Committee view and recommendations
Over the past century, the beach and beach culture has been an important
part of the Australian identity. Most of the country's population is located in
coastal regions, giving millions of Australians access to remarkable beaches.
In addition, popular beaches in these areas are a major drawcard for domestic
and international tourists. Going to the beach and the beach lifestyle is
generally enjoyable for all, however, there are dangers associated with
swimming and other ocean activities. One of these dangers, although a very
low probability, is the risk of a person being bitten by a shark.
Shark bite incidents are not unique to Australia, but it is apparent
that the risk of a human–shark interaction is generally greater in certain parts
of Australian waters than elsewhere. Several unprovoked shark encounters occur
each year. These events can cause serious and life-changing injuries and, in a
small number of cases, tragically, the people involved died.
The committee wishes to make clear that, in examining this subject, it understands
that it is dealing with terrible, traumatic events. The emotion attached to
this subject is evident from the evidence given by family members of victims of
fatal shark bites and the evidence taken by the committee during its first
public hearing in Perth, which coincidentally took place days after a young
Western Australian tragically died as the result of a shark bite incident. The
committee acknowledges that responders to shark bite incidents and others in
the local community can also be deeply affected.
In conducting this inquiry, the committee is seeking to make a valuable
contribution to the public debate on this important and controversial matter. Although
it is clear that there is widespread sympathy and a heightened sense of
community when fatal shark bites occur, this unity dissipates when whether, and
how, governments should respond to the risk of shark bites is debated. For
example, as this report has demonstrated, fiercely divergent views are held in
coastal communities on whether lethal shark control programs are an effective
response to the risk presented by dangerous species of sharks. Although shark
bites can understandably trigger emotional responses, there is a need for
policymakers across the country to consider how to respond to shark bites
objectively and critically, using an evidence-based approach. Diverging from
this practice is not in the public interest.
The risk of encountering a shark is rare and needs to be placed in
perspective. As has been observed in evidence received during this inquiry, the
number of shark bites should be considered in context. Millions of beach
visitations occur each year without incident, and drowning is far more likely
to be the source of a coastal fatality. Injuries and deaths from interactions
between humans and many other animals, such as farmyard animals, dogs and
kangaroos occur much more frequently than shark‑related incidents. The
number of deaths and injuries associated with shark bites is also greatly
outnumbered by the number of road deaths that occur across Australia (1300 in
2016). While all accidental deaths are tragic, and the committee is not arguing
one cause of death deserves greater attention than another does, it is relevant
that shark-related fatalities, injuries and near misses capture far greater
public and media attention than deaths linked to other aspects of life. This likely
influences community demands for action and decisions about how government
resources should be utilised.
With the limited resources available to governments, a tension exists between
the extent to which governments can intervene to enhance public safety and the
need for individuals to take personal responsibility for decisions made of
their own free will to participate in activities involving a known degree of
risk. In addition, governments need to consider the safety of particular
segments of the population that might have a different approach to or
understanding of risk, such as children and young people and visitors to
Australia's beaches who may not have grown up understanding the risks
associated with entering the ocean.
After conducting this inquiry, the committee is concerned that a
heightened fear of sharks has led to responses that may calm the public and
appear to provide an effective response, but which are not verified by scientific
evidence. That is, communities and governments may be attracted to lethal
measures as a simple solution to a complex problem, when a more sophisticated,
multifaceted approach is actually required. In particular, the committee is of
the view that the available evidence about the effectiveness of lethal shark
control measures (mesh nets and traditional drum lines) used in New South Wales
and Queensland does not warrant their continuation. The committee is concerned
that the existence of lethal measures and the government resources devoted to
their management provides the beach-going public with a false sense of
Logically, it follows that for every shark of a species known to be
dangerous to humans which is killed by a lethal measure, there is one less
shark that can harm a person swimming, surfing or diving in the ocean. It also
follows, therefore, that to guarantee public safety using lethal measures, all
dangerous sharks in coastal areas around Australia would need to be killed.
