Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 March 2014


Western Australia: Shark Cull

8:21 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

Today I participated in Science meets Parliament, which is a wonderful event that enhances and strengthens our ties with the scientific community. I met and heard some inspiring people both at the dinner last night and at the session with scientists today. They continue to advocate for innovative, evidence based policy solutions to complex issues.

I find it disappointing that the WA Premier, Mr Colin Barnett, and his cabinet could not participate in such a wonderful activity, given that they are not using science as the basis for their decisions. I am talking here about the WA shark cull. The science is just not there to justify this cull. The Premier, who is aided and abetted by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Minister Hunt, has avoided any scrutiny of the shark cull. Mr Hunt gave an exemption to the cull without even doing an assessment of the impact of the cull and the drum lines that have been set off the metropolitan and South West beaches of Western Australia. I saw many of those on a trip I did to the South West at the end of last week and over the weekend.

The Premier has avoided the scientific reality that culls do not mitigate the so-called risk posed by sharks. Culls are ineffective in dealing with safety issues, but they are having a destructive impact on the shark population and the marine environment. Rather than seeking to learn more about the behaviour of sharks off WA beaches, the Premier has opted for a knee-jerk response that kills or maims marine life in an indiscriminate cull. To compound matters, Premier Barnett is not fulfilling his commitment to minimise the impact of the cull on sharks, particularly small sharks. The science needed to justify this approach is simply not there, but this seems irrelevant to the Premier who wanted an even more extreme approach by culling in the open seas. He even questioned whether the great white shark is a vulnerable species listed under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. This is a populist approach taken by the Premier, supported by the Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The great white is prevalent off the WA coast only from September to December, but the drum lines were put in from January until April. In other words, he wanted to be seen to be doing something, rather than taking a more considered scientific based approach.

Unfortunately, last week the WA EPA decided that it would not assess the proposal, despite 23,000 Western Australians asking them to assess it. The EPA said that the impact would not be significant. I will come back to that in a minute. But they did not consider whether this proposal would be effective in reducing shark bites. They did release the second batch of figures for the drum line strategy last week. Up to last week, 104 sharks had been caught. Of these 101 were tiger sharks and 30 of them were over three metres. In other words, 30 of them were directly destroyed. However, 40 were found dead in the line. We do not know the survival rate of the others that were released. I am tabling—and I know that I am not allowed to use props—a picture of a tiger shark that was released off the drum lines yesterday. It is bleeding quite extensively from a gash down its side caused by a hook. The likelihood of that shark surviving is doubtful, as is the likelihood of other sharks surviving. There were some media reports two weeks ago of a lady distressed by a shark that had been damaged by a hook through its head. Even though they have only recorded 40 tiger sharks dead, it is likely that there will be many more. A black- tipped shark and two Mako sharks were also reported to have been caught. Like great whites, the Mako is listed as a migratory species under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and so requires federal government protection. These sharks are being killed indiscriminately, despite the fact that tiger sharks are not implicated in any of the recent unfortunate deaths from shark attacks. It is quite clear that this policy will not take great white sharks, because they are only present seasonally. In other words, the government wanted to look as if they were doing something to reduce the risk of attacks and improve safety without any scientific basis.

The Queensland drum line policy is often quoted in support of the WA policy, but that Queensland policy has recently been assessed by Professor Jessica Meeuwig. She has said that two key questions need to be answered. First, is there clear evidence that drum lines reduce the number of human fatalities from sharks? Second, what is their cost in terms of killing marine life? Jessica and her colleagues analysed the publicly available figures for human fatalities in Queensland to provide an assessment of its effectiveness. Over more than half a century the program has taken a large toll on wildlife, while any increase they find in human safety is equivocal at best. There has been a significant decline in Queensland's rate of shark attack fatalities, but that had started 40 years before the drum lines were first deployed. There has been no further reduction in fatalities since the program began despite half a century of increasing drum line deployments.

In contrast to their contribution to human safety, the report finds that one thing they could be certain of is the drum lines' ecological cost. The most recent available data shows that Queensland caught some 6,250 sharks on drum lines between 2001 and 2013. That is an average of 480 animals per year. This included 35 different species, the most common being tiger sharks and then bull sharks and black tip reef whalers. White sharks, although considered a key target species in WA, represent less than one per cent of the Queensland catch, with about five caught per year. Only three per cent of the sharks killed on the Queensland drum lines are considered not to be a conservation risk. Based on this analysis, they concluded that shark related fatalities in Queensland have declined in both areas with and without drum lines, with the deepest rates of decline before their installation.

