Coastalwatch Shark Discussion Live From Ballina – Replay
COASTALWATCH | LIVE DISCUSSION
*See transcription of discussion below.
On Thursday 6 October 2016, Nick Carroll hosted a live discussion about the northern NSW shark crisis at Ballina surf club. The discussion involved a combination locals and government representatives in order to lay clean on the table the real issues facing the community – their fears, opinions, and ideas.
Our main quest was to provide education and clarity across all areas of this issue and give everyone the opportunity to have their say without bias, including hearing from the NSW Department of Primary Industries.
The panel Left-Right features; David Woods (Shark Fisherman), Dave Rastovich (Surfer), Phil Myers (Freeflight Shapes), Scott McCartney (North Coast Lifeguard), Nick Carroll (Moderator), Vic Peddemors (NSW DPI Shark Expert), Sean Doherty (Journalist & Local Resident), Kim Wolfenden (NSW DPI Community Engagement Officer), Richard Beckers (Ballina Surf)
To view the live comments from the night, see the Facebook live embed below, feel free to continue the conversation.
Thank you to everyone who helped make this event happen including Craig and the Ballina Lighthouse & Lismore Surf Life Saving Club, Seb & Gravy from New Beach Media, Alan Moran & Anish.
Panel discussion October 6, 2016, Ballina
Nick Carroll (Moderator): Hi everyone, I’m Nick Carroll, welcome to Coastalwatch Live, the Shark Issue. Right here in Ballina we’ve collected a group of people who we feel will do us all a lot of good in trying to understand the issue which has inflamed imaginations around Australia, and caused a lot of people a lot of worry and cost quite a few people some flesh in the process. The movement of great white sharks into the area around Ballina, Lennox and Byron Bay in the past two years and the angst that it has caused the local community. So without further ado I’d like to welcome the members of the panel and introduce them.
From the far right here we have David Woods, he’s a long time shark fisherman, I think he was the last person to hold a shark fishing license in this area, he has undoubtedly seen more of this creature’s activities than any of us in his long career on the water. Next we have David Rastovich, many of you will have heard of Rasta, he’s a long term surfer, he’s an international traveller, and he’s got some interesting perspectives on this from the point of view of his travels. And also, Rasta’s been chatting to George Greenough lately and George has some really interesting takes on this, because he’s another guy who’s spent a lot of time on the water out here.
SD: Is George a separate webcast? (chuckling)
N: He should be. Next to Rasta we have Phil Myers from Free Flight, Phil is a long-term local surfer and surfboard designer and he’s very much taking on the role of spokesman for the local surfing community and many of their feelings about this issue. Right next to me we have Scott McCartney, he’s a co-ordinator for the lifeguard services in this area and I’m sure he’s going to bring to light some of the things the boys in red and yellow have had to face over the last year or two and they come directly face to face with the threat that greets anyone who comes into the water here. Just on my near left we have Dr Vic Peddemors, he has a great reputation as a long-term expert in white shark behaviour, he’s worked with the CSIRO and is currently with the Department of Primary Industry, I’m expecting Vic to tell us a lot about what the powers that be understand about shark behaviour and what might be driving their responses to that. Next to Vic, Sean Doherty, Sean is my compadre in arms, the pen mightier than the sword and all that stuff, but he’s also a local resident, and he’s brought his observational skills to this, in the last couple of years trying to surf, sometimes with his young family in this area, and I’m sure Sean will bring some of his observational skills and understanding to that. Next to Sean, Kim Wolfenden, Kim works as a community liaison officer for the DPI in this area around the shark issue, I’m hoping Kim will be able to bring to light some of the things she and the DPI hope will be communicated to the local population who are really I think suffering under the yoke of this invisible menace. And at the end we have Richard Beckers, owns Ballina Surf, a local business which by Richard’s account is definitely suffering because of all this.
So a pretty well-rounded crew here, I guess my first question, I’ll start with Dave here, tell me about your direct experience with great white sharks off this coast.
DW: Oh well I was commercially fishing for sharks for 15 years out of Ballina. I think I worked it out I averaged four sharks a day, 12-15 feet long on average. Back when I first started it was rare you’d see a great white, one every four or five years or something, but lately, all the time. I was talking to some of the spanner crab guys, they go spanner crabbing off Lennox here, they see them every day. Every day they go to sea, they see them. So something’s going on.
N: Rasta, what have you seen?