This is simply not practicable. The lethal shark control programs are
limited to certain parts of the coastline and, in places where lethal measures
are deployed, they do not separate humans and sharks. The most striking example
of this relates to the size of the shark nets, which range from only 150 to
180 metres in width. The nets may catch some dangerous and non-dangerous
sharks, along with vast quantities of other marine life, however, sharks can
swim around and under the nets. This is demonstrated by the 2009 review of the
New South Wales program, which noted that 23 shark encounters had occurred at
meshed beaches since the program began.
The committee understands and notes that when finalising this report such
an encounter occurred. On 13 November 2017, a surfer was bitten near the
lagoon at Avoca Beach on the Central Coast. Avoca is one of the beaches netted
between 1 September and 30 April each year under the New South Wales shark
The New South Wales and Queensland shark control programs have been
operating for decades, during which time medical responses have improved and
surf lifesaving and other beach surveillance has increased. Most netted
areas are near high population centres, where these various forms of beach surveillance
are in place. Compelling evidence was also given to the committee that 83 per
cent of drum lines in Queensland have been deployed at locations where fatal shark
bite incidents had not been recorded before the program commenced.
It also cannot be known whether a particular white, tiger or bull shark that
has been removed would have bitten a person and, therefore, whether the removal
has enhanced public safety. There are significant gaps in knowledge about the
triggers for shark encounters and, with the clear difficulties and ethical
issues involved in such research, questions about the causes of shark bite
incidents may not be answered. The very low number of shark fatalities
before and after lethal measures were introduced makes rigorous analysis difficult.
Simply put, however, any correlation between the deployment of lethal shark
measures and zero or low numbers of
human–shark encounters does not prove causation.
Although the effectiveness of lethal shark control measures for public
safety is difficult to evaluate, the significant damage to the marine
environment these measures cause by killing many non-dangerous species of
sharks and other marine species is clear. Passive fishing activities such as
nets do not target dangerous sharks specifically and entangle vast amounts of
In making this observation, the committee emphasises that it wants
to enhance the safety of the oceangoing public; the committee's consideration
of these impacts might differ if the lethal measures were clearly effective at
protecting beachgoers. However, measures that cannot be proven to have a
significant positive effect on public safety but which significantly damage the
environment and affect the structure of the marine ecosystem should not be permitted
to remain in place. Despite Australia's international obligations to conserve
migratory sharks and advances in scientific knowledge of the marine environment,
including about the importance of sharks for healthy oceans, the decades-long
New South Wales and Queensland shark control programs continue to escape
assessment under the Commonwealth's Environment Protection and Biodiversity
Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
This is simply because the programs predate the commencement of the Act.
Despite the many arguments and counterarguments that can be made about
the effectiveness of lethal measures, fundamentally, it is impossible to
determine whether there would have been a higher number of deaths if they were
not in place. Nevertheless, for the reasons outlined above, it can be concluded
that it is impossible for lethal shark control measures to guarantee public
safety. Relying on outdated approaches from the 1930s that are not backed by
science would not be tolerated in other areas of public safety. The committee,
therefore, is of the view that it is necessary to carefully consider the
effectiveness of alternative approaches.
The committee received detailed evidence about a wide range of
alternative approaches to shark management. These included eco barriers that,
unlike traditional shark nets, actually separate swimmers from sharks and may
be a suitable solution, which can be deployed now, for beaches where the
predominant activity is swimming. The committee also received evidence about
personal shark deterrent devices for surfers and divers, sonar technology and
various shark-spotting techniques. Further new technologies are currently
in development. Noting that different measures will be necessary for different
conditions and types of activities, the committee is not endorsing a particular
category of product over others: the committee expects that a successful shark
mitigation and deterrent strategy would feature a wide range of non‑lethal
Future of lethal shark control measures
In the committee's view, the use of lethal shark control measures in
Australia should end. The committee acknowledges that non-lethal measures are
not 100 per cent effective in preventing a shark bite incident from
occurring. However, the same observation applies to lethal devices. Evidence
presented to the committee regarding non‑lethal measures clearly
indicates that new and emerging technologies can provide effective protection
in many circumstances without causing the damage to the marine environment
associated with nets.
The committee recommends that the end of lethal measures should occur as
Traditional drum lines—these should immediately be replaced by
SMART drum lines, which differ from traditional drum lines in that they are not
designed or operated to kill sharks. Given the development and success of SMART
drum lines, the continued use of lethal drum lines cannot be justified.
