Shark nets: are they worth it?

They are a throwback to an age when we killed what we were scared of. Even their guardians admit they are full of holes. So, why do we persist with them? Nigel Benson attacks shark nets.

University of Otago forensic dentist Prof Jules Kieser with Barry Watkins' surfboard and a set of...
University of Otago forensic dentist Prof Jules Kieser with Barry Watkins' surfboard and a set of shark jams capable of making such an attack. Watkins was attacked by a shark in 1971.
What would we think if the Dunedin City Council paid $36,000 a year to protect us from lightning bolts? We'd think the council was mad, surely?

Yet, the DCC is the only local authority in New Zealand to maintain shark nets.

Never mind that there has not been a shark attack in Dunedin waters for nearly 40 years.

And never mind that marine experts, environmentalists and even council staff who oversee the programme say it is nonsensical.

The last confirmed fatal shark attack in New Zealand waters was in 1976 and just 10 people have been killed by sharks since record-keeping began in 1852.

Cats have probably caused more human deaths since 1852 than sharks. Yet the council continues to budget $35,904 every year to maintain three pairs of 100m-long nets at St Clair, St Kilda and Brighton beaches from December 1 to the end of February.

In 2004 and 2007, the DCC considered canning the nets, but hysteria prevailed.

''It's an area we know no-one wants us to look at, but it's ratepayers' money we spend on putting what appears to be a placebo effect in place,'' community and recreation services manager Mick Reece said.

''There's not a scrap of evidence so far that they are good value for money.''

A report prepared for the community development committee in 2006 by council parks and reserves team leader Martin Thompson was equally damning.

''It is difficult to determine if the nets actually prevent attacks, however they do provide a perception of security for beach users.''

Any policy change would have to be ratified by council, Mr Thompson said.

''The council has a shark net setting policy and any decision to discontinue the nets would have to go through them.''

Deputy Mayor Chris Staynes yesterday said a public submission would prompt the council to reassess the nets.

''You raising this may make us reconsider our position. I think, really, they just make people feel safer,'' he said.

''If they aren't effective, and I suspect they're probably not, then we'd certainly re-evaluate them.''

The nets have killed about 700 sharks since records started being kept in 1977.

The contractor since 1996 has been Taieri Mouth commercial fisherman Graeme Fraser, who is required to set the nets and regularly check them ''to ensure that the beaches are protected from shark attack''.

''The contractor is also required to inspect the nets 12 times per month [three times per week] during the three-month period, with no fewer than two inspections in any one week, weather permitting,'' Mr Thompson said.

''The contractor is also required to keep catch data sheets, which are to be supplied to DCC and MAF. With the new wildlife Act, we are also required to inform Doc of any catches of protected wildlife, for example, white pointers. Part of this permit also means we have to supply research institutions with any carcasses they require.''

In 2006, great white sharks became protected under the Wildlife and Fisheries Acts, making it illegal to kill the sharks under penalty of a fine up to $250,000 or up to six months in prison.

The DCC obtained an exemption permit so it could keep its nets.

University of Otago Marine Science department Associate Prof Mike Barker said the nets ''do nothing except provide swimmers with an illusion of safety''.

''I don't think it's good policy for the council to trap sharks at a time when there's a worldwide move towards conserving them. We share the oceans with these animals. The notion that we need to kill any animal that might place us at risk when we enter the water is a totally unacceptable attitude in the modern world,'' he said.

''With or without the nets in place, a swimmer or surfer could be attacked tomorrow, [but] the chances of being killed in your car while driving to the beach, or drowning, or being struck by lightning are all higher.''

While the rest of the world is working towards conserving sharks, Dunedin continues to kill them.

The main species killed in the nets are seven-gill, thresher, blue and school sharks, which are all classed as posing a low or moderate threat of attack.

The most menacing fish caught over the past 35 years was a 3.2m male mako at St Kilda in December, 2001, which, while capable of inflicting serious injury, would be highly unlikely to.

Ocean Zoo director Craig Thorburn, of Auckland, said none of the sharks caught in Dunedin's nets over the past 35 years could be considered a danger to people.

''Dunedin's record speaks for itself. What are the nets catching? Nothing. It's very rare for a mako to attack somebody. A great white will see something and decide whether it's going to have a go and then it will hit it hard to disable it then back off and circle around and give it a nudge to see f it's food. But, they haven't caught a great white since the 1970s.