DR: Interestingly, my experience in the past two years is that the increase in encounters has been happening in most places. Hawaii for example, California, Northern California and Southern California into Mexico, really a large increase in encounters, especially with great whites. Even to the point that last year I was passing through Santa Barbara in early to mid November, and the Surfline camera, which Surfline is the equivalent of Coastalwatch in America, it has al the cameras on the main surf spots, had a camera on the pointbreak of Rincon which captured juvenile whites launching out of the air behind surfers, on their cameras, which are running 24 hours a day. And also in the east coast of America, there was a record number of human-shark incidents there all up the east coast and into the north even. And New Zealand as well. These are places where I’ve been physically talking with the local surfers, who are also the fishermen, who are also the spear fishermen, who are engaged in their local ecology on a daily level, if they’re not surfing they’re diving, if they’re not surfing or diving they’re fishing. So there’s a lot of really authentic first-hand experience with that. And then also in NZ, in NZ this year, same thing. My family comes from NZ and I was over there visiting in March, and same thing. Increase in especially white encounters in shore coastal, specifically the north-east of the North Island. So that’s been my experience over the last 2015 into this year. Even two weeks ago I was in Santa Barbara again and there was another spearfisherman diving in the Carpenteria area who got footage with his Go Pro of a white buzzing him with its pectoral fin, I’m sure a bunch of people would have seen that.
So yeah it’s not just this area, it’s not just here, in my experience. In the surf community, going and visiting many many people, that’s the story I’ve been getting.
N: Phil, what about yourself. You’re surfing and hanging with everyone who lives around here. Have you had any experiences with white sharks?
PM: Yeah a couple. Like I’ve seen a lot of different sharks over the years, but I only saw the first white maybe 15 years ago. I had the kids down the beach and this thing came through a wave and turned in front of us. It was like a jetski powering through the water, it was massive, and the kids looked up at me and said “What was that Dad?” At that time I said “You’re privileged to see that, you’ll probably never see that again”, because we never get great whites in these waters. Next day we went surfing at the same spot because I said it’s probably gone. It flashed across in front of us and disappeared and we never saw it again. It was like a National Geographic movie.
Two years ago, I paddled out the corner of Shelley Beach here, a few of my son’s friends were just to the right of me, this thing came in and went around behind me and laid right underneath me. I sat on my board and looked at its tail, looked along, and when I got to the front end my heart nearly stopped, this giant wide thing looked like the front of a Jumbo jet, with the big wings sticking out the side, I screamed at the rest of the guys and took off for the beach. I posted it on social media and they all laughed at me, you silly old bastard, but unfortunately, a month and a half later Tadashi was bitten in half and that was the start of the whole matter. But it seemed like they arrived overnight. It was kinda like that.
N: Wow. Scott, what’s your experience?
SM: On a personal basis I’ve been quite lucky. I’m in the water nearly every day for hours on end and I’ve only ever witnessed one shark. That was quite far out to sea on a ski. So surfing wise swimming wise, board paddling I’ve never ever seen one. My interaction with sharks have come over the past couple of years due to the situation we have around here, through work. But personal basis, yeah never really seen one.
N: Vic tell us about your experiences with the white.
SD: Vic’s seen a couple.
VP: A few. I’ve been working with sharks since the mid-‘80s, so I’ve seen a fair number, and obviously being involved in testing the first electrical shark repelling device against white sharks off the Cape province in Sth Africa, got a lot of experience there. But certainly, here in NSW, what has happened off the far north coast in the last two years is pretty surprising quite honestly. We’ve always considered the main juvenile nursery grounds as we call them to be further down south towards Hawks Nest, Port Stephens, and we’re seeing a lot of sharks here since we started doing aerial surveys, but now we’re doing aerial surveys along pretty much the entire coast, we’re seeing white sharks everywhere. So it’s been surprising. Are we looking more so we’re seeing more? Is there a population boom, which we’ll cover later I guess? Social media - in the old days you’d talk about it with your mates at the pub and that’s as far as it’d go. But now you post it on Facebook and the whole world sees it. So to me that’s one of the trickiest issues that we’re trying to grapple with — how “real” is this influx of white sharks? Have they always been here and we just didn’t know about them? Local knowledge suggests that’s not the case, local knowledge suggests that it is a recent situation, and I guess our job as scientists is to work out why. What are they doing here? What’s causing them to pitch up? What’s so good about Ballina for them?
N: Sean your experiences?
SD: I haven’t seen one since I’ve been here. But I haven’t had to. It’s like, it’s literally at the front of your mind. I dunno whether the Twitter shark feed is a good thing for me or a bad thing psychologically. I dunno whether it’s better to find out there’s a shark there before you paddle out, or find out afterward that a shark swam right underneath you. But I grew up in Forster which Vic informs me is the nursery, and his second favourite place to tag sharks. But I came up here a year and a half ago from Torquay where I was for seven years, and the worst thing that could happen was that you’d be rubbed on the leg by a seven gill shark, and that’s as bad as it’s gonna get. And suddenly you’re thrown into this, where it’s at the front of everyone’s mind, every surfer, it’s changed behaviours, it’s a very different scene.
N: Kim what about you? Have you got a direct contact? Or has most of your experience come through contact with members of the local surfing community?
