Communique 11 and 18 September 2020

The Shark Control Program (SCP) Scientific Working Group met on 11 and 18 September 2020.

The Working Group noted Al Grundy's recent election as a councillor to the Whitsunday Regional Council and that he can no longer participate as a Working Group member. The Working Group wished to acknowledge and thank Mr Grundy for his contribution over the last 12 months.

The Working Group also noted an update from Fisheries Queensland that the Terms of Reference are under review to provide a State-wide focus to the Working Group. This process is expected to be completed in late 2020 or early 2021, in consultation with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to ensure the SCP continues to meet its permit conditions.

The Working Group received an update on Marine Animal Release Team (MART) activities in 2020. MART have responded to 5 entanglements involving 6 whales this year. This included 3 incidents in nets on the Gold Coast and 2 incidents involving drumlines at North Stradbroke Island. Learnings from the incidents identified that drumline entanglements present substantial work health safety challenges for the MART team. The Working Group noted that whale acoustic alarms have now been installed on drumlines (previously only used on nets) since these incidents, and North Stradbroke Island will be included in the proposed circle hook trial, with the aim of reducing interactions.

NSW Fisheries provided an update on their program. The NSW Government is investing $8 million in shark mitigation, including the traditional shark netting program; funding for Surf Life Saving NSW to continue and expand drone surveillance; SMART drumlines, including an upgrade to listening stations; and community education. NSW Fisheries is also planning a community and council engagement program regarding local shark mitigation options.

The Working Group received an update on shark bite mitigation in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP). This included an update on the federal government's commitment of $4 million for the GBRMP and $1 million to assist in shark management in the Whitsundays that has now been formalised. It was also noted that Fisheries Queensland will commence detailed scoping for a SMART drumline trial in the GBRMP, at the end of 2020, for implementation in 2021.

The Working Group noted the discussion at the Whitsundays sub-group meeting on 7 September 2020 on the upcoming SharkSmart campaign, signage, drone trials and ongoing research in this area. Whitsundays sub-group members discussed their interest in the use of personal deterrent technologies. Fisheries Queensland advised that they will re-engage with experts, to discuss opportunities for options to be presented to local tourism operators. The Working Group also discussed fish aggregating devices (FADs). Fisheries Queensland confirmed that a permit application had been submitted for the installation of FADs at multiple locations in the Marine Park, including the Whitsundays. Fisheries Queensland advised the FADs were not part of the Shark Control Program. GBRMPA confirmed that the FADs permit application was under assessment.

The Working Group also noted that shark tagging by SCP contractors in the GBRMP commenced in February 2020, in accordance with GBRMP permit conditions. Fisheries Queensland also advised that letters were sent to councils in March 2020 to gauge interest in a trial installation of a shark barrier. Given the impacts of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it is understandable that this is unlikely to be their highest priority. Fisheries Queensland have committed to re-engaging with councils and to advise Working Group members of the outcome so they can support discussions at a local level.

Fisheries Queensland provided a presentation on the SharkSmart education program that will run over the summer period. The campaign includes content across a range of communication channels. Post-campaign research will be undertaken to evaluate the effectiveness of the campaign and inform ongoing improvements. The Working Group also discussed shark warning signage and noted that while there is no clear evidence about how long a site remains a higher risk, there are opportunities for a mixture of proactive and reactive signage. In particular opportunities this includes for a more coordinated approach to signage about a range of marine risks (e.g. stingers, crocodiles, sharks).

Agri-Science Queensland presented on the SharkSmart Drone Trial that has commenced in South East Queensland, in partnership with Surf Life Saving Queensland. Benefits of using drones include that this is a non-lethal measure; drones are cost-effective (compared with helicopters); they provide real-time monitoring of beaches under surveillance; and they generally have a high level of community support. The use of drones would also support lifesavers and lifeguards, enabling them to take necessary action in response to any sightings at patrolled beaches. The Working Group noted that the key objectives of the trial are to:

  • use drones to proactively detect sharks at popular swimming beaches in South East Queensland (SEQ) and warn beach-goers in real time of potential threats
  • test the capability of Artificial Intelligence (AI) integrated into drone software to detect and distinguish shark species at varied depths, water and weather conditions in South East Queensland
  • monitor and record data about shark species, size and behaviour detected through drone monitoring.

