Communique 18 and 19 February 2021

The Shark Control Program Scientific Working Group (the Group) met on 18 and 19 February 2021.

The Group received a presentation on the draft Queensland Shark Management Plan 2020-24 (the Plan). The Plan sets out the scope, focus areas and key initiatives to be implemented and evaluated to guide future shark management in Queensland. Members provided feedback on the strategic approach and guiding principles in the plan and were invited to provide further feedback in writing.

The Group noted and discussed the circumstances of two serious shark bite incidents that occurred recently on the east coast of Australia. Bull sharks were believed to be responsible for both incidents. Members advised that research from 2010 indicated that reefs in the central Great Barrier Reef have resident bull shark populations that return to their natal river systems in summer. The Group noted that off duty medical professionals had been present and were often first responders at shark bite incidents in Queensland and NSW in recent years. The Group advised that Fisheries Queensland could consider developing targeted advice to high-risk water users (e.g. spearfishers), particularly in remote areas where medical support may take time to reach them. The potential to deliver tailored SharkSmart education for indigenous communities was also identified.

NSW Fisheries provided an update on the shark programs in NSW. The NSW Shark Management Strategy ended in June 2020. The NSW Government announced continued investment of $8 million in the 2020/21 Program to continue SMART drumlines at Ballina and Evans Head, drones at 34 beaches in partnership with Surf Life Saving NSW, 21 VR4G listening stations, the shark meshing program, helicopter surveillance and the SharkSmart education program. Consultation is commencing soon on the results from the 2015-2020 Shark Management Strategy to inform future shark mitigation in NSW.

Animal Science Queensland presented preliminary results of the SharkSmart Drone Trial (Drone Trial) that commenced in September 2020 and is continuing at five beaches in South East Queensland. Key statistics are published monthly on Fisheries Queensland’s website. From 19 September 2020 to 31 January 2021 a total of 1,565 drone flights were completed covering 626km. The average flight time was 19 minutes. A total of 87 sharks (including 46 leopard sharks that are not considered dangerous) were sighted, resulting in 2 beach evacuations. Shark sightings occurred on 2.5% of flights across the trial, with Ocean Beach on North Stradbroke Island having the highest number of sightings (21) and Coolum Beach North the least (0). Environmental and operational factors influencing shark sightings were modelled with wind speed negatively affecting the probability of sighting sharks while swell height positively correlated with probability of shark sightings. The Group noted the comparison between drone sightings and shark catch in adjacent nets and drumlines. It also provided feedback on the preliminary results and potential locations for expansion of the Drone Trial into north Queensland, acknowledging that water clarity is generally lower in most North Queensland locations. Fisheries Queensland confirmed that the focus for the Drone Trial is Shark Control Program locations where Surf Life Saving Queensland operates. Beach visitation is also a key consideration in determining locations. The Group discussed that the evaluation of the Drone Trial could consider human safety more generally, not just in relation to shark safety (e.g. to encompass other safety benefits such as spotting people in rip currents). The Group acknowledged that cost-benefit analysis of the Drone Trial would be an important factor for decisions at the end of the trial. The Group also discussed the value of communicating shark absence data (in addition to presence data) in increasing public awareness of the low risk of shark interactions more generally. The potential to leverage the use of images and footage collected through drone surveillance by the tourism industry was discussed, noting there are currently strict privacy procedures in place for the Drone Trial. The Group was advised that opportunities to incorporate the use of artificial intelligence and advanced camera technologies in the future were being explored.

Fisheries Queensland presented the experimental design for a SMART Drumline Trial (Drumline Trial) at four beaches in the Capricorn Coast region within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The primary aims of the Drumline Trial are to compare catches and survival (at point of release) of marine species caught on traditional drumlines and SMART drumlines.  Members endorsed the Sampling and Analysis plan subject to the inclusion of additional information about data collection and analysis process. The revised Sampling and Analysis plan will be provided to members for final endorsement out of session and submitted to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for approval.

Fisheries Queensland presented the plan for an evidence-based Net Replacement Trial to replace nets with drumlines during the 2021 whale migration. Members noted that the SharkSmart Drone Trial and SharkSmart education program that is underway could provide additional shark bite mitigation during the Net Replacement Trial and the department advised that further community engagement would be undertaken if approved. The Group recommended incorporating whale migration path modelling information in the Net Replacement Trial evaluation to account for annual variation. The Group supported the proposed 2021 Net Replacement Trial to reduce the risk of entanglement of Shark Control Program equipment with migrating whales.

Biopixel Oceans Foundation delivered a presentation on the completed research project Prevalence and behaviour of sharks in Cid Harbour. The research was jointly funded by the Queensland and Commonwealth Government’s, as part of the five-point plan in response to a cluster of shark bite incidents in the Whitsundays region in late 2018. A range of catch, tracking and imaging methods were used to study the prevalence and behaviour of sharks in Cid Harbour with a focus on potentially dangerous species. Eleven shark species were documented in the area, including bull sharks and tiger sharks which are potentially dangerous. Only seven bull sharks and 22 tiger sharks (including two individuals that were recaptured twice) were caught during 2,844 hours fished using single hook droplines. The research found that bull shark and tiger shark occurrence and residency was low in Cid Harbour but that Cid Harbour is part of the broader movement paths of some individuals. The Group recommended consulting with the Whitsundays sub-group for advice on how best to communicate the findings of the research to local tourism and other stakeholders.