Mesh nets—Rather than recommending the immediate end of mesh nets,
the committee is of the view that they should be phased out. Although the
committee does not support mesh nets, it acknowledges that there is a need to
build the public's understanding about the limitations of the lethal measures
and the effectiveness of non-lethal measures before the removal of nets gains
widespread public acceptance.
As lethal shark control programs involve matters of national
environmental significance protected under Commonwealth legislation, the
committee considers there is a role for the Australian Government in pursuing
the committee's recommendation to end the use of lethal shark control measures
at a future Meeting of Environment Ministers.
The committee recommends that the New South Wales and Queensland
immediately replace lethal drum lines with SMART drum lines; and
phase out shark meshing programs and increase funding and support
for the development and implementation of a wide range of non-lethal shark
mitigation and deterrent measures.
The committee further recommends that the Australian Government pursue
this recommendation at a future Meeting of Environment Ministers.
Building knowledge about sharks and shark management strategies
As noted above, to facilitate the phasing out of nets, there is a need
to build the public's understanding about sharks generally and the specific
lethal and non-lethal measures that can be used as shark mitigation and
deterrent measures. For example, the committee notes that there are many widespread
myths about shark behaviour. In addition, there is evidence that lethal
measures provide an important psychological benefit that has flow on effects
for local businesses and tourism activity— it is important that non-lethal measures have the same effect. Accordingly,
there is a clear role for governments to support research, develop or refine
public education efforts and to increase support for the development and
utilisation of effective non‑lethal measures. The remaining
recommendations of this report focus on how to enhance existing knowledge about
sharks and how to respond most effectively to the risk of human–shark encounters.
While lethal measures remain in place, the committee considers there is
a need to increase the scientific rigour and transparency associated with these
programs. Accordingly, the committee agrees with CSIRO's position, as put to
the committee during this inquiry, that there is a need for management
arrangements for lethal programs to require more effective catch monitoring and
for the programs to be underpinned by clear objectives and trigger points.
The committee notes that the New South Wales Government updated its
management plan for the shark meshing program in July 2017, which included
objectives, performance indicators and trigger points. However, the collection
of further data on the operation of the lethal devices would assist the public
debate on the effectiveness of the program; for example, whether sharks
entangled by mesh nets were caught on the beach-side or ocean-side of the net
is information that should be collected and made publicly available.
Regarding the Queensland shark control program, the committee considers
the Queensland Government should similarly publish a management plan that
commits to minimising the harm to marine life, particularly species protected
under the EPBC Act, as well as further relevant data about the operation
of the program.
There is also a need for a single source of reliable data on the bycatch
associated with lethal shark control programs. Although some data are published,
further historical data should be readily available to enable trend analysis
and greater effort should be made to ensure the data collected are reliable. To
address these issues, the committee recommends that the Australian Government
establish a national database of interactions involving shark control programs
that records interactions involving target and non-target species.
In addition to ensuring this information is promptly made publicly
available at regular intervals throughout the year, the committee considers
that the Australian Government should direct the Department of the Environment
and Energy to prepare and publish an annual assessment of the impacts of lethal
shark control measures on marine life. Given the Australian Government's
responsibilities regarding the protection of matters of national environmental
significance, the deaths and injuries of protected species linked to shark
control programs should be a particular focus of the database and annual
To facilitate the national database, the Australian Government will need
to require state governments to provide relevant data. In doing so, the
Australian Government should oblige state governments to improve the
reliability of the data collected, including through audits of information
provided by contractors involved in clearing nets and drum lines.
The committee recommends that, while state government lethal shark
control programs remain in place, management arrangements for these programs
should include more effective and transparent catch monitoring with the
objective of improving understanding of the efficacy of lethal measures for
public safety and the effects of the measures on the populations of marine
The committee recommends that the Australian Government:
establish a publicly accessible national database of target and
non-target species interactions with shark control measures; and
require the Department of the Environment and Energy to use this
information to prepare and publish an annual assessment of the impacts of
lethal shark control measures on target and non-target marine species.
The committee recommends that state governments review and regularly
audit the quality of the data collected on target and non-target species
interactions with shark control measures.
