Environmental groups have called for the Queensland government to ban lethal drumlines that indiscriminately kill shark species in some areas at a rate almost 100 times higher than instances of shark attacks.
It follows the suspension of similar shark control programs in Western Australia and NSW, after protests.
Western Australia announced in May that the SMART (shark management alert in real-time) Drumline trial will cease, citing a lack of target sharks being caught, and several local councils along the NSW East Coast have written to the NSW Government to ask to remove shark nets from the beaches in their council area.
Data released from the Queensland Shark Control Program has shown sharks are being killed on drumlines off the Great Barrier Reef at almost 100 times the rate of unprovoked shark killings in 2020.
Figures from Fisheries Queensland show 196 sharks were killed on the Great Barrier Reef in 2020, out of 244 captures. The data comes after 160 drumlines were returned to the water in February 2020 after a 2019 Federal Court ruling required their removal.
They’re not using every method available to them, including hooks that don’t attract smaller sharks.
Humane Society International were the original complainants in a 2019 Federal Court case that ruled against the use of lethal drumlines as a form of shark deterrent.
The case mandated that lethal force should cease unless on animal welfare grounds, specifically when a shark is unlikely to survive release due to its condition or an injury, or which cannot be safely removed alive.
Fisheries Queensland has reduced the use of euthanising caught sharks (with a bullet to the head) to one location in the Great Barrier Reef.
A spokesperson for Fisheries Queensland said because Horseshoe Bay, off the coast of Townsville, is not within the marine park as part of the court ruling, it has the legal right to kill sharks. Otherwise, attempts to reduce shark deaths on the Great Barrier Reef have been made.
“The GBRMPA [Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority] permit requires that tiger, bull and white sharks are tagged and released alive further offshore.”
Lawrence Chlebeck, a marine biologist specialising in shark ecology at Humane Society International, said despite efforts to reduce damage to sharks found alive, not enough is being done to address deaths.
“They’re not using every method available to them, including hooks that don’t attract smaller sharks,” he said.
“The wheels of bureaucracy are not moving fast enough.”
The shark dilemma
A drumline works similar to a floatation buoy. The buoy is anchored to the seafloor and contains a baited hook that catches a shark until it is either released or dies.
There are two types: a regular type, designed to kill the shark, and a SMART drumline.
SMART drumlines contain communication devices that activate when an animal has been hooked on the line, allowing a chance for contractors to reach the animal and release it safely.
Control programs such as drumlines are considered necessary for sharks because shark attacks on humans, while uncommon, can quickly become fatal.
A spokesperson for Fisheries Queensland said: “The Shark Control Program is continually reviewed in line with emerging technology, information and science, however human safety comes first.”
In 2020 the highest number of shark attacks and fatalities in Australia was recorded in 86 years. Data from the Australian Shark Attack File lists eight shark-related deaths in Australian waters across 2020, with three occurring in Queensland. One of these is listed as provoked – usually as the result of baiting or spearfishing – and two were unprovoked.
Only one death has been recorded nationally in the first seven months of 2021, with a surfer dying from a shark attack in Forster, NSW in May.
Sharks like hammerheads do not last very long on the line and die pretty quickly. Even half-an-hour on the line is enough to stress a hammerhead shark out.
Vincent Raoult, a postdoctoral researcher and shark expert from the University of Newcastle, said a shark’s bite was not usually intended to harm, but to understand its surroundings.
“[A shark bite] is often an exploratory bite, as all their sensors are around their mouth,” he said. “These bites are not predatory, as they don’t often remove flesh.
“Because they target limbs to prevent prey escaping and have such sharp teeth, and humans have this annoying femoral artery in each leg, they can be fatal without intending to be.”
Shark experts are concerned about the use of the hooks on the drumlines, as the design is often lethal to smaller and less hardy sharks.
Chlebeck said the shape of hooks is dangerous for smaller sharks, who have smaller mouths and are more prone to stress and shock, leading to more long-term damage even if released alive.
“Sharks like hammerheads do not last very long on the line and die pretty quickly. Even half-an-hour on the line is enough to stress a hammerhead shark out enough for it to be lethal,” said Chlebeck.
“It might be released alive, but it won’t last too much longer after that.”
