidence of attack in these net-free states either. It is interesting to note that none of the animals entangled in the nets are retained for research, including the endangered species.

Shark Netting, Turning the TideOf course the shark meshing was very successful when it was introduced in the 1930's. It reduced the number of attacks on surf beaches, but what we have to consider is that there were an artificial number of attacks back then because of the dumping of domestic waste and sewage, which fed the shark populations. Even abattoir remains were dumped into the ocean waters, which would be unthinkable today. We do not have this problem now but we still have the nets!

So why do we still have the nets?

The authorities fear public reaction to the removal of shark nets more than they fear shark attacks. But really, what do 150 metre nets on kilometre long beaches achieve when sharks can swim over, under and around them? Why do people feel any safer when they cannot be sure if the nets are in place or not? Why are the other states and territories coping without the nets and not NSW and Queensland? Could part of the reason be fear of loosing the tourist dollar? What is the real motivation?

Shark Netting, Turning the TideA point to note is that for 3 years during WWII there were no shark nets in place yet no increase in attacks.
There are 370+ species of shark worldwide and the majority are harmless. The largest of these are the whale and basking and they are both plankton eaters and of no harm to humans. Only 3 sharks are considered to be 'potentially' dangerous on the shoreline of NSW waters: the Bull Shark, Tiger shark and the Great White. The Great White Shark is listed as vulnerable and the Grey Nurse Shark is endangered and at risk of extinction. Both of these sharks are protected by law incurring massive fines, yet both lose their lives to these nets. There are fewer than 500 Grey Nurse Sharks left on the east coast of Australia. The fact that sharks have a low reproductive capacity does not help the situation.

John West at Taronga Zoo initiated The Australian Shark Attack File. It includes all shark incidence recorded in Australian waters. Of the 83 attacks since 1791, 41 have been fatal. This is an average of one fatality every 5 years. According to John Paxton from the Australian Museum, in the past 30 years shark attack fatalities in Australia have numbered from 10-12 per decade. That is an average of 1.1 per year. In NSW sharks have killed 3 people in the past 3 decades between 1970 and 2000 with the last being in 1993. The Likelihood of a Shark Attack in Sydney Harbour During the September 2000 Olympic Games Final Report outlines the decline in shark numbers over Shark Netting, Turning the Tidethe years and the low level of shark attacks.

John Paxton notes that for every person killed by a shark, 23 million kilos of shark and rays are killed through commercial and recreational fishing and shark control programs such as meshing. The Australian NSW shark meshing program receives $730,000 per year as a protected line item ~ this means there is no public debate about whether this funding should be allocated, it simply is. The money is given to the Department of Primary Industries to manage the program. Is it time for a re-evaluation?

Did you know?

- You are approximately 33, 000 times more likely to die from a road accident than from a shark attack.
- You are 3, 000 times more likely to die from skin cancer.
- You are 300 times more likely to be killed by drowning.
- You are more likely to be killed by a falling coconut or by lightning than by a shark?

The Turning the Tide exhibition was displayed at the Inaugural NationalGreenbuild & Eco Show in June 2006.

Turning the Tide includes photo art and multimedia and was created to spark a serious debate on the issue of shark meshing.

written and © by Melanie Young - photos © by Alejandro Rolandi

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