As It Happens

Australian lawmaker wants to end shark net program, says it's killing marine animals

Australian authorities installed nets along one coast in an effort to save people from sharks but Greens MP Justin Field says the mesh ends up killing hundreds of other marine animals in the process.
Justin Field says shark nets are killing turtles and other threatened species of marine animals that are inadvertently ensnared in the mesh. (TARIK TINAZAY/AFP/Getty Images)

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In New South Wales Australia, authorities have tried to solve the problem of human-shark interactions by installing long shark nets along the coast of some beaches. Now, a new report shows that hundreds of threatened species of marine animals are entangled in the nets.
Justin Field is a Green party MP in New South Wales. He thinks it's time to phase out shark nets because of their devastating effects on marine life. (Justin Field/Facebook)

Justin Field is an MP with Australia's Greens Party. He thinks it's time to phase out the netting program. He spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the false sense of security the nets give beachgoers and the devastating effect on marine life. Here is part of their conversation.

Helen Mann: Mr. Field, how are these shark nets supposed to work?

Justin Field: Basically you've got a 150 metre long net — quite a traditional gill net — that's strung up about 500 metres offshore from 50 beaches in the metropolitan area of New South Wales. The idea, originally, was that they were supposed to stop sharks from forming territories, not to prevent them from accessing the beach and swimmers and surfers. But we now know that sharks aren't territorial so there's real question marks about the efficacy of the meshing program and its ability to keep people safe because, of course, the beaches are much longer than 150 metres and sharks easily swim over and around the nets.

HM: So that's the intention, besides your concern about the efficacy of them, what's the other problem?

JF: They cause a huge amount of collateral damage on the marine environment — on marine animals. I'm talking about turtles, dolphins, non-lethal sharks of which we have many in Australia, and stingrays, in particular. Hundreds are killed every year and in the last 12 months we've seen a dramatic spike in the number of marine animals captured and killed in the nets. These are the animals that we enjoy sitting on the beach and watching.
(Justin Field/Facebook)

HM: Is there any indication why they are catching more of these creatures recently?

JF: No and science has been a bit unclear about that. I think some people would argue that we are seeing a restoration of the health of our marine environment. Generally, we are better at protecting the water from pollution. We've controlled fishing levels. So I think that's part of the story. But we do know now the raw numbers that are being killed and it's quite traumatic.  
Swimmers beware is the message of this sign, shown on Balmoral Beach in Sydney, Australia. (GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

HM: You mentioned a number of the species of animals — are any of them considered to be at risk?

JF: Absolutely. A large percentage of the animals that are caught and killed are either threatened or protected species. I understand that people are fearful of great white sharks but they are a protected species in Australia. For the first time, I've seen some nets on our northern beaches up near Byron Bay after a couple of shark bites up there last year, and a couple of deaths unfortunately. But the community are really concerned. It's a very well-known marine habitat. The dolphins are plentiful. The turtles are plentiful. In the first month of the netting program up there 12 animals were killed, including a highly endangered green turtle and one of the favourite bottle-nosed dolphins up there.
Children play on a shark net at Little Manly Cove, Australia as shark experts assess cutting-edge technologies to counter attacks. (WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)

JF: I won't deny the fact that there is a very legitimate concern and fear amongst the community on the north coast. There was a string of bites and science is unclear about why we had that spate over the last 24 months. But we know there are non-lethal approaches to shark management that do work to keep people safe.

HM: We know governments are always looking for the most cost effective options. These efforts would be cheaper you think than the netting program?

JF: I think with the scale of the netting program now, yes it would. I think partly this is a public relation exercise. It looks good when there's helicopters in the sky running surveillance programs. Boats are out on the water and the nets are being deployed. People have that sense of safety but it's a false sense of security and it's coming at a pretty high cost that could be redirected, I think, much more effectively. You aren't guaranteed safety. It is guaranteeing we're going to kill our marine life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Justin Field.

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