Beachgoers were shocked after a dolphin was found dead in shark nets off Sydney's coast on the weekend, but a professional fisherman claims the public is generally unaware of how often the offshore devices maim and kill.
It was another dolphin death that led him to start questioning the netting program two years ago. Most of the animals caught were not target shark species, and gruesome work cutting loose dead animals left the 23-year-old contractor traumatised. Now he’s calling for the NSW government program to be overhauled, citing concerns about its environmental impact, but also its ability to properly protect swimmers.
Still reconciling with his past, he's asked that his name be withheld, so we’ll refer to him as Andy. “(The public) don’t hear much about what actually goes on,” he told Yahoo News Australia. “I don’t think the government realises how bad things are, they just see (the statistics) written down on paper.”
Andy believes funds used to maintain the nets, known as the 'shark meshing program', should be redirected towards modern technologies like drones that could better protect beachgoers.
He’s not critical of the beach-wide swimming enclosures found in wealthy areas like Barangaroo and Double Bay, he’s concerned about the 51 underwater nets between Newcastle and Wollongong that are never seen by beachgoers but provide a sense of security.
There was one day that we caught a dolphin, and I was thinking my mum loves dolphins.Andy, fisherman
Can shark nets protect beaches?
Conservation group Envoy Foundation describes the nets as “comically small”. “It’s like playing the Australian Open with a table tennis net," its founder Andre Borell said.
Nets are just six metres high, so when they are erected offshore at a depth of 10 meters, sharks are able to swim over them.
Nets are only 150 metres wide, so on wide beaches, sharks can swim around them.
Shark net contractor's worst day
When he began working for the program in 2017, Andy wasn’t fazed by finding sharks suffocated in the nets. He’d use a boat to drag the dead out to sea, haul in the bodies of endangered species for study, and set free survivors.
Most of the animals caught were not sharks capable of killing humans — during the 2021/2022 meshing season only 51 of the 300 animals caught were target species, and many were listed as threatened. One of Andy’s worst days was when his patrol found five critically endangered grey nurse sharks in the nets. “Three of them were dead and two were alive,” he said. “That was sad considering how docile they are.”
NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) only requires contractors to check them every 72 hours. So while nets on Andy’s beat were inspected weekdays, he claims they weren't generally checked on weekends when beaches were the most busy.
Attempting to escape, sharks would often tear holes in the nets or spin them into a tight ball, leaving the devices largely ineffective. Many animals that Andy cut free had large bite marks in them, indicating they were targeted by larger sharks once they were trapped. Conservationists say this is evidence shark nets actually encourage predatory sharks towards beaches, putting swimmers at risk.
Shark net contractor driven to tears
When Andy's mother discovered her son was engaging in work that was killing dolphins she was heartbroken, and this triggered a rethink of his work. “I saw her face drop and I thought, holy s**t, I’m contributing to this culling,” he said.
While Andy was able to hide the angst he was feeling from his friends, by mid-2020 his family had noticed a change in him. “My parents actually said to me: Are you OK?,” he said. “There was a day where I cried in front of them saying: We’re killing all these animals, great whites, grey nurses, whaler sharks, stingrays, and turtles. It just got to me.”
When the boat he was working on capsized in 2022, Andy began to seriously question the work he was doing. “I managed to get myself free, but I almost died,” he said. “I just decided I can’t do this anymore. That accident triggered in my mind: This is enough.”
Do shark nets prevent human deaths?
Nets are designed to protect swimmers by stopping sharks establishing territories, but their effectiveness is hotly debated.
Figures from the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) show that since the shark net program began in 1937 there has been only one human fatality across the state’s 51 meshed beaches. However, it’s worth noting that nets are only used at beaches patrolled by lifeguards, who are adept at spotting sharks and rescuing attack victims. Data from 2022 revealed since 2000, 80 per cent of the state’s 35 encounters between sharks and humans occurred at netted beaches.
Critics of the net program, concede it is more humane than Queensland’s practices where nets are left in place during whale migration season, and sharks are shot rather than released. But they argue NSW must wholly replace its program with other technologies like drones which are already used on some beaches and can alert swimmers and lifeguards in real time to dangers.
What do Labor and Liberal think about shark nets?
DPI concedes its shark meshing program is a key threatening process, adversely affecting a number of endangered species.
In February, environment minister James Griffin said the government wishes to work with communities and allow them to decide whether they want shark nets to remain.
NSW Labor has indicated it will support a reassessment and the implementation of evidence-based changes. Technologies the party supports include SMART drumlins, drones, clever buoys, observation towers and signage.
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.