Councilor Keith Williams
Submission to Senate Environment and Communications References Committee Inquiry into Shark mitigation and deterrent measures
This submission primarily focuses on Terms of Reference b) c) e) and g).
I have been a Ballina Shire Councilor since 2012. I hold a Bachelor of Science (Environmental Studies) and have worked as a senior manager in the non-profit and local government sectors and am currently a Green Army Supervisor. I am also Vice President of Australian Seabird Rescue Inc and from 2008 to 2015 was onsite Caretaker of the seabird and marine turtle rehabilitation centre based in Ballina. This submission represents my own views and not those of any organisation.
Shark nets are a particularly destructive form of shark mitigation that are not effective in keeping people safe. Their deployment on the North Coast of NSW in December 2016 makes a mockery of the protections for endangered species envisaged in the EPBC Act.
The Legal Framework - TOR b)
The exemption granted from the requirements of the EPBC Act that enabled the deployment of shark nets on the North Coast is at this moment in time seriously endangering marine wildlife that is supposedly subject to the protections of the Act.
The legal basis for this decision must be questioned.
There has been no widespread economic impact associated with sharks. The use of a highly selected group of local businesses (eg surf shops) to allege that some broader economic catastrophe confronted the region is seriously misleading and is in my view an abuse of the emergency provisions of the Act.
The region has in fact experienced its busiest holiday period in recent memory, most likely influenced by the completion of the Pacific Highway upgrade between Byron Bay and Ballina.
The by-catch data released to date by NSW DPI indicates a serious impact on several endangered and protected species. These include Loggerhead, Green and Hawksbill sea turtles, Hammerhead and other sharks and Bottlenose Dolphins.
Prior to the deployment of shark nets NSW DPI promised the local community that a number of by-catch mitigation measures would be undertaken. This included:
· the nets would be fitted with smart alarm technology to alert operators that an animal was trapped in the net;
· the nets would be checked twice daily;
· the nets would not be deployed if they were unable to be checked due to bad weather.
None of these commitments have been fulfilled. There is no functioning smart alarm technology and none has been fitted to the installed nets. NSW DPI's own records indicate the nets have barely been checked once a day. Nets have been left in place for extended periods.
I do not know what undertakings NSW DPI gave to the Commonwealth Department. Did these promised mitigation measures feature in the Environment Ministers approval? Are NSW DPI in breach of the terms of their approval? I believe these are important questions to be answered.
The deployment of a shark net at Lennox Head inside the Cape Byron Marine Park, which has resulted in the death of protected species within the Marine Park, must also be seriously questioned.
It is imperative that at the conclusion of the trial period, the nets are removed and any continuing deployment is subject to a thorough assessment in accordance with the EPBC Act.
Mitigation Measures - TOR c)
The deployment of shark nets does not make people safer. At best they offer a false sense of security, with many people believing the nets provide an effective barrier to sharks. At only 150m long and set 4m below the surface, the nets do not operate as a barrier, but as a fishing device.
I cannot envisage a Risk Assessment matrix which would accord any priority to a control measure with such limited effectiveness and which creates additional risk by suspending dead and dying wildlife near swimmers.
As most surf clubs would attest, safety is best assured through constant vigilance. The deployment of dedicated spotters and drone technology either through groups such as SharkWatch (NSW) or by surf clubs themselves would provide a much more effective level of protection to beach users.
I was disappointed that the shark-barriers trialed at Ballina and Lennox Head failed. I was alarmed that the barrier at Lennox Head broke up during installation, scattering plastic fragments along the beach. In my view, NSW DPI did not react swiftly enough to a marine pollution incident within a marine park.
I believe there is an opportunity to trial the Eco-barrier that was to be been installed at Lighthouse Beach at the much calmer beaches within the adjacent Richmond River mouth. I am deeply disappointed that NSW DPI have so far refused to fund a trial of the technology at these more appropriate locations.
The management of sharks by the NSW Government has been an exercise in media management and a failure of proper policy processes. Every incident followed by yet another ministerial announcement. Beach alarms, rescue kits and observation towers have all been promised but their deployment has been extremely slow and cumbersome.
The 'attack' at Sharpes Beach, which became the day the NSW Premier announced the North Coast shark nets trial, was an incident so minor, the person received a single puncture wound, did not realise he had been bitten until leaving the water and drove himself to hospital. I've received more severe injuries stumbling into poorly discarded barbed-wire. I have no doubt the incident was terrifying and it is not one I would care to share, but by any objective measure it cannot be used to justify the wholesale slaughter of protected species.
By-Catch - ToR e)
At time of writing we have two months worth of by-catch data from the North Coast shark net trial. If current trends continue the trial will have a major negative impact on local protected species. These include Loggerhead, Green and Hawksbill sea turtles, Hammerhead and other sharks, Manta and other rays and Bottlenose Dolphins.
So far 2 Bottlenose dolphins have been killed by the nets, one in each month. If this continues for the remaining 4 months of the trial, it could be expected that we will decimate (kill 10% of) the local pod of 60 dolphins that inhabit the Richmond River. And this is just in the trial period.
In January a female adult Loggerhead turtle died in the nets. She is one of an estimated 15 (make that 14) female Loggerheads thought to be breeding on North Coast beaches.
Populations of endangered wildlife are, by definition, especially vulnerable to sudden increases in mortality.
Tourism Impacts ToR g)
The claim that shark related incidents have a major economic impact on tourism is unfounded. While there were clearly impacts on local wetsuit and surfboard manufacturers and retail surf-shops, there is no data to suggest a shire or region wide tourism downturn during the past two years.
Continued sensationalist media coverage of sharks did raise concerns that there may be a measurable impact on tourism, however the record summer experienced in Ballina suggests any negative impacts are far outweighed by the provision of modern infrastructure, Ballina-Byron Airport and the Pacific Highway upgrade being major contributors.
A local proposal for the building of an Ocean Pool at Shelley Beach could also positively impact tourism opportunities.
As a former Executive Officer of Ecotourism Australia, my view is also tempered by the knowledge that a healthy environment and opportunities for wildlife encounters are significant positive motivators in tourism purchasing decisions. Watching dolphins play in the waves is a common local tourism image for good reason.
The continued loss of iconic species such as turtles, dolphins and whales is likely to have a more significant negative impact on tourism than the presence of sharks.
If shark nets had any major impact on either beach safety or tourism then we could expect some discernible difference between the experience of Ballina (trialling nets, no spotters) and Byron (trialling spotters, no nets) since the beginning of December 2016.
There simply is none.
Except for the mounting pile of dead marine wildlife in Ballina.