One area where there was some agreement between supporters and opponents
of lethal shark control measures is that further research is necessary to gain
a better understanding about sharks, particularly regarding their population,
behaviour, movement and breeding patterns. The committee notes that CSIRO, in a
partnership under the National Environmental Science Program, has been seeking
to address the lack of reliable white shark population estimates. Estimates on
white shark abundance are due for release soon and will assist the upcoming
review of the white shark recovery plan. Although it will be some time before
an estimate of trend in population can be established, the committee is hopeful
that the initial data on abundance will lead to a more informed debate about
Further knowledge about shark behaviour would clearly help inform the
development of effective shark management strategies and deterrent measures.
It is known that there are key differences between the species of sharks in
Australian waters that are dangerous to humans (white, bull and tiger sharks):
for example, the committee was advised that white sharks are visual
specialists, bull sharks rely on electro reception and tiger sharks utilise the
sense of smell. The committee considers these differences need to be taken into
account in shark management to a greater extent than is occurring at present,
and further research could assist in building understanding of what measures
may be successful at deterring particular species.
Given the states bear the direct costs of shark control measures and that
research outcomes would be of benefit to multiple jurisdictions, the committee
considers there is a role for the Australian Government to increase the support
it provides for shark‑related research. At a minimum, the committee
considers that the Australian Government should ensure CSIRO has the resources
necessary to undertake the potential areas for further investigation that CSIRO
identified during this inquiry. These areas, which were discussed in
Chapters 1 and 2, include:
ongoing data collection and monitoring to support the
determination of population trends;
development of a predictive model of shark abundance and
a social survey to determine how the behaviour of water users has
changed in response to recent human–shark interactions.
In addition, during this inquiry it became evident there are various
theories or concerns about activities that might attract sharks or otherwise
increase the risk of human–shark interactions. Among others, these concerns relate
to the use of teaser baits in cage diving, crayfish pots and trophy hunting.
It is clear that speculation about these theories shape views on whether
particular mitigation and deterrent measures are effective; however, there is a
lack of scientific evidence to determine whether these views have merit.
Although there would be clear value in obtaining research that can verify or
disprove these theories and inform policymaking as a result, the committee
acknowledges that there are ethical and practical difficulties in conducting
research that relates to human–shark interactions.
Accordingly, as an initial step, the committee recommends that the
Australian Government seek advice from CSIRO on whether research can be
undertaken to address anecdotal evidence presented to the committee on the
potential risks for human–shark interactions that may be associated certain
ocean-based activities. The Australian Government should then review the
funding provided for marine science research to enable CSIRO (or another
research institution) to conduct the research CSIRO advises could be
The committee recommends that the Australian Government establish a
review into the effectiveness of shark research and, following the review,
commit to providing funding on a long-term basis for research areas that are
considered likely to significantly contribute to improved knowledge about
effective shark mitigation and deterrent measures.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government review the
funding provided to CSIRO to enable CSIRO to:
undertake ongoing data collection and monitoring to support the
determination of white shark population trends;
develop a predictive model of shark abundance and location; and
undertake a social survey to determine how the behaviour of water
users has changed in response to the recent human–shark interactions.
The committee further recommends that the Australian Government seek
advice from CSIRO as to whether research can be undertaken to address anecdotal
evidence presented to the committee on the potential risk that certain
ocean-based activities, such as the use of teaser baits in cage diving, crayfish
pots and trophy hunting, might increase the risk of human–shark interactions.
The Australian Government should review the funding provided for marine
science research to enable CSIRO (or another research institution) to conduct
the research CSIRO advises could be undertaken.
To improve scientific understanding of shark behaviour and to assist evaluations
of the effectiveness of non‑lethal devices, the committee also considers
there is a need to consider how information on shark bite incidents is used.
It is possible that shark bite incidents yield valuable information on the
intent of the shark involved; that is, whether the shark involved in the bite
incident was, to use the terms commonly used during this inquiry, 'curious' or in
'full attack mode'. The committee notes the concerns among stakeholders
and in the community that, at present, personal deterrent devices will not
prevent incidents involving a shark that is determined to attack.
The collection of information at a clinical level for subsequent expert
interpretation would likely be useful for better understanding shark behaviour.
