Aussies drone on about shark attacks

Many key Australian agencies’ recently got together held a “Shark summit” which by all accounts was much less exciting than it sounds. However some new ideas did come of it.

The New South Wales government has announced a trial of surveillance drones, “smart” drum lines and GPS tags to help combat the recent shark attacks in that area. So what does this actually mean?

Well firstly the use of drones has been discussed for a while now and seems fairly reasonable. A remote surveillance drone will fly over the sea looking for sharks. If it finds one it will then send the GPS location of the shark back to the authorities. At this point the authorities will somehow alert the beachgoers to the shark and try to get everyone out of the water. This is a simple and useful thing to do.

Environmental groups around the world however are apprehensive about the use of drum lines. A drum line is essentially a big baited hook that the shark bites and gets stuck on, which is pretty horrible when you think about it. In the past the hooks are left for days meaning the animals usually die and sometimes attract bigger sharks which feed on the hooked prey. However the new drum lines are “smart” meaning they will alert the authorities when something bites them. Boats are then dispatched to place a GPS tag on the shark before releasing it. The GPS will then be used to monitor if the shark approaches the shore and warn people if it does. They also plan on making an app whereby the public themselves can see if there are sharks around. Many sharks may be untagged though so I’m not sure I would trust it entirely.

A more rudimentary approach

Drum lines are controversial, mainly due to their poor implementation in previous areas. However it’s not overly clear if they be successful as the government admits it won’t necessarily deter the shark from that area and nor will it prevent the shark going towards the shore after it was released from the hook. Secondly, how exactly do you release a shark from a hook without putting yourself at risk? Thirdly, will the hooks harm the sharks? Finally, the hooks may catch many other species such as dolphins and turtles, which may be injured or killed by the hooks. Campaigners argue that having a large baited hook will only attract sharks to the area and make the situation worse.

A possible downside of drumlines. Photo credit: Support our sharks,
A possible downside of drumlines. Photo credit: Support our sharks,


The government have bypassed an environmental assessment for drum lines and have launched a trial without any real debate of the issue “This almost seems to have been plucked from the sky,” the opposition government said about the trial. The government have also ignored a report which they commissioned looking at alternative ways of non-lethal shark control. South Africa implemented a “Shark Spotters” program where people sit and watch the ocean, waving different coloured flags when sharks are near. So far the scheme has been very successful and many groups are upset that Australia has not followed this scheme. However you could argue that using drones is a similar strategy. Strangely, it is not fully understood what will happen when a large shark, such as a great white, comes into contact with a drum line. There is little evidence that it actually works, which opponents have been keen to stress.


A hooked drum line with a human for scale Photo credit: Raffaela Schlegl
A hooked drum line with a human for scale
Photo credit: Raffaela Schlegl


Whilst I wouldn’t have chosen this method of shark control and don’t really like it, surely the whole point of a trial is to find out if it works? For people to oppose a trial on the basis that it might not work seems flawed to me. The whole premise of science and experiments means that you have to test things in real situations to evaluate their effectiveness.

Australia is not abandoning traditional methods such as helicopter patrols and shark nets, they are simply adding new methods. It will never be possible to eliminate shark attacks, sharks are the ultimate marine predator and humans are often not paying enough attention. On a happier note, 80% of Australians surveyed said they opposed culling the sharks, a technique that has been tried around the world without success yet still with support. Christopher Neff, a lecturer in public policy at the University of Sydney, said “The data that I’ve seen for the last three years, whether it’s from Western Australia, whether it’s from Sydney, whether it’s in Cape Town, or whether it’s in Ballina, have all said: ‘Don’t kill the sharks.’ The only people who are talking about killing the sharks usually is the political class.”

Drum lines are not a world away from killing the sharks as bad weather or any other delay in a team reaching the shark will still result in the death of the animal. This is probably the biggest hurdle the trial will need to overcome, and if I really had to bet, the reason it will probably fail. Some conservation groups though are staying open-minded and are stressing that we should wait until the trial is over and examine the evidence. Hopefully someone actually does that as the government seems pretty divided before the trial even starts and some animal rights groups seem to have already decided that it will fail.




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