Turning the Tide
Contributed by Melanie Young
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
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.
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
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
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
So what are shark nets exactly?
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 30th
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.
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
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?
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 the
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