KW: Well I’m a keen ocean kayaker, so I’ve seen a couple of sharks in my time. But only a tiger, a 3m tiger back at home in Coffs. I think for me being in this job now for eight months, I’ve really noticed how divided this community is on this issue, and how community attitudes change over time, certainly here in Ballina and having discussions here tonight, people’s attitudes certainly are capable of changing and that’s probably the biggest observation I’ve had in terms of working in this role.
N: And Richard?
RB: Yes. I was born in Byron Bay and been around sharks pretty much all my life. But back in the old days we used to have the abattoirs, there was a lot of sharks around. But then they disappeared and the whales weren’t around. But now it seems to be a lot more whales coming through and they seem to be following them up and staying a bit longer, with the diminishing of their food supply, they know the whales are here so they’re staying a bit longer.
I was just fishing the other day round the cape at Wategos. I was throwing a lure out and I looked down the rocks and saw a fur seal. I’ve fished there all my life and never seen a fur seal sitting on the rock at the Cape. That’s something you don’t see. The whole ecology is changing in the water. It’s noticeable and me surfing, I’ve seen a lot of sharks over the years, heaps of bull sharks, but never a great white, that’s one of the things I don’t want to see.
N: I think it’s important to separate some of the myth from the fact here. We’ve got some experienced people here who’ve been watching sharks for a long time. To me it’s, what Vic was talking about just now and what dave was talking about at the start: How many white sharks are there now cruising this coastline, how much have you found out about why they might be here, and what can we expect in future from that white shark population?
Vic, you’ve been the science guy on this what have you been able to glean.
VP: So most of the work on white shark populations is relatively recent. It’s all been genetic based. The original genetic work was done by the CSIRO and the University of Queensland, and they came up with a population estimate, the breeding population of white sharks in Australia of 1,500. Breeding sharks, for the whole of Australia, east coast and west coast. I think it’s important also for everyone to realise that east coast and west coast are genetically distinct. At that stage they didn’t have sufficient samples to be confident of the east coast sector, but I think it was 700-odd breeding individuals for the west coast. That was published in 2012 through Queensland University. Subsequently the CSIRO has teamed up with a whole bunch of different geneticists, and they’re using a technique that’s known as close-kin genetics, working out whether you and I share a parent for example, and then they can work out how big the population is — what are the chances of people sharing parents or family members. And that work is still being finalised but it looks likely that the east coast population is likely to be less than 6000 animals.
N: Do you have any idea of the age range? It seems from the accounts we’ve heard and from sightings over the last few weeks even, on Sean’s Twitter app that freaks him out so much, that a lot of these sharks are 2.8 to 3m long, a little bit longer and a little bit shorter perhaps. What kind of whites are they? What are their ages?
VP: The 3m animals are approaching maturity. There’s a lot of argument in the shark world about how old white sharks live, but the latest work we’re using bomb calorimetry, the amount of radioactivity in the water from test explosions, suggest that white sharks get to about 70 years old. And they’re reaching sexual maturity at round about 20. So these animals out here are what we call juveniles generally, but once they get to around 3m we probably would be correct in calling them mature or almost mature. If you look at the 3.5m shark we caught out here the other day, its claspers were stiff so that suggests that male was mature. Claspers are like a penis, sharks have got two of them, and stiffness equates to sexual maturity.
N: Dave how does that match up with what you’ve seen over the years?
DW: There definitely seems to be a lot more oevr the last few years, this does seem to be the worst year, but going back a few years, you’d see a bunch but you wouldn’t see them every time you went out.
N: Have you any idea why they’re here now, as opposed to 20 years ago or even 10 years ago?
DW: Well the only thing I tend to think it might be is that they’ve been protected worldwide, well virtually worldwide, for 18 years, I think? And in that time, they’ve just bred up. I know that, when you first protected them the science was I think, correct me if I’m wrong, that the amount of pups they had was two, and they were pregnant for 18 months. Well I know for a fact that’s not right. I’ve actually cut one open, and it’s had over 20 pups.
VP: White shark?
DW: Yeah, great white. Nearly five metres, it was a big one. That was over 20 years ago but.
N: So you’re suggesting the breeding patterns aren’t…
DW: Well I think they’re having a lot more young, which survive, than what we’ve estimated for.
N: Vic what might else be going on here? That still doesn’t explain why they’re coming in here and not affecting other parts of the east coast of Australia as much. Like in the nursery area you mentioned, there’ll be hundreds of sharks at any one time, right? And I don’t think there’s ever been a serious great white attack there.
VP: Not in Hawk’s Nest itself, no. That’s what our research is trying to understand, what is brought them into this part of the coast. We know so little about white shark’s movements, which surprises everyone, because we’ve grown up with Jaws, and you think this is the apex predator. But when I came into this field you’d be hard pressed to find funding to work on sharks because sharks were these evil things and the only good shark was a dead one. But the change in public perceptions, I guess as a result of the various really good quality Discovery Channel type films, that has changed people’s perceptions a lot I guess, and now you’re getting kids knocking on the door asking to do research on sharks. So there’s a very big change in how we’re understanding, and I’m hoping that will, and we’re seeing it now, create a better knowledge base.
