Shark versus human

Sharks have been in the news in recent days, with a non-fatal attack on a surfer near Evans Head, a spotted wobbegong killed in Cape Byron Marine Park, and a recreational angler photographed with the young bull shark he had caught.

Australians have a curious relationship with sharks. On the one hand, most of us flock to the ocean in warmer months, and for millions of surfers the passion is year-round. On the other hand, the often frenzied media reaction to shark attacks suggests a primal fear that remains undiminished by the knowledge that only about ten people die around the world as a result of shark attacks every year, while we kill around one hundred million of them.

Sold as flake or hake, shark remains among the most common sources of seafood, especially in fish and chips and frozen fish. Species commonly fished include the docile, bottom-dwelling wobbegong, commonly found around reefs and headlands along the Australian coast.

Sharks are also frequently killed in fish nets and shark control nets on some beaches, and by ingesting hooks, fishing lines, plastic bags and other foreign materials. Even the barbaric practice of cutting off shark fins for soups in some Asian countries continues in Australian waters. According to the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, “hundreds of tonnes of sharks are caught for their fins with the government’s blessing every year. In NSW, regulations are such that what are eventually landed are shark carcasses that serve as architectures for fins. The carcasses are headed and gutted so that the bare minimum required by the law remains.”

One third of shark species have been overfished to the point of extinction. As the Australian Marine Conservation Society warns, they are keystone species that maintain the balance of prey species and the marine food web. Reducing the numbers of sharks has significant and unpredictable impacts on the ecosystem.

Only one shark species, the grey nurse, is listed as critically endangered under the NSW Fisheries Management Act. This buck-toothed beauty looks menacing but is docile around humans. Only about 500 remain on Australia’s east coast, thanks to fishing, shark control devices, shark finning and inappropriate research and tourism.

While it is a migratory species, aggregations are commonly found on the north coast at Byron Bay, Brooms Head, Solitary Islands, South West Rocks, Laurieton, Forster, Seal Rocks and Port Stephens. Some of these places, including Julian Rocks, are listed as critical habitat sites where special fishing and diving rules apply.

After years of campaigning to save the critically endangered east coast population of the grey nurse shark, in 2006 the Nature Conservation Council decided that it had no alternative but to try and convince the courts of the need for greater protection.

Unfortunately, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal recognised that this species has a high risk of extinction but did not agree that greater control of the NSW ocean trap and line fishery would have a measurable impact on its chances of survival.

In theory, harming a grey nurse can attract a fine of up to $220,000 or imprisonment for two years. Harming a great white, which is listed as vulnerable under state legislation, attracts a fine of up to $55,000 or imprisonment for one year. Both species are also protected under federal environmental legislation.

However, there has only been one successful prosecution for harming a grey nurse, with a 51-year-old Lake Munmorah man who cut the throat of a 1.7 metre female shark being fined a mere $2000 in 2007. There have been no prosecutions for harming a great white in Australia, even though there are shark hunters who have, in the recent past, targetted them.

Other shark species are afforded some protection in reserves like the Cape Byron Marine Park by the prohibition on recreational and commercial fishing in sanctuary zones, and by restrictions on some forms of commercial fishing in habitat protection zones.

State and federal authorities monitor fisheries to assess their environmental performance and encourage sustainable management. But the fact that other shark species are not listed as threatened or vulnerable in legislation does not mean that they are not being overfished. If you want to know which fisheries are managed sustainably, go to the sustainable seafood page at www.marine

conservation.org.au and enjoy guilt-free fish meals.

For more information or help about this or any other environmental law issue, please call the EDO Northern Rivers on 1300 369 791 or email edonr@edo.org.au.


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