The effectiveness of drum lines is difficult to evaluate as the rates of attacks before and after the deployment are both very low. Moreover, 83 per cent of the drum lines are deployed at locations where a fatal attack had never occurred. The ecological cost of the drum lines is high, with 97 per cent of the sharks caught since 2001 considered to be at some level of conservation risk and 89 per cent caught in areas where no fatalities had occurred. In other words, please, Premier of Western Australia, stop quoting Queensland as an example of how drum lines work, because the evidence clearly shows that they do not. The same message to Mr Hunt: don't rely on those Queensland figures, because they do not work.

In Brazil they use a different approach, an approach that does work. I ask: why didn't the Premier and Minister Hunt look at Brazil for an example of what works when you are using drum lines? In Brazil they put them three kilometres out and use circle hooks that do not damage the sharks, so they are able to capture the white sharks on the drum lines because they are not damaged by the circular hooks. Then they take them further out to sea and they let them go. The tracking of those sharks shows that they just go on their migration routes. They do not kill them, and that has had a very high success rate. Where they have seen sharks in Brazil in the past, they have seen them where they have waste flowing out from rivers, highly contaminated water sources flowing out into the marine environment which sharks are attracted to.

In Western Australia why isn't the government looking much more closely at where the attacks have happened and what environmental influences or non-environmental influences, for example waste going into the water, have been associated with those attacks? In my trip down south I spoke to some of the locals and from their understanding they are not aware of that work being done and they have not been consulted on that sort of information. If you compare Brazil with what has happened in Hawaii, between 1959 and 1976 there were 4,500 sharks killed but there was no significant decrease in the shark bites recorded. So again you have got an unsuccessful program where they were killing sharks, they have not decreased the rate of attacks, whereas in Brazil, where they are using a much more sensitive and selective approach, they have had much more success.

That takes me to the point of what we should be doing to look at the impact of the perceived, because we do not know, increase in great white sharks off the Western Australian coast. We should be looking at what the alternatives are that are also being used overseas besides the Brazil example. There is better investment in research and better investment in understanding the marine environment.

Another issue that was raised with me by locals when I was in the South West is, for example, the increased crayfishing that is occurring there. Apparently great white sharks' favourite food is crustaceans. I saw this myself on the weekend. I could have swum out to the craypots from Yallingup beach. There are craypots there in the mornings just in front of the drum lines, which are just a kilometre off the coast. So not only do the sharks love crayfish, also in those pots we are putting 1.4 kilos of bait in each pot—not to mention the bait on the drum lines. Do you think that is going to be an attractant for sharks? I reckon it is. Why aren't we looking at this information? We are not. The knee-jerk reaction is to put drum lines in that attract the tiger sharks and the tiger sharks are the ones that are dramatically affected.

There is also a very good example from South Africa called shark spotters, where they have put in place a sophisticated approach to having people watching the beaches and using a set of flags that indicate when there is a great white shark. Since they introduced that approach on seven beaches there has been one fatality. Do you know why? Because that particular surfer went in the water when a flag indicating a great white shark was there and he was attacked. So here we have another successful program that does not involve killing these animals.

This is an indiscriminate cull of sharks because our Premier and the government of Western Australia had a knee-jerk reaction and because the Prime Minister and Minister Hunt decided they would aid and abet that to make it look as if they were doing something. The Minister for the Environment abrogated his responsibility for looking after great white sharks. He has abrogated his responsibility to look at the implementation of the conditions that were set on this proposal. He said that he agreed to the conditions that the WA government had imposed on itself. The WA government is not maintaining those conditions, because it is not minimising environmental harm to the sharks of Western Australia. The Minister for the Environment, who has the responsibility of protecting the environment and biodiversity, is not reviewing or monitoring the implementation of those conditions. It is time that the federal Minister for the Environment stepped up to the plate and said: 'This is enough. It has caused enough environmental damage. The conditions imposed on this cull are being broken.'

Over 104 sharks have now been impacted. That is totally unacceptable in the marine environment. The Prime Minister said two weeks ago that he wholeheartedly supported this cull. I say to the Prime Minister: think again; it is causing unacceptable damage. And I say to the Minister for the Environment: do your job, enforce the conditions, stop this cull.

I seek leave to table the document.

Leave granted.


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