Australia’s Shark Nets Snagged by Controversy

Associated Press Writer

Bathers have become ensnared in an environmental tangle -- the nets that protect them from sharks pose a threat to a growing whale population. Save the whales, cry some wildlife campaigners. Save the humans, the government counters.

Rescuers recently freed two humpback whales from the nets, one of which struggled for more than four hours before it was cut free. A 36-foot whale was rescued in May. And in July, a newborn whale drowned and had to be towed to sea to lure its distressed mother away from the nets.

Kate Davey of the Australian Marine Conservation Society says it’s “a national disgrace” that puts many species at risk.

Bathers “are almost twice as likely to die from lightning strikes or bee stings and 100 times more likely to die from drowning,” she said.


Steve McCourt, marine sciences manager for Sea World theme park in the eastern state of Queensland, said the area’s bays provide a resting place for migrating whales.

The reason more whales are running afoul of the nets is that there are more whales, said McCourt, who has taken part in rescuing enmeshed whales. On calm nights, the nets are very still and the whales can’t sense them, he said in a telephone interview.

Nearly extinct by the 1960s, humpback whales have recovered dramatically thanks to an international whaling moratorium. Their population is almost 4,500 and growing 9% to 11% each year, McCourt said.

According to Australia’s Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, shark nets have killed thousands of marine animals, including an average of nine whales and dolphins a year over the past five years.

“This form of wildlife management would not be acceptable on land and should not be tolerated in our oceans,” spokeswoman Michelle Grady said.

Her society, and Davey’s, want the government to ban the nets. But Baden Lane, manager of Queensland’s Shark Safety Program, says humans come first. “The people who use the beaches in Queensland, their safety is paramount,” Lane said.

Queensland’s popular Gold Coast has 32 nets on its 45 miles of beaches. Each is suspended between buoys about 1,000 feet offshore, and generally stretch about 330 feet across and 20 feet deep, with 20-square-inch holes.

Lane says that since the nets were introduced in 1962, there have been no fatal shark attacks at beaches they protect, compared to an estimated 15 deadly attacks in other areas.


A few months ago, a 29-year-old surfer was killed by one or two sharks, thought to be great whites, off the western Australian coast on the other side of the continent from Queensland. That beach has no nets.