In addition to that obviously miniaturisation of batteries through mobile phones for example, is allowing us to use new tracking techniques that weren’t available ten years ago. So now we’re starting to understand the movements of these animals. Is it oceanography, is it food, is it mating? What is it that’s driving the movement of these animals?
N: Look tell me if I’m wrong, but I get the sense that the way these sharks are behaving is pretty typical of great white sharks. They’re coming in they’re looking around, they’re maybe having a go at something to tell if it’s food or not. Is there anything in their behaviour that is unusual or atypical?
DW: No. I don’t think so. Just typical white sharks.
VP: It’s interesting you say they will go for pretty much anything. In hundreds of hours I’ve now spent in helicopters up and down this coast, there’s only been one shark that I‘ve gone wow, this shark looks like it’s going to do business. That was at Broken Head, and we tried to catch it, and it went right up against the rocks, and was really swimming erratically. We thought it was a piece of cake, we’ll throw something in front of it, we’ll nab it and it’s overs kadovers, we can do our work and take it out to sea. And we never caught it. It went right up against the rocks and we couldn’t get anywhere near it with the boat. Like Dave was saying before it was almost dragging its pec against the rocks, it was that close.
SD: Thanks for the reassurance!
DR: When was that Vic?
VP: That would have been a year ago.
DR: I think I was in the water at Broken that day. We were surfing at the Point, and the sand was really shallow and then really abruptly dropped off, and we got buzzed by a really big white, and it went out to sea coming from the beach. And then you all came in the chopper and eventually boats, about 800 metres or so north to start with. And that was actually the first day that Ozzie Wright had moved to Suffolk Park, and he went to the beach for his first surf, and he turned around and walked back home and went skateboarding instead. (general chuckling etc)
VP: To me that’s really interesting. I don’t know how many sharks I’ve seen, I mean you don’t know if you’re recounting the same one but there’s certainly a lot of sharks as you’ll know from your SharkSmart app or your Dorsal app, and to me it’s been really interesting — these animals are mooching along close to shore and we just don’t know what they’re doing. I’m stunned. They’re just cruising.
N: OK. So Rasta’s story seemed to sum up something really interesting about this whole dilemma. And that is that here’s these sharks, and they’re just being sharks, right, just swimming along being sharks. And then there’s the human equation, human behaviour and how we respond to that. And the response has been quite dramatic in some ways. Richard can you explain how the human response has affected your business?
RB: Well, I don’t sell as many wetsuits, I don’t sell as many bodyboards, since the last attack last Monday we haven’t sold one wetsuit, one bodyboard, one softboard, nothing. Sold a couple of legropes to a guy going overseas. But it’s affected us hugely.
I worry about that side but I also worry about the community side of it — me selling something to a kid who goes out in the water and then gets attacked. I don’t know, it’s a tradeoff. But it’s really affected our business. We’ve had to change the way we do business. We’re a hardcore surf shop and we’re changing to more of a fashion store, but hard core surfing is what I grew up doing so it’s really affected us.
N: What about other businesses in Ballina? Do you exchange stories?
RB: Yeah we do. There’s been cancellations in caravan parks, it’s ongoing. Put it this way, if you want to book a holiday and you go let’s go to Ballina, or let’s go to the Gold Coast where they’ve got nets and protected - we’ll go to the Gold Coast. If you’re looking from the PO of a kid in danger. I can understand that but that’s what’s impacting me. I get guys coming in with their wives telling them, have you got your life insurance done, because if you haven’t got your life insurance done you’re not going surfing. All these little things in the background, it’s funny but it’s not funny. It’s affecting the community as a whole, that’s what I’m worried about.
N: Scott I was talking to Craig who’s the president of Ballina surf club today, and it suddenly struck me: he’s got volunteer patrol people, and they’re tasked with patrolling these beaches on the weekend, and as much as you’re a volunteer lifesaver and you’ve got the best interests of your community at heart, you may not have signed on for the very real possibility of dealing with a serious shark attack victim. Can you tell me a bit about how life might have changed for the people who try to look after these beaches - not just professional lifeguards but volunteer lifesavers too.
SM: Oh yeah. It’s definitely affected the volunteer clubs a lot more. Down to Nippers as well. Young kids going in the water. They can’t train as much in the water, just due to the fear factor. And parents as well, not wanting their kids to jump in and swim around the cans or board paddle, that kind of thing. I believe both clubs in the area have lost memberships through Nippers. And as you move through Nippers and evolve to patrolling, it’s a Catch-22, you want to get down there and help the community as a volunteer, but do you really want to subject yourself to what may happen around this area. So I think they are losing a fair few members from patrols as well.
N: I’ve heard that while tourniquets, for example, aren’t supposed to be part of the volunteer lifesaver kit, here at Ballina/Lismore they’ve decided they’ve just got to have some around, just because.
