Over the past two years Queensland, Australia has received massive criticism from scientists and conservationists worldwide regarding their shark culling program. Though the shark cull has stopped, for the moment, the state of Queensland is considering increasing the number of drum lines used to catch target shark species in the iconic Great Barrier Reef. Each state in Australia has their own Shark Control Programs in an effort to ensure public safety; however, Queensland uses the most severe measures and has been around since 1962. The basic goal of the program is to limit the number of shark encounters on beaches and attempt to eliminate fatal attacks. Shark meshing or nets used to be the most popular way of preventing sharks from reaching beaches. However, beach nets trap a monumental number of non-target species doing more harm than good in the eyes of the government. Therefore the ill-advised government turned to drum lines as replacements, though a limited number of nets still exist.
Drum lines are composed of a single baited line with multiple hooks that extends from the ocean floor to the water’s surface. There are numerous problems with drum lines, for example, they have a very high bycatch rate including anything from endangered Nurse sharks to migratory whales. By simply baiting the hooks, it attracts all sorts of predators and even curious marine mammals, which become entangled and trapped in these lines usually sustaining injuries that severely lowers the likelihood of survival after release. Though nets are removed during whale and turtle migration, drum lines are kept year round which poses a heightened threat to migratory endangered species. There are a total of 338 drum lines along the Queensland coast, and of them 148 are in the Great Barrier Reef alone; therefore 44% of the total drum lines are located in the reef.
The Queensland Shark Control Program aims to catch and cull Great White, Hammerhead, Mako, Sandbar, Tiger, Silky, and Dusky sharks (among a few others). There is no science behind how these sharks were chosen or if drum lines effectively limit human-shark interactions. In fact, at a beach in Queensland sixteen sharks had been spotted when there was eight drum lines positioned parallel to the beach, thus proving that it is not an effective shark control mechanism. The drum lines are serviced every two days, and if a target-species is found hooked it is promptly shot and disposed of. The shark control program philosophy believes that sharks are better dead than alive, though science clearly shows us otherwise. The government claims that by checking the lines every two days it allows non-target animals to have a greater chance of survival, however stress and injuries result in many dying on the line or shortly after they are released. Since the existence of the shark control program, 85,000 animals have been caught, where 71% of the catch was non-target species.
Queensland is pressing to increase the number of drum lines in the Great Barrier Reef, further increasing the number of lines from 148 to 213 and therefore concentrating over 50 percent of the drum lines in one area. This is a direct, government response to the multiple shark encounters along beaches in the past year. The Great Barrier Reef holds high economic value to the state, and Queensland believes that by installing more drum lines they are protecting their tourism. However, in doing so they have completely disregarded scientists who object that an increase in shark deaths will only weaken the vibrancy of the reef. Due to environmental stress from dredging, climate change, and overfishing the reef is already suffered massive coral bleaching events and a significant loss of sharks. Sea Shepard Australia’s Shark Campaign Coordinator, Natalie Banks, believes that an increase in drum lines will actually decrease tourism saying, “I can assure you that tourists will be put off by the increased images of marine life caught within these death traps”.
The basis of the shark cull and now the use of drum lines relies on the fact that shark attacks and encounters have increased. The government has failed to take into account that the human population is increasing at an exponential rate and therefore statistics show that increased interaction with sharks is only natural as more people enter the water. If Queensland wants to protect their tourism, they need to invest in protecting the Great Barrier Reef and not an extension of shark culling. Due to culls and overfishing, shark populations worldwide have shrunk by 90% and at this rate will only continue down this doomed path. The biodiversity of the reef relies on the Apex predators that inhabit it, because all links in the food chain are connected and without this keystone species present there are minimal chances for reef recovery. In contrast, New South Wales has recently approved a plan to invest $16 million in non-lethal shark control trials. The use of shark deterrents rather than nets or hooks is not only better for the ecosystem, but will cost the government less than installing and maintaining drum lines. Drum lines are more expensive because they not only have to replace line, but are unsustainable in the bait that is used. A variety of shark deterrents are used worldwide that counter a shark’s natural senses and thus deter them from swimming further into the area. Shark deterrents and monitoring programs have had much more success in keeping beachgoers safe than lethal shark control methods.
Hopefully Queensland will realize the grave repercussions of their actions and follow New South Wales in fading out the old system of shark control with more sophisticated, scientifically based methods of shark control. Sea Shepard Australia is currently petitioning the Australian government to remove nets and drum lines because they are both guilty of attracting sharks to the beaches with bait, and result in a high percentage of bycatch.