Locations have been chosen based on the following criteria:

  • avoiding beaches located in restricted airspace
  • including beaches with high numbers of visitation, based on Surf Life Saving Queensland statistics
  • achieving a spread of drone monitoring across SEQ
  • locations close to river mouths
  • locations where higher catch of sharks has occurred in the past, especially of bull sharks.

A dedicated website will show the schedule and locations of drone monitoring. The Working Group discussed operational issues associated with the use of drones for shark spotting both as part of the trial and for use during an incident response. It was noted that a number of beaches on the Gold and Sunshine coast are excluded from the trial due to being in airport exclusion zones and Greenmount Beach is also located in the airport exclusion zone. SLSQ provided advice on their experience in applying for CASA approvals for limited use of drones in these areas.

Working Group members reiterated their support for the trial, but cautioned that there was an ongoing need to promote personal responsibility and SharkSmart messages, as the risk of shark bite cannot be removed. The Working Group noted that expansion of this trial into the GBRMP would likely occur outside of stinger season, during winter 2021, following evaluation of the trial in SEQ.

The Working Group discussed a number of recent shark bites including the fatal shark bite at Greenmount on 8 September 2020. A range of anecdotal information from various community sources about environmental conditions at the time of these incidents was noted and may have contributed to a higher level of risk including dark water, time of day, presence of bait fish and diving birds. The Working Group was advised that there had been no catch in SCP equipment in the North Kirra to Greenmount locations leading up to the most recent incident. However, a number of target shark species were caught immediately after, which may be indicative of a change in environmental conditions that increased the presence of sharks in the area.

Group members provided advice about the relationship between white shark prevalence and the humpback whale migration. Members advised that whilst there was no scientific evidence to suggest a causative link between migrating white sharks and migrating whales there is strong evidence to suggest that sharks are attracted to whale carcasses and appropriate management of carcasses is important for human safety. Water temperature may be a strong driver of white shark movement and migration.

The Working Group noted, in relation to the Greenmount incident, that drones may not have been effective, given the environmental conditions and time of day, nor were they a viable option as the incident occurred in a location where the airport exclusion zone would apply. The Working Group did not provide any recommendations for specific actions to reduce risk of shark bites. However, the working Group did agree that the value of collecting accurate incident information, including identifying the likely species responsible (even if unconfirmed), would enable analysis of trends and more informed decision making. The NSW Fisheries process for collating this information was discussed, noting the need for sensitivity around engagement with people following an incident.

It was noted that the day after the fatal shark bite incident, people were back in the water at the same location where schools of bait fish were still reported to be present. It was noted that extensive market research was conducted to inform the development of the SharkSmart campaign. The research identified that there was a group of people who were either willing to accept the risk or believed it would not happen to them. Fisheries Queensland advised that post-campaign research will be conducted to evaluate the campaign’s effectiveness and this would be used to inform improvements to messaging. Members discussed box jellyfish management, noting that you can’t manage the animals in the ocean but you can influence human behaviour through science-based education. SLSQ also advised that their education activities aim to influence the behaviour of people to swim between the flags at patrolled beaches throughout Queensland.

The Working Group discussed the use of real-time acoustic receivers as a shark bite mitigation measure. It was noted that shark tagging and tracking provides valuable information about shark movements, but these sharks are only a small proportion of the entire shark population. It was noted that the use of fibre optics for receiving acoustic signals may be trialled in the future and could provide more cost-effective tracking capabilities.

It was acknowledged that the Working Group supported a trial replacement of nets with drumlines during the 2020 whale migration season. The Working Group was advised that there are sensitivities in temporarily changing the established configuration of SCP equipment that has been in place for many years, at a time when the community is focussed on recovering from the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, shark nets and drumlines will remain in their current configuration during 2020. Fisheries Queensland advised that options to replace shark nets with drumlines will be considered in 2021, once additional measures are in place (e.g. drone trials and SharkSmart education) and further community engagement has been undertaken.

James Cook University presented to the Working Group following their scientific review of SharkSmart messages and the justification for the messaging and campaign. It was noted the draft report arising from this scientific review is undergoing expert evaluation and will be circulated for feedback in due course. The final report is expected to be available in late 2020.

The next Working Group meeting is planned for December 2020.