RB: Yeah some of my friends carry around Glad-Wrap to wrap around wounds. Put Glad-Wrap in their glove boxes, because they never know what to expect.
N: Phil what’s been your experience in the surf community? How people are feeling I guess about this?
PM: People are feeling a bit like they’re being used as an experiment, with modern technology, which is understandable. There’s a growing concern about the shark attacks. A lot of the feeling is starting to switch around. When this all started I wasn’t for nets or drumlines, but I’m starting to go that way. We want something done now rather than later. Use technology that works, to get a bit of confidence back. My son got married last weekend, and the guy who has the venue up on top of Shelly Beach, he said in the last two years, there’s all dormitories up there for school kids, right? It hasn’t been booked at all. Everyone’s cancelled. He’s under huge financial strain, he’s actually trying to sell the place, because they’re just not coming. (Wayne Webster) rang me up just before I came here, he’s usually a very popular board builder in the area with the young guys, he’s had to have sales to get rid of all his boards. The guy at the Flat Rock caravan park, he was down to a third occupancy at the height of it and I’d say it’s back down to that now.
N: Look I’ve got to admit, this is one of the things that most struck me about what was happening up here after talking with everyone… The thought that - people don’t take surfing that seriously, if you don’t surf you don’t realise how it makes its way into your heart and soul, and many people up here have moved to the Ballina/Lennox area so they can fully live the surfing life. And it sounds like from everyone here is talking about, that that life is kinda coming apart at the seams.
Now Kim, I don’t mean to totally put you on the spot here
KW: Oh go for it! I’m used to it.
N: OK. You’re the interface between a big Government department and this community which is being rent by this issue, and they are afraid that the things that they love about their lives are just going down the plughole. So can you tell me a little bit about what people are saying to you, and how you think you can handle that community anger and fear?
KW: That’s a really good question. I’m not gonna lie, this is the most challenging job I’ve ever had, it’s really challenging. Certainly as Phil has mentioned, I think the attitudes, people were telling me they were not for drumlines, they were not for nets, but we’re certainly aware that attitudes change when we see an unfortunate event like we just saw at Lighthouse. The fear is real, and I can assure you we’re doing everything we can in order to provide realtime information like the Twitter app and everything we see, we try to provide that information to the public in order for them to make a decision as to whether or not they want to enter the water, based on what we’re seeing and the research. We have a stakeholder group that we’ve had for about 12 months that’s got representation from a number of members of the community, Scott’s on that group. And look, it’s very divided at the moment Nick. It’s very divided as to what shark mitigation measures we should be using. It’s very hard speaking to people like Richard who are obviously very personally affected but also can see the effect it’s having on the general community. So it’s really challenging. We’re in a very difficult position, trying to do everything we can to protect people, but also recognising that sharks play an important role in the environment.
So it’s very challenging and I think Vic I can speak on behalf of you but it takes its toll on us too, you know we’re in a very difficult position, and I’m a very sensitive human so I’m probably in the wrong job (laughs) but I take it personally. I feel like I’m in a really important role here, as the face so to speak here locally between the government and the community, it’s a really challenging gig let me tell you.
N: I bet it is. Now I could be wrong about this but speaking to many people, and eyeballing North Wall myself today, I was really flabbergasted as to why anyone would think it was a good idea to try and stretch a shark barrier net into this surf zone. It would have been torn to pieces in an instant. Same thing down at Lennox. This seems to have stirred up a bit of what-the-hell from the hardcore surfers in this area. They feel like they weren’t listened to about that, and I think maybe they’re worried they won’t be listened to about future mitigation efforts by the DPI. So how are you gonna handle that? Are you gonna open the door more to surfers, or has that already happened? Was there a loss of communication there somehow?
KW: Sure. So look, the door’s always open obviously, we’re here tonight for that reason, that’s what we’re trying to do. Certainly, on our stakeholder group we have representation from the surfing community, we have LeBa, and we also have the Ballina Surfrider Foundation. In between those two groups there’s a difference of opinion many times, so it’s very challenging from that perspective. But look, I’m here tonight, we can have a chat if there’s other conversations that people wanna have about how it’s not working that’s what we’re here to do. That’s part of our…sorry?
N: I can feel Sean is bursting to say something here.
SD: It’s an impossible job, you know, really.
SD: Because in that position, with the shark nets obviously at that point in time, it was clearly the sharks were running hot and inertia was not an option, and some action needed to be taken. Those crazy nets were there, someone paid for them, and out they went, and in they washed. I think we all know that the long term solution to all of this is gonna be science. We’re starting from a low base as you said Vic, we’re making small steps into this but already it’s illuminating patterns and behaviours and we’re starting to get an understanding but that’s gonna take years. And that’s obviously the long term solution. It’s not up to fixing what’s happening right now. And that’s causing the natural tension within the local community, and I don’t think anyone’s got any faith that anything immediately is gonna help outside of the direct stuff that’s working everywhere else — that seems to be working everywhere else.