''Satellite trackers show that sharks move huge distances. They're highly migratory. You may as well have shark nets around New Zealand, because there are great whites continually swimming off our coastline.

''Shark nets are a complete waste of time. They don't offer any benefit or level of protection to swimmers or surfers at all. The reality is that the nets are a very hit or miss way of obtaining perceived public confidence. The public see that no shark attacks are occurring and think: `Well, they must be working','' he said.

''I think the reason the council is reluctant to get rid of them is because someone has to make the call and councils don't tend to have shark experts, so they use anecdotal evidence and public persuasion to keep them, despite the evidence to the contrary.''

Whether the nets do anything at all is questionable.

Dunedin divers Chris Garden and Chris Holmes discovered a hole in the St Kilda net last year which a submarine could pass through and this month a net broke free and washed up on Smaills Beach.

Nobody was eaten by a shark, in either case.

The International Shark Attack Files (ISAF) names the great white, tiger and bull shark as the main offenders.

Only the great white is found year-round in New Zealand waters.

Dunedin's shark nets are unquestionably a relic of the reaction to a spate of five attacks in seven years off our beaches in the 1960s and 1970s.

Dunedin has the worst shark attack record in New Zealand, with three of the 10 fatalities.

Surf life-savers Leslie Jordan and Bill Black died in 1964 and 1967, respectively, after attacks off St Clair and St Kilda beaches, and spear fisherman John Hitt bled to death after an attack at the Aramoana mole in 1968.

There have been two deaths in Wellington and one each at Moeraki, Napier, New Plymouth and Manukau Harbour.

The last fatal attack victim was a diver carrying speared fish off Te Kaha in 1976.

Surfers Gary Barton and Barry Watkins were attacked in Dunedin, but survived, in 1969 and 1971, respectively.

Mr Watkins later advocated removing the nets for a year and using the budget to study shark numbers around Otago to establish whether they actually posed a public risk.

University of Otago forensic dentist Prof Jules Kieser, who examined the bitten-in-half surfboard Mr Watkins was riding when he was attacked, said the nets are ineffective and indiscriminate killers of sharks and were introduced because of people's irrational fears.

''The thing that gets me, is when you go off the track through Nepal, Kenya or the Australian bush, there are a number of poisonous snakes. Does it mean every snake has to be killed before we enter the bush?''

Auckland Department of Conservation scientific officer Clinton Duffy is considered one of New Zealand's foremost shark experts and Dunedin's shark nets make him laugh.

''The Dunedin nets present no threat to the shark population at all. They're useless at catching sharks. If you were a shark fisherman using those nets you'd starve to death,'' he chuckled.

''They don't seem to be effective on any level. The way shark nets work in the rest of the world is by depleting the local shark population. They're not a barrier between swimmers and sharks, as most people think. There are as many sharks caught on the inside of the nets as the outside.

''Only Dunedin, Queensland, New South Wales, South Africa and Hawaii have shark control programmes. All the attacks in Dunedin in the '60s were due to attacks by great whites and that's the reason they put the nets in. But, they have been spectacularly unsuccessful at catching great whites. They haven't caught any dangerous sharks, that I'm aware of.

''It's very difficult to know what was going on back then. It's not clear whether it was one shark or a number of sharks. There's been no other spate of attacks like it in New Zealand. It almost suggests it was a single shark involved,'' he said.

''Certainly, there have always been great whites around the Otago coastline and in the harbour.''

New Zealand has one of the lowest shark attack records in the world.

There are between 70 and 100 attacks reported globally, of which between five and 15 are fatal. Most are described as ''hit and run'', where the shark bites, but does not continue to attack.

''We average two attacks a year in New Zealand and the majority are minor injury. The most common form of shark bite is to the hands and feet, usually in dirty water close to shore and, most times, the shark is never identified,'' he said.

''In New Zealand, it's usually the seven-gilled shark, which is unusual, because there's only one other documented case of a seven-gill attack in the world, and that was in the United States years ago.''

ISAF statistics reveal most attacks occur between 2pm and 6pm and within 50m of shore, and that in 75% of attacks the shark bites just once.
Surfers and divers are the most likely victims.

''The last possible fatality was last December off Waihi when a kayaker had a misadventure and was found with shark bite marks.

The cause of death was given as drowning and exsanguination, indicating the victim was bitten around the time of death.

''However, it was not possible to determine the sequence of these events due to a lack of eyewitness evidence,'' Mr Duffy said.

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