Shark nets have 'failed', public has been 'misled'
UPDATE 1.30pm: SHARK nets are "failing" and the Department of Primary Industries has "misled the public", says a leading spokesperson for marine wildlife protection.
General manager of Ballina-based Australian Seabird Rescue, Kathrina Southwell, has reviewed the department's first monthly report of by-catch from the five North Coast nets.
"Only four or five animals trapped in the nets were actual target species," she said.
"Nearly 90% were non-target species, so I see that as a failure."
Ms Southwell said she was disappointed to learn nets were left in the ocean overnight and not checked as often as hoped.
"I was led to believe that the nets would be checked twice a day ... if there are weather conditions where the nets are unable to be checked, [DPI officials] should see that as good enough reason not to put the nets out," she said.
"Too many non-target species that are protected under state or federal environmental laws are getting caught."
The government's shark management plan, released before the trial started properly on December 8 last year, stated smart technology similar to that used in drum lines would be investigated for use in the nets to alert wildlife rescuers in real time whenever animals were netted.
But development on the technology has not been publicly shared by the department and the scientist believed to be overseeing the project, Dr Matthew Broadhurst, was on annual leave when the by-catch report was released.
"As far as I know [the smart technology] hasn't been effective," said Ms Southwell.
"It's really disappointing that [department officials] misled the public by telling them these things will be included and they'll be removing the nets at night time when they haven't been."
Ms Southwell would not comment on whether or not DPI officials had notified ASR when animals were found in the nets, such as the bottlenose dolphin that died at Lennox Head, but questioned recent discoveries of two dead loggerhead turtles in the trial area.
"On Friday night we received a report of a large loggerhead turtle found dead on Angels Beach," she said.
"Our volunteers went down and assessed it, looks like a large loggerhead turtle that has drowned - there were no injuries but it had fluid retention and blood coming from its mouth, all symptoms of drowning.
"There aren't many sea turtles that die from drowning unless they've been caught in a net or something like that."
The death at Angels Beach was followed by the discovery of a drowned loggerhead turtle at South Ballina on Saturday, Ms Southwell said.
"I noticed from the DPI report quite a few turtles were released alive," she said.
"We have no proof [they later drowned] but like I said it's highly unusual to have two loggerhead turtles wash up drowned."
Three loggerhead turtles were released alive from nets at Sharpes, Shelly and Lighthouse beaches in Ballina by DPI contractors as well as an identified species at Sharpes Beach, the DPI report stated.
Loggerhead turtles were listed as endangered under state and national environmental laws.
"So far the DPI have not tagged any turtles that they've caught but we're working closely with them to get them to tag the turtles," Ms Southwell said.
"We're doing whatever we can to discuss with them ways they can reduce the by-catch, such as checking nets more often and tagging turtles."
Ms Southwell challenged Ballina Mayor David Wright's suggestion of shark nets attracting more people to the area.
"The fact that there's more people visiting the Ballina area may have nothing to do with the shark nets," she said.
"I think it's due to the fact that the whole freeway is open from Byron to Ballina."
UPDATE 11.30am: THE mayor representing four of five beaches included in the shark net trial says he supports the program but wants nets checked more often for by-catch.
Councillor David Wright's comments come after the release of the Department of Primary Industries' first monthly report on by-catch in the trial.
"A bit over 25% of bycatch has died, that's really, really unfortunate - particularly two of my favourite animals, the turtle and dolphin," said the mayor.
"Nobody knows if the nets actually saved an attack but in people's minds they've made a huge difference.
"One of the best things that has happened [is the regular presence of] helicopters and the drones and the life guards. We could easily have had a large number of drownings if it weren't for them.
"At the moment I want the DPI to stick with their promise of checking the nets twice a day - I know that's to do with the weather, they didn't purposely not to do it."
Cr Wright said he would also ask for an update on the smart technology proposed by the DPI for inclusion in the trial, that would alert marine wildlife rescuers to by-catch in real time.
Cr Wright said so far DPI contractors were relying on smart drum lines attached to the nets but understood the lines had to be removed in certain weather.
The mayor said judgment of the North Coast trial was not his call and was for people to decide.
He said he went to all five netted beaches up to three times per day and "not one person has criticised the nets".
"At the moment I'm happy to see the nets continue," Cr Wright said.
"There are so many families with little kids on shoulders - and in prams - really enjoying themselves.
"We've had a huge increase in visitors but I think the success or not will be judged by the public".
UPDATE 10.15am: THE Greens' spokesperson for marine and fisheries, Justin Field, has criticised the government for "sitting on data" about the shark net program.
He also suggested dolphin deterrents embedded in shark nets in southern NSW were ineffective, but the government still went ahead and activated a shark net trial on the North Coast to protect the tourism industry.
The 2015/16 NSW shark meshing period was from September 1, 2015 to April 30, 2016 but government data on by-catch was not released until today, along with the first monthly by-catch report for the North Coast trial.
"There was a dramatic four-fold increase in the number of animals caught and 300% increase in marine animals found dead in the nets," Mr Field said.
"We should be phasing out these destructive nets and modernising swimmer protection at NSW beaches.
"The shark mesh net program provides questionable protection to NSW swimmers and divers but costs a fortune in terms of destruction to our wildlife and dollars spent.
"The North Coast trial has failed to capture many target sharks and is having a disproportionate impact on harmless marine animals just like the wider NSW plan is having.
"People would be shocked to know that one of the dolphins or turtle they have enjoyed watching playing in the waves or cruising the local beach over the Christmas break has ended up dead in one of the shark nets."
TUESDAY 5.30am: NEARLY a third of marine animals caught in shark nets on the North Coast died in the State Government's first 30 days of a controversial trial.
Department of Primary Industries officials today released the first monthly report of by-catch in the five nets installed so far and a spokeswoman said it would be available to the public online.
The report came with a press release from the DPI titled, Promising Start to North Coast Shark Net Trial, and showed 28% of 43 animals caught in the nets between December 8 and January 7 died.
Sharks represented 20% of by-catch and more than half died, including four great hammerhead sharks, listed as vulnerable under NSW environmental law.
Nets at Sharpes and Lighthouse beaches in Ballina caught the most sharks - three were caught and released alive at Sharpes Beach (one white and two tiger sharks) while another three died in the net at Lighthouse Beach (one bull and two great hammerhead sharks).
Nearly half of animals netted were cownose rays, not listed as protected, endangered or vulnerable under either state or national environmental laws.
Five turtles were caught, including four endangered and/or vulnerable species (one was unidentified); one died (a green turtle at Main Beach, Evans Head).
A bottlenose dolphin, normally protected under state law, died in the net at Seven Mile Beach, Lennox Head.
Data in the report showed that while nets were in the water for 30 days at all five beaches, the only net that was checked more than 32 times in the same period was at Main Beach, Evans Head.
DPI contractors checked the net at Evans Head an average of 1.5 times per day, despite the report stating that nets were "generally" checked twice daily.
DPI director general Scott Hansen said the tourism industry enjoyed "renewed confidence" during the period.