It could also assist in assessing the effectiveness of personal deterrent
devices. Although the collection of this information is in the public interest,
the committee acknowledges that this information is linked to traumatic events
and the rights of the individual and their families need to be considered.
Accordingly, the committee recommends that the Australian, state and Northern
Territory governments consider how information on shark bite incidents can be collected
and centrally reported with a view to enhancing knowledge about shark
behaviour, provided that the information can be collected respectfully and, in
the case of fatalities, that family and cultural concerns are considered.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government initiate
discussions with state and Northern Territory governments regarding the clinical
information collected about shark bite incidents to enable subsequent expert
analysis of shark behaviour.
Supporting the transition to non-lethal mitigation and deterrent measures
The committee supports the development of effective, scientifically
tested, non-lethal shark mitigation and deterrent measures. Such measures provide
swimmers, surfers and divers with protection without causing damage to the
marine environment. Non-lethal measures are cost-effective and enable individuals
to take personal responsibility for their safety. In addition, the committee
considers that an economic opportunity exists in that Australia could be a
world leader in the development and commercialisation of new technologies. Governments
need to provide a supportive environment so this opportunity can be realised.
The committee notes that state governments have backed certain trials of
new technologies, however, the degree of interest and willingness to back such
trials varies. Although there is evidence of Australian ingenuity and
innovation at work, the committee is concerned by the possibility that new
technology may need to be taken overseas to be commercialised. The Australian
Government could perform a greater role in this area. In particular, the
Australian Government could assist by matching funding committed by state
governments to the trialling and development of non‑lethal measures,
which in turn would enable state governments to support a wider range of trials
or facilitate trials that are more extensive.
To ensure the amount of funding provided is appropriate, the committee
suggests that the Australian Government seek advice about funding requirements,
if necessary from a consultant with expertise in shark management.
Specifically, the advice should consider the amounts spent by state governments
on various shark management activities and provide an estimate of the quantum
of funding from the Australian Government necessary for supporting the
objective of ending lethal measures.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government match funding
provided by state governments in support of the development of new and emerging
shark mitigation and deterrent measures.
As the above recommendations indicate, the committee supports a transition
from lethal shark control measures to effective non-lethal measures. There is a
range of non-lethal measures that can, and should, be considered as part of a
comprehensive strategy for promoting public safety. However, the committee
considers that an impediment to a successful transition from lethal to non‑lethal
measures is ensuring consumer confidence in the personal deterrent product
category. The committee is concerned that the marketplace for personal
deterrent devices includes products that have not been subject to independently
verified scientific testing.
When buying a safety product, consumers expect that the product will be
effective. An attractive feature of personal deterrent devices from a
policymaking perspective is that they enable individuals to take personal responsibility
for the risks they take. Governments have a duty to ensure there is appropriate
information available so that individuals can make informed decisions. The
committee urges the Australian Government to support consumers by establishing
an appropriate framework to encourage the commercialisation and take up of
reliable products that consumers can trust.
Furthermore, in light of the evidence received during this inquiry about
the effectiveness of personal deterrent devices, the committee questions why
some key organisations are reluctant to endorse this category of products.
Scientific testing has concluded that the use of a particular product in an
environment with a high number of white sharks resulted in the probability
of a shark bite falling from 90 per cent to 16 per cent. Other studies
similarly support the conclusion that the use of a certain personal deterrent
device reduces the risk of shark bite. The committee is aware that other
products are also undergoing independent scientific testing.
It follows that a significant reduction in the risk of shark bite does
not mean the risk is eliminated. In the committee's view, however, it is
unreasonable to withhold support for personal deterrent devices on the basis
that they do not eliminate the risk of shark bite for divers and surfers when,
at present, no measure will eliminate this risk.
As with many other adventurous activities, diving and surfing are
associated with some degree of risk. By choosing to undertake these activities,
the individual accepts this. Nevertheless, there are steps that can be taken to
reduce the risk, including by using an effective personal shark deterrent
product. The available evidence indicates that, overall, users of independently
verified personal deterrent devices will be at a significantly lower risk of
shark bite than they would be if they were not using the device. Provided that
users understand the remaining risk, this evidence should be sufficient for
relevant stakeholders to promote this product category among their members.
