Queensland's shark nets undermine humpback whale tourism

2023-05-02 12:00 by Envoy: Shark Cull–  4m read

The magnificent humpback whales are a significant tourist attraction in Queensland, and for a good reason - the state is located on the migration path of these majestic creatures. Every year, thousands of humpback whales swim from Antarctica to the warm tropical waters of the Queensland coast, where they breed, rest, and socialise before returning to the south. This natural phenomenon has been dubbed the "Humpback Highway," and it attracts tourists worldwide. But, unfortunately, the Queensland Shark Control Program conflicts with humpback whale tourism by putting the lives of these gentle giants in danger.

The Queensland Shark Control Program has been in place since the 1960s, and it involves setting up lethal devices such as shark nets and drumlines along popular beaches to reduce the risk of shark bites. However, the program is not supported by science. It has come under growing criticism from scientists who confirm that using these lethal methods is outdated and harmful to target and non-target marine life and does not provide safety for beachgoers. In addition, harmless sharks and other non-target marine animals, including dolphins, turtles, and humpback whales, are the main catch of these deadly devices.

In August 2021, a humpback whale on the Gold Coast became entangled overnight in the Coolangatta shark net. Authorities weren't alerted until the early morning hours, as the sounds of the distressed animal awoke residents. The attempted rescue of this whale took almost 48 hours and ended with the whale being sent on its way, still dragging a considerable amount of shark netting, anchor chain, and even two buoys. The fate of this whale is unclear, but experts believe it would not have survived dragging this equipment. Unfortunately, the Queensland government does not monitor humpback whales after they are released from shark nets, so there is no way of knowing how many survive the trauma of the entanglement.

The 2022 humpback whale migration resulted in a record-breaking 15 whales entangled in Queensland shark nets, most on the Gold Coast, followed by the Sunshine Coast. Publicly available data obtained via the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, QFish website, shows there were 101 humpback whales entangled in shark nets between 2001 and 2022, including four drownings, as follows:

  • 69 were caught in the Gold Coast shark nets, including four that drowned
  • 16 were entangled on the Sunshine Coast
  • 6 were entangled on North Stradbroke Island
  • 10 were entangled in the Great Sandy Marine Park at Rainbow Beach, which is adjacent to K'gari (Fraser Island) and Hervey Bay

Given the above information, it's unsurprising that a 2021 study by CSIRO found:

...the Gold Coast Bay provides habitat for a wide range of critical humpback whale activities, in particular for resting mother–calf pairs, mature males seeking copulation and socialising immature whales. Hervey Bay and Rainbow Beach [both adjacent to K'gari] had a higher number of mother–calf pair sightings, confirming the area as an important resting site. This study demonstrates that the two regions are critical habitats for humpback whales during their annual migration, but for different essential activities, and should be considered as a whale protection area.

Queensland shark nets are in the water year-round, unlike New South Wales, which has reduced whale entanglement by removing shark nets for part of the whale migration. Furthermore, there are indications that New South Wales may be considering permanently removing the nets altogether.

Scientific evidence supports using non-lethal strategies to protect humans and animals effectively, and combining these strategies can lead to even better outcomes. Some proven strategies include acoustic and visual deterrents, enclosed swimming areas or rigid enclosed barriers, drone surveillance, electromagnetic deterrents, personal deterrents, Shark-Management-Alert-in-Real-Time (SMART) drumlines, shark safety education programs, and other modern solutions.

The adoption of non-lethal strategies is essential not only for the protection of humpback whales and other marine animals but also for the preservation of the tourism industry in Queensland. Whale-watching is a significant source of revenue for Queensland coast communities, but the continued entanglement of humpback whales in shark nets may be negatively impacting the industry. However, replacing outdated devices such as shark nets and drumlines with modern non-lethal alternatives could ensure the "humpback highway" remains a safe and sustainable destination for whales and humans.

What happened to the whale entangled in the Coolangatta shark net in 2021...

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