The cost to sharks, other endangered species & our Great Barrier Reef
Sharks are the linchpin of marine ecosystems. Sitting at the top of the food chain as apex predators, sharks regulate the population of prey and competitor species that feed on algae, and in turn the habitat of coral reefs. Sharks can be found in open oceans and freshwater lakes, including areas close to coastlines. 25% of shark species are listed as either endangered, threatened or near threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
One of the factors contributing to the decline in the shark populations is shark culling. In Australia, shark culling is exercised using nets and drum lines. Drum lines are baited hooks suspended from anchored floats that are placed near accessed beaches and coastlines in an attempt to reduce the potential for shark attacks. It is often used in combination with shark nets. Drum lines were first introduced in Australia in the 1960s as part of the Queensland Shark Control Program that monitors the state’s coastlines – including the world-heritage listed Great Barrier Reef. The Program is supported by the Queensland Government, and zoning is regulated by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. There are currently 383 drum lines along the coastline between the Gold Coast and Cairns, with 54 of them installed around Townsville and Magnetic Island.
The primary argument for authorisation of drum line instalment has centred on the protection of human life. However, there has been increasing concerns about the efficacy of the dated technology and its catastrophic impact on reef ecology. Conservation organisations such as Sea Shepherd and Australian Marine Conservation Society argue that there is insufficient evidence for drum line efficacy, a call that has been mirrored around the world. Sea Shepherd Australia has identified through research:
- On a daily average, more than half of the hooks are without bait due to inadequate monitoring;
- The baits used are indiscriminate and attract other protected, non-targeted marine species such as threatened species of dolphins, whales, turtles, stingrays and dugongs. More than 15,000 threatened marine life have been caught in New South Wales alone; and
- There has not been a statistically significant decline in shark attacks since drum line installations. One Western Australian Government report even suggests that injured marine life caused by drum lines that are unattended may attract larger sharks and actually increase the risk of attacks.
Additionally, conservationists contend that the culling number is unjustifiably disproportionate to the fatalities caused by shark attacks. According to the Australian Shark Report Card, in comparison to 71 human fatalities Australia-wide since the program began, approximately 9000 sharks have been killed in Queensland waters alone over the last 30 years. 97% of the species of sharks killed are considered to be at conservation risk. More critically, 90% of the culling has taken place in an area where shark-related fatalities have not even taken place. These findings question the effectiveness of cruel and archaic drum line technology and create a false sense of security in the community.
Moreover, from an ecological point of view, scientists at James Cook University who have been closely observing the Great Barrier Reef over the last few decades have brought attention to reef ecosystem disruption caused by the decline in shark population due to overkilling. The alarming 75% plummet in shark numbers along the Great Barrier Reef has meant that its herbivorous prey population has expanded exponentially and is rapidly eating away algae that bolsters the reef’s resilience to climate disturbances. The detrimental damages to the reef have come not only at an ecological cost but also to the tourism industry that forms the bedrock of North Queensland’s economy. Conservationists argue that the Queensland Government need to seek out improved technology that have proven more successful around that world and does not harm the marine ecosystem – such as shark spotting programs, electromagnetic fields, sonar clever buoys and drones operated by surf lifesavers.
In consideration of the ecological cost of drum lines, Humane Society International and New South Wale’s Environment Defender’s office has been legally challenging the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s authorisation of drum line regulations. The case was heard at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal early in the year, arguing for immediate improvements in the protection of shark population through regulatory changes in Fisheries Act 1994 (Qld); and resulted in harsher penalties for illegal fishing (including shark finning). This was brought into effect on 28th May as a part of the Queensland Sustainable Fisheries Strategy (2017-2027) to protect the Great Barrier Reef’s ecosystem. The Office of Queensland Parliamentary Council is currently working on implementing this change as part of a broader fisheries management strategy. While this is a step in the right direction, we still have a long way to go to protect sharks, other endangered species, and our beloved Great Barrier Reef.
There are organisations actively campaigning for effective and ethical management of our marine ecosystem. The Australian Marine Conservation Society is working to protect threatened species of sharks by putting a stop to shark culling, black market fishing, and imports and exports of shark fins. Importantly, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is a Government body and as such public consultation is invited. Let the Great Barrier Reef Marina Park Authority know that you, as a resident of North Queensland, want drum lines removed from our waterways to protect the future of our marine ecosystems. Contact their head office at firstname.lastname@example.org.