N: Let’s talk about some of the things that actually might be done. I know what you mean Sean, it feels to me like people compare the shark attack rate with the road toll all the time, and it’s kind of a way of trying to make the shark attack thing look weak or unimportant…
SD: The bee-sting thing. How many people died of a bee sting in Ballina. No-one.
PM: I haven’t been to a funeral for a coconut death yet.
N: But there is something in the comparison. Because back in 1975 the road death toll in Australia was over 2500. This year it’ll probably be around 1200 - half. And the population of Australia has doubled in that time. And there wasn’t a silver bullet that did that, it was a lot of different things over time.
PM: Everyone was drunk then.
N: No more drink driving, there was seat belt laws, the roads were improved, the rules of the road got better and sharper and more intelligent. Roundabouts instead of give way to the right. All these things that changed over time. So what are the things that might do the same with this issue? Because bear in mind, this is a Ballina/Lennox issue right now, that’s what it looks like. In years to come, if the shark population continues to increase, it’ll be an issue for an awful lot more people. So what are some of the things that can be done? Let’s start with big Dave here. He knows sharks.
DW: Well, my answer to the problem would be — I know the Fisheries department have just gonna pt out another 85 drumlines, is it? They need to have drumlines from Broken Head halfway down to Evans Head, a mile and a half offshore. And if they were correctly baited and we checked them every day, I honestly think that within a couple of months that’d solve the problem.
N: Rasta got any ideas here?
DR: I like the information you were sharing about the road issue, but I also think that this is really different because we’re not dealing with the human realm. It’s not people dealing with other people and the things we build. And there’s just interesting stories around the world of how people and wild animals are being stretched in terms of how they co-exist. Like in India there’s fricken 200 deaths by wild elephants every year. And one of the things that people are trying to do about that is that yeah, the elephants have their place in these wild spaces that butt up against the human spaces, and one of the ways they’re remedying that is beehives and things the elephants don’t like, chilli, tobacco plants, things like that to create these borders. But there’s efforts there to acknowledge the rightful place that these other animals have, and that it’s us encroaching and diminishing their wild spaces, their habitat, is largely the issue with those encounters there. With the issue here, I think it seems like a smart thing to do to not just consider this from a human point of view, an anthropocentric point of view. As Seano says perhaps it’s a science based illumination that’s gonna accrue over time and give us a way forward to co-exist, but I think it’s good to acknowledge that it’s not really our realm there, we are having to be responsible for stepping foot in the water and playing by a whole other set of rules. And I think that largely given the fact that probably a large percentage of us are dealing purely with humans and the things we build and create every day of our lives and rarely interact with wild spaces and wild animals, that an issue like this where we’re dealing with wild animals is gonna freak us out. So I think it’s good to acknowledge that. This isn’t a very common story in the Australian timeline, but there are other countries who are dealing with similar stories and it’d be interesting to see how they’re being dealt with. A whole new moment in time.
SD: Look at humans beings, we’ve got a tremendous track record of wiping out anything that’s bigger than us. That goes back 100,000 years plus and this is the shape it takes today. This might be the new normal now but it’s probably the old normal that we were never around to experience. There’s a readjustment that’s happening here.
N: It’s an interesting point. Like the humpback whale population. When they ceased hunting whales on this coast I think there was a population of around 700 humpback whales left, of a population originally believed before white settlement to be about 90,000. And now, there’s about 20,000 whales, so it’s resurging. And there’s been marine parks established off the coast here so there’s been a resurgence in the general biomass. That’s just something that I’ve thought, and I shouldn’t be in this discussion with it, but what the hell — I just kinda thought maybe we don’t really know this coast. What do we know? We’ve been surfing here for what, 50 years? That’s nothing.
PM: 30 years ago you’d be going oh shit there’s a whale! Now there’s an endless stream. Which is good, but…
N: Back to the things, the concrete things people can do here. Off Sydney and Wollongong they’ve got territorial netting that is designed to break up shark swimming patterns, and I can tell you right now there’s nobody in Sydney who’s worried about going surfing. There’s nobody who’s stopped their life patterns because of what’s happening up here. It’s not on the radar. So why not here, why can’t you have netting here?
PM: Because the government says we can’t.
RB: Yeah. We want it, pretty much.
PM: We interact with sea animals all our lives. But the changes I’ve seen so rapidly… I was forewarned by a guy in the Fisheries 15 years ago, when I first saw that big white pointer. I said what’s going on, he told me Tea Gardens, Stockton, and they were massing off the Solitary Islands, and they’ll move north again from there. And the shelf drop-off is really close in here, maybe that’s why they come so close.
Look I’m not for killing everything. Or anything. But we all have killed animals in our lives. What’s more important, one or the other? It’s come down to humans and animals. You’re not gonna stop kids from going surfing, and parents especially are so worried. I know my son, as soon as he could drive he was off surfing with his mates, now he’s ringing me up saying where are we going surfing today? You can sit a bit further out than me. (laughter). But yeah, look, as an immediate thing to restore people’s confidence, unfortunately,that’s the only thing that’s been proven that’ll work. What are you just gonna let the town die?