The Group was advised that Biopixel Oceans Foundation has been contracted to continue the tagging and tracking component of the research. To value add to the continuing work, the researchers are delivering a pilot study on shark depredation in the region. The main aims of the study are to determine the species involved and the extent of shark depredation in the region. The researchers will be working with fishers using customised 360-degree camera technology and genetic sampling techniques, coupled with a custom-built app to collect data for the project. Fisheries Queensland is receiving increasing reports of shark depredation occurring across the state and the research is expected to deliver results that inform both the Shark Control Program and fisheries management.

Fisheries Queensland provided a presentation on the SharkSmart education program. An overview of initial media advertising results from the ‘Do your part. Be SharkSmart’ spring 2020 to summer 2021 campaign was provided, with a detailed campaign evaluation to be completed by the end of March and provided at the next meeting. A new approach for the next phase of the SharkSmart campaign was presented, centred around a 12-month plan of SharkSmart messages targeted to different water users in different geographic areas of Queensland, informed by a model of environmental and sociological risks. The plan will be based on three pillars 1) mass communication during holiday periods 2) planned messages based on risk and 3) contingency messages when unplanned risks arise. Members were supportive of the evidence-based approach to education and provided feedback on the sociological and environmental factors to consider, particularly for the third pillar. Members advised there would be a significant amount of work in collating the information and messaging needs to be sensitive to tourism, accurately reflect risk and potentially should include broader education about shark biology and movements.

Reef Ecologic delivered a presentation on the preliminary results from the project Boosting SharkSmart behaviour in the Whitsundays region. The project aimed to develop and market-test a behavioural change methodology to reduce the risk of shark bites in the Whitsundays. Through stakeholder workshops, priority behaviours for swimmers/snorkelers and boaters were identified.  Targeted interventions, including a pre-trip video, briefing information, and strategically placed posters and stickers were implemented aimed at increasing knowledge of and adoption of the desired behaviours. The research focussed on bareboat charter operations (guests were mostly Queenslanders due to impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic) and identified a very high level of awareness of relevant SharkSmart behaviours among these users following the intervention phase. Incremental improvements in adoption of desired behaviours were observed however there is scope to expand targeted behaviour change interventions to include other tourism operators and fishers. Members discussed opportunities to engage with recreational and commercial fishers and Fisheries Queensland committed to providing opportunities to seek feedback through the relevant fishery working groups about fisher behaviour that might help to inform future behaviour change projects.

Members noted that Fisheries Queensland is currently conducting an open tender process to enter into a contract with a supplier to deliver research into the effectiveness of personal electric shark deterrent devices on tiger sharks. The successful supplier will be required to deliver a comparative assessment of the results with published research on the effectiveness of devices on white sharks and bull sharks. Once available, the results of the research will be presented to the Group.

The Group discussed a recent publication about white shark behaviour based on drone research conducted in the NSW program (Colefax et al., 2020). The Group provided advice on the potential application of the findings to the configuration of drumlines in the Shark Control Program in Queensland, noting that any changes to equipment configurations would need to consider current knowledge of shark behaviour and movements along, impacts on other non-target species and water usage (e.g. boating, swimming).  It was noted that any changes to gear configurations need to be trialled before being considered for adoption in the Program.  The Group also received a presentation summarising current trials and research in the Program and external projects underway and discussed opportunities to increase collaboration with external researchers.

Fisheries Queensland summarised operations, research and trials within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and noted the recent catch data for the GBRMP. Fisheries Queensland discussed past and current human behaviour occurring at North West Island (NWI) that may affect shark bite risk in this location. Fisheries Queensland is working with the Department of Environment and Science to review policies, signage and education. Renewed advisory signage has been installed at NWI and the Group discussed the potential to transition to similar signage in Cid Harbour. The Group recommended further consultation with the Whitsundays sub-group on this last point.

The Group supported in-principle the proposed changes to the operation of the Shark Control Program Scientific Working Group and provided feedback on the draft revised terms of reference and representation. While it remains important that the Group continue to provide advice on the operation of the Shark Control Program within the GBRMP, the Group in recent times has expanded its advice to shark bite mitigation throughout Queensland and to the Queensland Government.  Given this it is appropriate that the establishment and ongoing operation of the Group be modified to reflect this, whilst ensuring GBRMP permit requirements continue to be met.

Senior leaders from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Queensland Government joined the meeting for an update on a range of Shark Control Program matters. Guests were briefed on key outcomes from the meeting and took the opportunity to acknowledge the value of the evidence-based advice provided by the Group to inform policy development ensuring human safety is first and foremost.

The next Working Group meeting is planned for May/June 2021.

References

Colefax A.P., Kelaher B.P., Pagendam D.E. and Butcher P.A. (2020) Assessing White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) Behavior Along Coastal Beaches for Conservation-Focused Shark Mitigation. Front. Mar. Sci. 7:268.