Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 December 2013



7:50 pm

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

Tonight I want to talk about sharks. I am an avid ocean user as is my partner, who has surfed his entire life—and probably has gills. As such, I am not an outsider to this issue. The reason I hold the marine portfolio is that I love the marine environment. I am never as happy as when I am near the ocean or in the ocean.

The recent shark attacks and the recent debate about sharks are touching very close to home. However, I do not believe it is the time for knee-jerk reactions, and calls for culls of sharks will not help us understand our shark populations or protect our community. Despite their fearsome reputation, sharks are marine animals with whom we share the ocean and are part of the marine ecosystem. The loss of human lives is tragic and my heart goes out to those that have lost loved ones. Having recently suffered a loss of a loved one in sudden and horrific circumstances, I can understand some of what these people and their families are going through. However, there is nothing to suggest that sharks are deliberately going near populated beaches to specifically prey on humans.

We know very little about sharks. If there are more shark contacts and if more sharks are using our coastal zones, why? Is it a simple response to the use of our oceans by more people, as was suggested by researchers in WA today? A simple increase in numbers is unlikely given their slow reproductive rate and response. We do not know what the drivers of increased occurrences are—if that is, in fact, what is happening.

There is now an urgent need to research the links between increased inshore shark presence and pressures such as ocean warming. More research and monitoring is the only way that we can understand shark behaviour and reduce the likelihood of encountering one when we enter the water. While there is still insufficient information for us to draw any firm conclusions about shark behaviour, changes in their behaviour are beginning to be linked to ocean warming, through research such as the Marine climate change in Australia: impacts and adaptation responses: 2009 report card and recent South African research which shows that that there have been more shark sightings during warmer water years, particularly of female sharks of certain sizes.

As we know, climate change has led to increased acidification of the ocean and changes to the ocean currents. This has raised the temperature of the ocean and profoundly affected marine ecosystems. This impacts not only humans—although a lot of climate change discussion is around impacts on humans—but also our marine ecosystems. It is already changing where fish species are, and there is nothing to say that it is not impacting on sharks as a response to other changes in marine ecosystems. Clearly, we need to better understand the pressures that climate shocks, warming waters and diminished fish stocks have on shark behaviour, population and distribution in our oceans. The information obtained from shark research and monitoring is invaluable not only for protecting threatened species but also for increasing public safety.

Shark research generally involves electronic tagging of sharks so that their movements can be tracked and interpreted. The Western Australian research to date has also included monitoring information from receivers; studying the impact of changes in fisheries management on shark numbers; exploring correlations between shark sightings and factors like water temperature, prey abundance, whale movements, weather, time of day and time of year; and reviewing research on the effectiveness of shark mitigation strategies like beach netting.

Western Australia has refined its active transmitting receiver system so that if a tagged white shark is detected by the receiver an SMS message is automatically sent to public safety authorities such as police, surf lifesavers and local councils. This enables nearby beaches to be temporarily closed, helping to keep swimmers and surfers safe. CSIRO has also been investigating the feasibility of an app to provide information about the location of tagged white sharks in Australian waters. Unfortunately, while the work that Western Australia is doing is world leading, it cannot extend across the whole coast and not all of the technology is robust enough to be rolled out at all of WA's popular surfing spots. Also, some surfers actively seek out isolated areas where there is not too much human activity and other surfers. However, as a result of what has already been rolled out, a much better picture of our shark population is emerging which will help us develop ways to keep our communities safer and more alert to the risks.

Research needs to be consistent and long running in order to be effective. We should be investing more rather than less in our shark research, and I must admit I am concerned about the reduced investment in research funding. This is one of the key areas that we need to be looking at. The only way we can understand any changes that may be occurring in shark populations and behaviour in response to ocean warming, climate change and other impacts on our marine environment is to study them. We need to better understand what the impacts are and if there are more interactions, and that is yet to be established. If there are more interactions, what is driving them? We do not believe that calls to amend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to remove white sharks as a protected species is a viable solution, and nor is widespread culling, given the enormous distances that sharks travel and the difficulty we already have in locating sharks that have been tagged. Culling will not address this issue. We need a much deeper, well-thought-out approach. We need to know the drivers of increased interaction and we need to know whether they are in fact coming closer to our coasts. Culling will not address those issues. There have been a number of statements lately by researchers who have been researching sharks, and that is their opinion too. In fact, there was another article in today's media about research in Western Australia that points out that culling will not solve this issue.

We need to understand not only sharks but also the marine environment in which they live. We believe that better understanding the drivers and finding ways to minimise the risks for those who do love the oceans and want to use the oceans will help us address this. We need to look at and properly solve this issue and not make kneejerk decisions that will not solve the issue. The marine environment is an amazing environment, and that includes all the pieces of that environment—all the elements that make it up. Taking out top predators from this environment will also cause other changes to our marine environment. Those using the water and the marine environment generally understand these risks and that is why most of the families of those who have lost loved ones say: 'Please don't cull'. That is our call to government: please fund research, but do not change the status of white sharks. They are protected for a reason; because their numbers have been diminishing.