Sharks are more common from October to May, which matches swimmer trends as swimming conditions become more favourable and waters become warmer.
According to Beachsafe, a website run by Surf Life Saving Australia, only a couple of beaches are patrolled year-long. It is advised that personal responsibility is taken during the unpatrolled season.
According to a spokesperson from Fisheries Queensland, the state government invests about $1 million each year into trialling alternative shark control measures. A SMART drumline trial in South-East Queensland will run until October 2021, but no trials are currently planned for the Great Barrier Reef.
Chlebeck finds that drones seem to be the most reliable, with increasing technology capabilities allowing them to see through murky water and are fairly flexible.
“Drones are very visible, people [on the beach] can see what they are doing,” he said. “It also helps with the greater beach risk of drowning, as drones can watch people and are being trained to drop floatation devices.
“Drones have a big potential to fill that need.”
Another option is personal repellants, an approach Western Australia has welcomed through subsidies for the devices. The devices use electric signals to repel sharks from the area and are common with surfers.
Queensland has not seen this uptake however, and Raoult believes it is in part due to price.
“These are big expenses on the personal level. Even though WA has been providing incentives, they haven’t been adopted widely,” he said.
“If people want to have shark deterrence that is non-lethal, they need to accept that it’s a lot more expensive.”
The breeding problem
There are 19 shark breeds considered ‘target species’ if found alive on drumlines.
Raoult is confident that Australian attacks typically fall under one of three breeds.
“The species that are considered high risk and are responsible for most shark bites, are the white, the tiger and the bull shark.”
According to the International Shark Attack File, 89 per cent of worldwide deaths caused by shark attack are by the three breeds.
These sharks commonly interact with humans due to their habitats crossing often with swimmers at beaches and estuary mouths where fish are common.
Though white sharks are uncommon on the Great Barrier Reef due to a preference for cooler water, tiger sharks and bull sharks are common close to land, with bull sharks sighted in freshwater rivers.
Tiger sharks and bull sharks were common on drumlines in the marine park, but only made up 57 per cent of caught sharks across the year – leaving just under half of all sharks caught having posed little to no risk to humans.
Even with the 19 species considered ‘dangerous’ by the Queensland government, they only make up 65 per cent of the captures – meaning one in three sharks caught in the Great Barrier Reef pose no threat to humans.
Controversy surrounds the 16 other breeds classified as target species, with two listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The great hammerhead shark and the oceanic whitetip shark were listed as critically endangered due to declining populations.
A 2018 report out of Communications Biology found shark populations declined up to 92 per cent on the east coast of Australia over the past 50 years. Hammerheads declined 92 per cent, great whites declined 92 per cent, bull sharks declined 82 per cent, and tiger sharks declined 74 per cent.
Chlebeck said many of the sharks on the list are not actually a genuine threat to humans, but are on the list because their appearance is scary.
“There are five species on that list that, according to the International Shark Attack File, have never had an unprovoked attack on a human,” he said.
“When something like a shark attack happens, because they are so rare, it is expected that the government will do something about it.”
As a top ocean predator and often vilified in horror films, sharks are feared by the general population.
The more that the public knows about certain areas, times of day, environmental conditions, what’s happening around them, and the more educated people are, the less human-shark interactions will occur.
A spokesperson for Fisheries Queensland said the breeds are considered targets for their previous threats to humans, but are “currently under review” and the government “will consider the best available information and science”.
Raoult said more interstate cooperation is needed, especially with conflicting program targets between states.
“The great hammerhead is considered a transient species, in which it only stays in NSW over the summer and lives in mid-to-north Queensland tropical waters the rest of the year,” he said.
“If we want to protect the species in NSW, then we have to talk about interstate management.”
Hammerhead sharks are protected in NSW due to their vulnerable status but are considered a target species in Queensland, leaving conservation efforts in NSW reliant on ensuring sharks do not die on Queensland drumlines.
Chlebeck said swimmer safety is important but control cannot come at a risk to the extinction of sharks, and education for the public is most important.
“The more that the public knows about certain areas, times of day, environmental conditions, what’s happening around them, and the more educated people are, the less human-shark interactions will occur,” he said.
“We’d really like to see education programs ramp up in Queensland.”
Main photo: Humane Society International/Australian Marine Conservation Society/N McLachlan