DW: Yeah. There’s no way in the world you’re ever gonna wipe out all the white sharks in the ocean. It’s full of ‘em. Like I’ve spoken to tuna operators who work 100 miles off the coast here, they see ‘em all the time. 100 miles out. I used to fish 10 miles off the coast, 50 fathoms, they were there. Spanner crabbers out here, they’re only three or four mile off the coast, they’re there. Everywhere you go in the ocean, they’re here. So if you’re just wanted to a put drumlines in the area where you want to protect the surfers, it’s not gonna affect the ones out there, you know what I mean? You’re only going to take the ones who come into this area.
N: OK. But we’re not really clear on what the population is, right Vic?
VP: So the genetic work I was referring to earlier was also able to refer to the historical population size, from many generations ago, and when we say a generation in white sharks it’s 22 years. The geneticists believe there were probably 30,000 white sharks in the population, long before we arrived on this continent, and that it was stable at that level for thousands of generations.
DW: That’s both east and west?
VP: Yep, both east and west. That’s a lot of fish. And now the best estimate is less than 6000. So as we sad earlier, they’ve been protected — it’d be a blight on Australian conservation efforts if the population hadn’t increased in the last 15 years, it has to have increased to some degree. But to me, knowing a little bit about the biology of the animals, and reproduction rates, we know they are long lived, we know they reach sexual maturity late in life— it’s impossible for them to boom. We just need to look at — you’ve used whales a lot as an example, but whales for a long time we didn’t see whales, and now we’re starting to see whales. But you’re talking about an increase in population in whales of approximately 10% per annum. So if you have 2000 whales this year, next year you’ll have 2,200 whales. When it gets to those levels it starts ramping up. If the population is a small as he geneticists believe it is, say less than 1000 breeding on the east coast, it’s still gonna be a while before we start seeing, I don’t want to say “exponential growth” but certainly more rapid growth. Certainly I don’t believe it’s possible for the great white population to have skyrocketed, but that’s just based on the biology of the animal.
N: But at the same time, it sounds like down the track we can expect a much greater white shark population if things continue to level up and go to where they once were.
SD: And sexual maturity is 20 years and you’re right on 20 years, right on the cusp…
N: …things are starting to happen. So I guess what I’m wondering is, you mentioned Ballina/Lennox being used as an experiment, and the fact is that maybe that’s what’s going on here, maybe Ballina/Lennox is a precursor to what will happen along the whole east coast of Australia.
PM: Well they were massing off the Solitary Islands which is a fair way offshore. But here, yeah.
N: So Vic what do you think is up our sleeves to mitigate this and basically to make sure that less kids get attacked by great white sharks?
VP: I think the NSW Government has led the way around the world on this issue, and I’m not saying that just because I work for them. I’ve been really impressed with the efforts that the Government has made to increase bather safety while having a minimal impact on marine life. I think we’re all surfers here so to us generally it’s an important concept. So the use of drones for example eventually with lifesavers and lifeguards operating them like they would jetskis. It’s just one part of their toolkits. Not saying they’re gonna be flying drones all day every day, but when they get to the beach in the morning, before they put up the flags, they zoom up and down and check whether there’s a shark there. And the trials we’re doing is trying to work out how often do you need to fly. Getting information about the sharks’ movements will link into that. It may be they fly once an hour, that might be enough.
And the smart drumlines, that’s amazing technology. They come from Reunion, where we all know they have a major shark bite issue. They’ve come up with this technique where the gear actually sends you a message when a shark’s on the line. And here in Ballina, we’re on the shark within an average of 15 minutes of getting an alert on the phone. And we have to answer the alert or it keeps ringing, and we don’t want it to keep ringing, Serious phone harassment. So to me this is the technology. We can tag the animal and let it go. The 85 extra drumlines that the government has announced, they’re also smart drumlines, these Reunion inventions, and they’ll be rolled out on a commercial level, using commercial fishers, and the idea is they’ll be trained to do exactly what we do. They may not be trained in surgical insertion of ten year life tags, but certainly the idea is that they’ll also be tagging the sharks, and the idea is that not only do we get a safer inshore environment, but also we’ll learn something about the animals.
So these are the sorts of the technologies. Listening to sharks coming past. The SharkSmart app is really important I think. I mean I know we all freak out about how many sharks are pinging, and it’ll get worse because we’re tagging more sharks. But eventually it might reach a stage where people are going you know what, the sharks have always been here, we’re seeing sharks every day, and with the drumlines out there we feel a lot more comfortable, we feel safe, we’re going to carry on with our surfing lifestyle. That’s our vision: to enable the public to enjoy the NSW lifestyle without the fear of being bitten.
KW: I see Phil you’re shaking your head there.