The committee hopes that such action may avoid a tragic shark bite
incident which could have been avoided had the individual involved been using
an effective personal deterrent product.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government develop a
process to ensure products marketed as personal shark deterrent devices are
independently verified as being fit-for-purpose.
The committee recommends that the Minister for the Environment and
Energy and relevant state governments work with key stakeholder groups, such as
national surfing organisations, to encourage water users to take all reasonable
steps to reduce the probability of being involved in a shark bite incident,
including by endorsing the use of independently verified personal deterrent
On the evidence available, the committee supports the Western Australian
Government's trial rebate program for independently verified personal deterrent
devices. The committee recommends that all state governments with shark
management programs consider initiatives to support the take up of new,
effective approaches to public safety, including rebate programs for independently
verified personal shark deterrent devices.
The committee recommends that the Western Australian Government's trial
rebate program for independently verified personal deterrent devices be made
ongoing in Western Australia and adopted by other relevant state governments.
The committee further recommends that relevant state governments
consider developing programs for subsidising independently verified personal
deterrent devices for occasional surfers at beaches associated with the risk of
dangerous shark encounters.
National cooperation and coordination
Although state governments are most directly involved in shark
management, the committee considers all levels of government have a role.
Importantly, the committee considers that the Australian Government has a
national leadership role in providing funding support for research and trials
of new measures, as well as ensuring that consumers are informed when
purchasing safety products. The Australian Government can also facilitate the
sharing of knowledge from its research agencies and between jurisdictions, and
can encourage the use of best practice management strategies. There is a need
to ensure that knowledge about successful shark management strategies is shared
effectively and that all jurisdictions have access to the latest expert advice.
Accordingly, the committee considers there is a need for a National Shark
Summit of shark experts from around the world, with the summit to be chaired by
the Minister for the Environment and Energy.
In recommending a national shark summit, the committee is cognisant that
the New South Wales Government hosted a shark summit in 2015. However, the
committee considers there will be key differences between the summits. In
particular, as the issue of human–shark bites is relevant to several states,
and state governments have taken different approaches to the issue, a national
summit would provide an opportunity for these varying approaches and lessons
learnt in particular jurisdictions to be shared and assessed. A national summit
would also facilitate the involvement of the Australian Government. This is
appropriate for two reasons:
first, the Australian Government has an established role in protecting
matters of national environmental significance; and
secondly, given the various statements made by the Minister for
the Environment and Energy throughout 2017 about sharks, there appears to be
acceptance of the Australian Government's emerging role in shark management
To ensure the results of the summit influence and are reflected in
management strategies and government policies, and that there is an ongoing
commitment to pursuing best practice shark management strategies following the
summit, the committee further recommends that a National Shark Stakeholder
Working Group be established. The Working Group should comprise senior Australian,
state and Northern Territory government officials from relevant areas
(environment, fisheries, and parks and wildlife services agencies),
representatives of local government, scientific experts, surf lifesaving organisations
and other relevant groups.
The committee envisages that, using the evidence gathered during this
inquiry and the findings of the National Shark Summit, the Working Group would
seek to develop a national risk management plan for sharks and an integrated
approach to the development, promotion and use of a wide range of effective
non-lethal measures. Practical advice to promote the use of non-lethal shark
management strategies should be developed; for example, the committee considers
that one impediment to the establishment of shark spotting programs is the lack
of guidance available about suitable locations for these programs and how
communities can establish successful programs.
The committee considers that the Working Group would also assist the
Australian Government in developing strategies to address other recommendations
of this report, such as the recommendation relating to the effectiveness of ensure
products marketed as personal shark deterrent devices are independently
verified as being fit-for-purpose.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government hold a National
Shark Summit of shark experts.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government establish a
National Shark Stakeholder Working Group comprising key stakeholders in shark
management policies. The principal function of the Working Group would be to
further the objective of ending lethal shark control programs by developing
strategies and facilitating information sharing about the effective use of non‑lethal
Other practical actions
During this inquiry, Dr Sharon Burden advised the committee that no
signs are in place at the beach where her son died to warn beachgoers of past
shark bite incidents and the continued risk. The committee shares Dr Burden's
concerns about the lack of adequate signage and similarly questions why lethal
measures are proposed when basic approaches such as public information
strategies have not been pursued. In addition, although knowledge about previous
shark incidents may help local residents to stay safe, this information should
be readily available for the benefit of visitors to the area.
