Humpbacks, high-rises and shark nets

Researchers and politicians are once again turning their attention to shark nets on Gold Coast beaches as the annual humpback whale migration begins.

More than 20 000 humpbacks are expected to grace Australia’s east coast this year – and over a third will use the Gold Coast bay as a stop over during their long migration from Antarctica. The bay is one of the only suitable locations for humpback whale resting, and the risks of whale entanglements are alarming.

Sadly for thousands of protected and threatened marine species, new figures from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) showed shark nets caught over 130 marine animals in Queensland last year, including six whales.

Gold Coast marine biologist Dr Jan-Olaf Meynecke says, lifting the nets during the whale migration, which happens in the cooler, dry season could significantly reduce whale entanglement.

“A lot of the people against lifting shark nets believe what authorities have been repeatedly saying about how they effectively protect people from shark attacks.

There is to date, after 50 years, no evidence that this is the case,” the founder of community organisation Humpbacks & High-rises said.

“It is more like a ‘feel good’ ‘feel safe’ attitude that keeps these nets in place even though there are better and more effective methods.”

“Safety could be improved by satellite tagging large sharks, sonar barriers, video monitoring and education – even drumlines are less destructive for marine life than shark nets.”

In 2011 Dr Meynecke saw the need for whale research in the Gold Coast bay area, so he set up programs to monitor the marine mammals, innovating designs to capture data on behaviour, disease, injuries and population trends.
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The State Department of Fisheries has 30 shark nets in place at 24 beaches as part of its Shark Control Program. The department says they have no plans to remove nets from our beaches.

“Our Marine Animal Release Teams (MART) are ready to help, as occasionally whales do become entangled in shark control equipment,” a spokesperson from Fisheries Queensland said.

“Members are trained to use specialised devices to cut netting without harming the whale. Last year, eight whales became entangled with nets. Of these seven were released successfully from shark nets by the MARTs.”

Pubic safety is the number one concern for Gold Coast chief lifeguard Warren Young, who says there’s been no fatal shark attacks since the nets were implemented in 1962. Mr Young has been patrolling our busy coastlines for over 40 years.

“We have a really good record, and that must be attributed to something,” he said.

“We’ve got the best response (to entanglement) anywhere in the country, with our boating, fisheries, and experts watching from high-rises as well as our lifeguards – If an animal gets caught, we’ll report it straight away.”

Daniel Kwon, the Greens candidate for Broadwater is urging Queensland’s major parties to implement new policies that prevent attacks without loss of biodiversity.

“I see nets as a waste of taxpayer dollars as there isn’t enough evidence out there to support public safety arguments – as a surf boat rower I see plenty of sharks within the nets.”

Safety is priority in the eyes of all Gold Coasters – but the sheer numbers of entangled marine life and even deaths are prompting calls for political reassessment on how to tackle this controversial issue.

Humpbacks and High-rises founder Dr Meynecke will be at The Cove – Currumbin RSL on the 22nd of July to talk more about his humpback whale research for Gecko’s guest speaker night.

Photos supplied by Humpbacks & High-rises and Nicolas Rakotopare

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