Vast majority of sharks caught in Great Barrier Reef drum lines died, despite tribunal’s orders

Vast majority of sharks caught in Great Barrier Reef drum lines died, despite tribunal’s orders

Almost 80% of sharks caught on drum lines in the Great Barrier Reef marine park last year died despite the Queensland government being told to try harder to eliminate deaths under its shark control program.

The Humane Society International (HSI) has analysed the latest drum-line data and says the government is not even close to achieving the non-lethal program the administrative appeals tribunal ordered two years ago.

Of the 178 sharks hooked on drum lines off the marine park’s popular beaches between February and December last year, 137 died, the HSI analysis showed.

While there was some reduction in tiger shark deaths, mortality rates for smaller species remained high.

Of the 52 tiger sharks caught in that time, 29 were released alive. Before the tribunal ruling, all tiger sharks found alive on the lines were killed.

But other shark species fared worse. Of the 50 bull whalers caught, only three were released alive. All 27 spot-tail whalers died.

HSI marine biologist Lawrence Chlebeck said the frequency of drum line checks had increased since the animal protection group went to the tribunal in a bid to reduce shark deaths.

Checks now occur on 260 days in the year, up from 182, but Chlebeck said that was still well short of the tribunal’s preference for daily checks.

And he said there was still no sign of a tribunal-ordered trial of smart drum lines, which use GPS transponders to alert fisheries contractors when something has been caught, increasing the chances of a live release.

“We are a long way from this program being a non-lethal program, which is what the administrative appeals tribunal mandated,” Chlebeck said.

“It’s been two years since they were told they would have to trial smart drum lines. NSW has had ongoing trials for about five years now, so they didn’t have to test any of the technology.

“There’s not really any reason that it should have dragged on this long. When can we expect a smart drum line trial in the Great Barrier Reef marine park?”

The Queensland government began implementing the tribunal’s orders from February 2020, a few months after it lost a federal court appeal.

The state’s fisheries minister, Mark Furner, said planning was under way for a trial of smart drum lines in central Queensland later this year.

He said a trial using drones operated by Surf Life Saving Queensland was under way to gather data on shark movements and alert beach patrol crews if a “dangerous shark” was spotted.

He said contractors in the marine park were now checking drum lines “up to 260 days per year” and were tagging and relocating surviving tiger, bull and white sharks whenever it was possible and safe to do so.

But he said human life remained the top priority.

“The government is committed to continuous improvement, but will not make changes until effective alternatives suitable for Queensland conditions are identified.

“The government stands by the shark control program, which has been keeping Queenslanders and visitors safe since 1962.”

In its April 2019 ruling, the tribunal found the “lethal component” of the government’s shark control program “does not reduce the risk of unprovoked shark interactions”.

It said the scientific evidence was overwhelming in that regard and cited evidence by Associate Prof Dr Daryl McPhee, an expert in fish ecology who has studied interactions between humans and sharks.

McPhee told the tribunal he would never advocate for a lethal shark program and it was highly plausible there would be no discernible change in unprovoked shark bites if Queensland’s shark control program became non-lethal.

There were three fatal shark attacks in Queensland last year, prompting the government to launch its SharkSmart education campaign, urging swimmers to avoid being in the water at dusk, to always swim with a friend, and to stick to patrolled beaches.

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