The committee considers the following approaches should be pursued as a
matter of priority:
adequate warning and information signage to be installed at beaches
known to have a heightened risk of shark bite incidents;
specialised trauma kits for responding to shark bite incidents to
be made available at venues near beaches; and
state governments to review (or introduce as necessary) education
programs at schools in coastal areas on reducing the risk of shark interactions
and improving knowledge about sharks, including by addressing myths about shark
behaviour and educating about the important role of sharks in healthy marine
The committee also notes that there are various social media accounts
and apps intended to distribute information about sharks and shark sightings,
including those operated by state governments, surf lifesaving organisations
and the Dorsal community shark reporting app. The committee supports the
provision of real-time information about shark sightings. However, the
committee questions whether the current arrangements of multiple platforms is
the most effective means for disseminating information about sharks. One reliable,
national source of information, provided it could be tailored to local
conditions, would: be easier to promote (thus maximising the number of
users); assist beachgoers who travel interstate; and allow for greater
economies of scale. The committee considers there would be merit in the
National Working Group considering whether an integrated national shark database
and app would be a more effective use of available resources.
The committee further considers there is a need for the information
provided through apps about shark sightings and shark risk updates to be
readily available at beaches. The committee notes the evidence that online apps
are not always accessible to beachgoers and that checking these apps may not be
at the forefront of beachgoers' minds. In addition, this information is
necessary to support the safety of visitors to the area who may be unaware of social
media accounts and apps that distribute shark safety alerts.
The committee recommends that the National Shark Stakeholder Working
Group review the adequacy of information available to beachgoers regarding the
risk presented by sharks, such as signage at beaches and how real‑time
information provided through shark alert apps can be made available at beaches.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government, working with
relevant state governments, develop a program to provide grants for specialised
trauma kits at venues near beaches associated with the risk of human–shark
The committee recommends that relevant state governments review the
water safety education programs and education about sharks generally that is
provided in schools (particularly schools in coastal areas), with a view to
enhancing the education provided on reducing the risk of shark interactions and
improving knowledge about shark behaviour and the ecological value of sharks.
As part of these reviews, the committee recommends that state
governments consider the role that relevant community and scientific
organisations with expertise in human–shark encounters could have in supporting
the delivery of such programs.
The committee recommends that the National Shark Stakeholder Working Group
review the various social media accounts and apps that distribute real-time
information about shark sightings and warnings about the risk of shark activity
to consider whether an integrated national database and app should be
As this report has established, lethal measures present a significant
threat to non-target marine life, including endangered species. During the
committee's public hearing at Byron Bay, the committee received evidence
indicating that animal welfare could be improved if communication between the
New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and animal rescue groups
was strengthened. While lethal measures remain in place, the committee urges
the DPI to review its engagement with animal rescue groups to improve rescue
and rehabilitation outcomes for non-target animals.
The committee recommends that the New South Wales Department of Primary
Industries improve its consultation and communication with animal rescue groups
regarding marine wildlife caught in or injured by lethal shark control
Application of the EPBC Act
Another issue of concern to the committee is that state governments have
been permitted to conduct trials of lethal shark control measures targeting
protected species without the trials requiring assessment and approval under
the EPBC Act. Under section 158 of the EPBC Act, an exemption to undergo
assessment and approval under the EPBC Act may be granted by the Minister for
the Environment and Energy if the Minister is satisfied that to do so is in the
Section 158 of the EPBC Act is rarely used, but exemptions have been
granted more frequently in recent years, including in relation to shark control
programs. The relevant Minister has granted an exemption on both occasions when
the introduction of a new lethal shark control program has been proposed (for
the Western Australian program in 2014 and for the New South Wales north coast
trial in 2016). These decisions have attracted controversy. The use of section
158 on 'national interest' grounds in relation to sharks is contrary to good
environmental management: it is particularly telling that despite the
exemption granted for the Western Australian program in 2014, the Western
Australian Environmental Protection Authority ultimately determined that the
proposal should not be implemented.