PM: Well I don’t see the point of hooking a shark and then letting it go.
KW: I’m really curious to hear what you would say to surfers who Is peak to a lot in my role who are not for nets.
PM: I’m just representing the people who inform me. I’m not …that’s what they’re telling me, and the majority of people are saying that.
RB: I agree. I’m getting sick of being used to trial technologies when technology exists that we could use and install. We don’t want to hurt the sea life, but it’s being used in Sydney, it’s being used on the Gold Coast and we want it here now so people are protected.
VP: But that’s what you’re getting.
RB: But we’re not…
VP:… you’re getting drumlines. Smart drumlines, 2016 drumlines.
RB: OK yeah I know but we’re not getting the nets like they have on the Gold Coast.
VP: Hang on but Queensland uses more drumlines than nets.
RB: Yes OK, but are we having nets as well? No.
VP: It’s not off the table.
RB: Yeah I know that. We just want…
PM: You’re letting them go after you’ve hooked them. That’s not solving any problem as far as I can see. I mean how’s that going to make someone feel safe? I know if I got a hook in my mouth I’d be very cranky, I’d probably come and bite the first human I saw.
VP: No, no, all our tagged animals with the exception of one which ended up a couple of ks up the coast, all the other ones, that’s now 36, they’ve all moved offshore. In fact they all went out to (indecipherable) Reef.
DW: What’s the pint of tagging the sharks? I know it’s for study and that but what, just to see where they go, where they come from
VP: So we try to understand their movements so we can turn around to councils and beach authorities to say: conditions are such that you would expect to see an increased number of dangerous sharks, please be extra vigilant. That’s really what we’re aiming to get to.
PM: Keep the people away.
N: OK we’ve only got a few minutes left, what I’m hoping for now, and perhaps start here with Richard, just in 30 seconds, summarise where you’ve got to in your head as a result of the last 55 minutes.
RB: OK, pretty simple, I love my sea life, I love the ocean, but we need to protect people, we’ve got a duty of care to sea life, but people come first. So from my point of view we need to use every means we can to protect people and make them feel safe going in the water. That’s my thought.
N: OK. Kim?
KW: Look I think tonight has reaffirmed that it’s a very emotional topic, and for my perspective I think the fact that we’re all here tonight having this conversation is showing that we need to continue that. I’m going to use my time to go for a shameless plug for our SharkSmart app, so for anyone who may not know about our app, it’s a really great app, and we’re really promoting it in order to provide information to people, so it’s NSW SharkSmart. Also we have a Twitter feed where we put everything up that we see from the chopper or from our VG’s and any kind of research information that comes out of our great research team, so that’s NSW SharkSmart on Twitter.
N: OK, Sean.
SD: Oh I think there’s a natural tension in most surfers. I think we all because we’re immersed in the natural environment, by definition we’re for it, that’s where we come from and we’ll err on that side. Since being around here and surfing here I can feel a shift in that, I’ve felt it myself, I can see behaviours have changed in a lot of surfers and their attitudes have changed. I think what is happening here is extraordinary, it’s a cluster and I think it should be treated that way. I know there’s a lot of coastline around Australia and this is 20 ks. We saw it in Margaret River, we saw it in Reunion, and it probably requires some extraordinary action.
N: Vic, just quickly.
VP: So my thinking is very much that as surfers we need to take responsibility for our own safety and I just can’t fathom out why people aren’t using electrical shark repelling devices. I’m sorry, they’ve been proven to work by three independent university academics, with nothing to gain, they’re not selling the product, and yet for some obscure reason the surfing community isn’t taking them up. If you’re worried about sharks, stick a Shark Shield on your surfboard and hey presto, you’ve got a good chance of being comfortable.
N: I can’t pump that one because my little brother’s involved with Shark Shield (laughter). Scotty what’s your take on it.
SM: Look I’m not from here in Ballina. Personally I wouldn’t surf out here because of what I’ve seen and been involved in but, like Vic just said, you’ve gotta take that responsibility on yourself as well. Use any means possible, look at the conditions as well. It was also interesting to know that other areas around the world have been dealing with the same kind of thing, I thought it was just Ballina but it’s not.
PM: I think you already know what I think, I think there needs to be immediate action to restore confidence. Proven action.
N: OK. Dave.
DR: I think a lot more questions need to be asked around the issue, and for us to realise that we’re part of a collective around the world that’s experiencing the same phenomena, and to look at each other’s cultural responses, and to keep having these discussions so we can make a clear decision how to move forwards, because obviously there’s a lot of different perspectives.
N: OK. Big Dave?
DW: I honestly think that unless something is done drastically soon, it’s just gonna go on and on. We’ll just have to get used to it. Take up skateboarding.
N: And on that very sobering note…from Ballina, I’m Nick Carroll, with my shark panel, good evening.
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This Week In Surfing: Ten Things from Surfing & the Internet on the Week That Was February 21, 2020