It was a six-minute masterclass in the politics of shark nets in New South Wales.
On Wednesday, Waverley Council Mayor Paula Masselos appeared on Sky News to discuss his opposition to the continued use of shark nets on Sydney’s Bondi Beach.
Chris Kenny opened the segment by reminding his audience that it had been six months since a man had been killed by a great white shark on a Sydney beach: diving instructor Simon Nellist, 35, who had publicly opposed to shark nets, was attacked in Petita Badia.
Kenny then peppered Masselos with a series of loaded questions. “Have you told them enough about this?” “Do you think your policies reflect the public world?”
Masselos tried to explain his position. The Waverely council wanted a better and smarter approach to shark mitigation, one that actually protected people and didn’t indiscriminately kill marine life.
But as she tried to explain, Kenny cut her off: “Are you ready to take out the nets and take the chance to see more fatalities at some of our most popular beaches?”
It was a frustrating exchange. The nets are owned and operated by the state government, meaning Masselos has no power to remove them from the water.
A baby humpback whale. “The best guess I can give is that about 20,000 marine animals have been killed,” says Laurence Trebek of the Humane Society International. Photograph: Nicole McLachlan/Humane Society International/Australian Marine Conservation Society
Masselos is not alone in opposing the networks. Until recently, the campaign to eliminate them was the domain of environmental activists and animal rights groups. But more and more, councils, mayors and state deputies have been joining.
A year ago, Waverley council was one of eight local government authorities to pass motions against the continued use of shark nets, reflecting years of work to find better alternatives.
Adam Crouch, a state Liberal MP, has actively campaigned for his Central Coast electorate to trial a netless summer, and the state government has invested $85 million in developing better shark management strategies.
Politics has caught up with science, but fear of possible shark attacks makes the fight difficult for those seeking change.
Networks are not working
“The real shark in this story is the politician – that’s my analysis of having worked on this issue for 16 years,” says Dr Christopher Pepin-Neff, a political scientist at the University of Sydney. “The fact is that the networks do not work. It’s a lie told to the public to help ensure politicians get re-elected.”
Pepen-Neff says there was a recognition from the start of the NSW mesh program that the nets didn’t really help.
The program began after a committee was convened in 1935 to investigate mitigation measures following a series of shark attacks. Nets came last in a list of proposals to manage the risk and only agreed to show the public that something was being done.
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It took two years for the NSW government to follow through, and even then it was motivated by concerns about a shark attack during the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the state it would make bad headlines.
It would later be suggested that the increase in the number of fatal attacks in the 1920s and 1930s was due to the blood and gore spilled from Sydney’s slaughterhouses at that time, which brought the animals closer to the coast and to the bathers.
However, says Pepin-Neff, the networks became associated with security in the public eye, and removing them became too difficult politically.
They are now installed on 51 beaches from Newcastle to Wollongong. At 150 meters long, six meters high and located 10 meters deep, the nets do not cover the entire length of the beaches and often the public does not know where they are.
The Department of Primary Industries states that “the nets do not create a complete barrier between swimmers and sharks” but are “designed to intercept sharks close to mesh beaches, reducing the possibility of interaction with sharks”.
But two out of every five sharks caught in the nets are actually on the beach side of the net, and attacks still occur on mesh beaches. Laurence Trebek of the Humane Society International says nets may not be very good at stopping target sharks, but they are good at killing marine life.
“The best guess I can give is that about 20,000 marine animals have been killed in the show, and what we’re realizing now is that it’s nothing more than a false sense of security,” says Trebek.
According to a recent DPI report on the performance of shark nets, 376 marine animals were entangled in NSW nets in 2021-22. This number included 51 “target sharks” and 325 “non-target animals.”
Target sharks included 28 white sharks, 12 bull sharks and 11 tiger sharks. Other marine life caught by the nets included 149 non-target sharks, including nurse sharks and gray hammerheads, 130 rays, 40 turtles, a dolphin and a humpback whale.
Of all the animals caught in the nets, just over a third – 142 – were released alive.
Trebek believes the shark netting program is in its “death throes” as public awareness grows, but admits “it takes significant political courage to make this happen.”
A humpback whale caught in nets off the coast of Yamba, NSW, in 2002. Photograph: Grahame Long/AP
Pepin-Neff says that despite strong support from state and local public officials, she is skeptical that they will ever be removed.
A spokesman for NSW Agriculture Minister Dugald Saunders says there are currently no plans to remove the existing nets.
“Sometimes I talk about ‘loser problems,'” says Pepen-Neff.
“These are issues for which there is a social and political infrastructure that is based on not giving them oxygen, not giving them attention and not helping them cross the finish line, even when they have broad support.
“Public support is clearly building for education, for non-lethal methods, but removing shark nets from the water is a ‘losing issue’, politically.”
A false sense of security
As an ocean swimmer, Masselos has skin in the game.
In the 20 years since he first left the Bronte Baths and the salty waters of Nelson Bay, he has regularly swam from Bronte to MacKenzie Beach and back.
The mayor says the ocean offers “a sense of freedom and well-being” that allowed him to share a world with lush sea dragons, turtles, rays and sharks.
He has never seen a shark, but he says there was no swimming without risk, which is why there are rules about ocean swimming: “If there are a lot of fish in the water, get out. Don’t swim at sunset. Don’t swim at dawn, and just use your common sense.”
Masselos says he appreciates the networks are an “emotional issue” for many, but believes they offer little more than a “false sense of security.”
“I know people I’ve been talking to are shocked when they hear that turtles, dolphins and dugongs get caught in these nets and die.
“We share our oceans with sea creatures. We’re in their habitat. So what can we do to keep our people safe but also reduce the terrible bycatch? We’re in the 21st century, we’ve got the technology. Let’s be smart about it.”
The mayor says the The council would like to deploy a combination of smart drums, drones and sonar listening buoys. Smart battery send a signal to the authorities when marine life is caught, allowing potentially harmful sharks to be tagged before they are released. When these sharks later come within range of sonar listening buoys, a warning can be issued and the situation monitored with drones.