Moreover, as a general principle the committee is concerned about the
increased use of a discretionary power based on the Minister's interpretation
of the 'national interest' where the matters the Minister may consider in
determining the national interest are not prescribed or limited in any way. The
committee does not consider that the desire to trial lethal shark control
measures can be justified on national interest grounds. These measures should
be subject to the regular EPBC Act assessment and approval process.
The October 2017 decision by the Minister to exempt the New South
Wales north coast trial for an additional two years is also of concern to the
committee. The effect of this second exemption is that the north coast
trial of nets will operate for three years without assessment and approval under
the EPBC Act being required. This is despite data collected by the DPI
demonstrating clearly that the SMART drum lines used in the trial area target
the species of sharks known to present a risk to humans far more effectively,
and do so with minimal impacts on threatened species and the marine environment
The committee is of the strong view that use of the section 158 exemption power
to exempt the same, or similar, activity repeatedly is a significant flaw in
the EPBC Act that needs to be addressed.
Given the use of section 158 to exempt new shark control measures from
assessment, the committee considers there are clear grounds for this provision
to be reviewed and for the provision to not be used for shark control measures
until such a review has taken place. As the committee has considered section
158 in the context of shark-related matters only, the committee is not
recommending amendments to section 158; for sound policymaking there is a need
for section 158 to be reviewed as part of a process that enables broad
consultation and considers how the provision applies across a wider range of
activities. The committee is of the view that the next independent review of
the EPBC Act would provide such an opportunity.
In light of the repeated use of section 158 exemptions for lethal shark
control programs, the committee recommends that the next independent review of
the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
carefully consider whether section 158 is operating as intended. In particular,
the committee recommends that the independent review consider:
whether the matters the Minister may consider in determining the
national interest should be limited; and
whether section 158 should be amended to prohibit the repeated
granting of exemptions for the same controlled action or any other controlled
action of a similar nature.
The committee recommends that the Minister for the Environment and
Energy refrain from granting exemptions under section 158 of the Environment
Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 for matters relating to
shark control programs until after the operation of section 158 has been
reviewed in accordance with Recommendation 19.
Role of the media
Finally, some of the media coverage given to shark bite incidents over
recent years is of great concern to the committee. The attention shark bite
incidents receive from the Australian media greatly exceeds the coverage given
to most other events causing death or injury. To some extent this is
understandable: shark bites occur in an environment where humans are vulnerable
and have a limited ability to respond. As predators known to cause human
fatalities, sharks also trigger a primal fear.
Reporting of shark bite incidents is important for keeping the public
informed about incidents in their community and sharks generally. In the
committee's view, however, shark incidents in Australia have in recent years
received disproportionate and sensationalised levels of press coverage. Shark
bites are not unique to Australia, yet how they are reported here appears to
differ dramatically from how shark bites are reported in other countries, such
as the United States. Fatalities and serious injuries require coverage;
however, at present even close encounters are front-page news. Although the
committee understands the fear such encounters cause to the individuals
involved, sensationalised media reporting is problematic for supporting
responsible and respectful public debate on shark issues and for the public
perception of beach safety generally.
Media reporting has consequences—emotive reporting without scientific
evidence encourages 'solutions' that are not backed by science and have
questionable efficacy. Intense media interest also has consequences for the
victims; for example, during this inquiry the committee received evidence about
methods used in preparing these reports, such as one instance where a
photographer climbed a tree outside of a hospital to photograph a shark bite
victim. Criticism of headline-grabbing, sensationalised media reporting on
shark bite incidents was widespread, including from shark bite victims and
their families, shark scientists, social science researchers, local
governments, environmental groups and the tourism industry. Importantly, when
asked about the role of the media in educating the public, a journalist who
writes about sharks acknowledged that whether the media would take up this role
depends on whether it is commercially viable to do so. This reinforces the need
for governments to ensure the public can obtain reliable information and the
preceding recommendations in this report are directed toward this aim.
It is not the role of this committee to dictate to the media what they
can report and how they should report it—the committee strongly supports and
defends a free press. However, as the media can have a powerful influence
on how people's attitudes to matters of public interest are shaped, the
committee urges media organisations to consider how they report shark‑related
events to ensure these matters are, all things considered, covered responsibly.
Senator Peter Whish-Wilson
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