Shark conservation is vital. There are around 350 species of shark, ranging from the size of a human finger to the size of a large bus, such as the gentle whale shark.
Sharks are a slow growing fish that produce few young, yet it has been estimated that 100 million sharks are been killed by humans each year in commercial, recreational or illegal hunting.
The future of marine life depends on sharks. As predators, sharks keep fish populations in balance and cull out the sick and injured. Keeping sharks in captivity is not easy, as they require space, familiar natural surroundings and appropriate temperatures. Species that cope well in tanks and that can be bred and released are the grey nurse, the wobbegong, the Port Jackson and the Zebra shark. But the oceanic sharks such as the Great White, the tiger and Blue Shark, don’t fair well in captivity. They soon die.
If we continue to interrupt their habitat with excessive fishing, shark netting along beaches, and noise and pollution from shipping highways, they will soon die in their natural world.
Sharks have no malice toward us. They just have a response to food. People must respect their place in the ocean and accept the risks when entering their domain.
The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s most extensive reef ecosystem in the world, holds 3000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral cays, 150 inshore mangrove islands, and an abundance of marine life from seagrasses and sponges to tropical fish, turtles, dugongs, rays, sharks and whales. It stretches from the Northern Tip of Queensland in Australia, reaching down to a town called Bundaberg.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981, to be protected under the Environmental Protection and Conservation Act. The EPBC Act prohibits a person from taking an action, without approval from the environment minister if the action is likely to have a significant impact on a ‘matter of national environmental significance’. However, the current Australian Federal Government, Prime Minister Tony Abbot and Environment Minister Greg Hunt, along with the Queensland State Government, lead by Campbell Newman, have ignored latest scientific evidence, compiled by scientists and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority, that states the reef is deteriorating from human intervention and climate change. Rather than looking at ways to minimize further damage and restore the marine park, the Australian Government have plans for massive coal and gas port expansions. This fossil fuel facility includes additional industrial shipping paths through these waters, creating excessive noise and traffic to a marine habitats and the necessity to dredge the sea for these pathways. The companies involved claim it is cheaper to dump millions of tonnes of sediment offshore into the reefs world heritage waters, rather than inshore.
The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and various scientific groups involved in the protection of the reef have submitted to the government that the Great Barrier Reef faces enormous pressures already from multiple sources related to climate change that is causing coral bleaching, cyclones, declining water quality from agricultural run offs and the outbreaks of the Crown of Thorns starfish, and that expanding coal exports in this area to overseas investors will cripple the park. In response the Queensland Resources Council argue they have to supply for a demand, and that demand is the worlds energy. They are drawn to the lucrativeness of coal and a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald (Concerns at Barrier Reef contractor’s humanitarian , environment record, Sept 5, 2014) has said that an Indian billionaire businessman, Gautam Adani, has lavished gifts on Australian politicians while his plans are being decided. It is also reported that Gina Rinehart has interests in expanding the coal port.
If our Government has mentioned that science is significant in their decision making, why have our scientists had drastic cuts made to their budgets under the Abbot government. For instance, the Australian Institute of Marine Science has had an 8 million dollar cut to its budget, making their capacity to work on this matter, very limited.
The government has also cut 129 staff from the Environment Department, which enforces strict environmental rules on areas such as the Great Barrier Reef marine park. The Australian government has also cut 40 million from the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, a group that look at the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef from catchment areas.
Documents released under the freedom of information laws have uncovered that the funding cuts to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks Authority have put pressure on staff to become redundant, resulting in less scientific expertise. There are also suggestions of the possibility of board members with links to the mining industry. A document released by the Greens suggests a non Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority trained bureaucrat approved the offshore dumping.
The science of the reef is being politicized by a government accepting bribes in favour of our natural world and its future survival.
Evidence from scientists and concern from the general public about the pressure the reef is under, seems to have no significance to the State and Federal governments, the Ports and Industry groups, the mining companies and coastal developers, who have mentioned they are committed to the environment, yet are increasing their industries within it.
However, the Australian Greens are opposing the Federal and Queensland government, and have the support of not only a growing amount of people in the Queensland community, but also fishers, tourist operators, reef scientists and the UN World Heritage Committee. This renewed support has come about from a recent disaster with a Coal Seam Gas facility in the Gladstone Harbour area, where dredging and dumping from the coal facility brought sedimentation, turbidity, noise and disruption of fish habitats. The facility caused mass dolphin, turtle and dugong deaths, mutilated fish, and crippled the fishing and tourism industry. The poor management of this facility has apparently not been independently investigated and the Australian Greens have set up an inquiry into it.
I believe our government is not only irresponsible and motivated by money, but truly, insane. Our reef is a beautiful natural wonder of the world, and should not be flippantly passed off as a rubbish dump to foreign investors. Financial gain and convenience in a heritage site is a disgrace and the business of coal over an environment that is not replaceable is criminal.
A couple of years ago I attended the second Sharks International Conference in Cairns, North Queensland.
It presented research, opinions and questions on the future of sharks and rays throughout the world’s oceans. The first and only previous international conference for these species was held nineteen years ago.
I can only imagine what has changed since that first conference, called “Sharks Down Under”, initiated by shark conservationist John West, who compiled the Australian Shark Attack File.
Apart from the pleasure of watching presentations with current technology, instead of the carousel slide show of twenty years ago, much else has changed for the world of shark research.
In 1991, not much was known about great whites except that they were believed to be monsters that hunted people who swam at beaches. Tracking them to determine their behaviour had only barely emerged, with coastal mapping that used a compass, not the electronic tagging that has today revealed patterns of shark movements in such fascinating details
Fishing, both recreational and commercial, had no restrictions then, and the grey nurse shark was being wiped out by fisherman; a situation allowed because of its looks, which were fierce and caused alarm bells in humans, even though its behaviour was docile and timid.
Nineteen years ago research was all about cutting open a shark that was dragged in by a fisherman. From a carcass, scientists determined as much as possible in terms of age, reproduction and life history.
Today scientists know, for example, that black tip reef sharks have a complex social behaviour, the deepest diving fish is the manta ray, reaching depths of1400 metres, and that the great hammerhead is being exploited by fisheries and needs urgent intervention for it’s survival.
With the slow introduction of grants from the federal government for marine research, scientists now use better technology, and gain a clearer perspective on what this creature is all about. Twenty percent of papers on sharks by scientists deal with telemetry studies; and now, by necessity, there is sharper focus on conservation and fishing management.
But this isn’t enough. Without stronger funding and support from government bodies, marine scientists will be struggling for survival almost as much as the sharks are. We live in a world that is still not much concerned about the ocean’s inhabitants.
The ‘only good shark is a dead shark’ motto may be changing, but funding hasn’t. With medical science and health a high priority for governments, understandably, advancements in that field are enormous. You can guarantee that in the next twenty years you will be able to smoke, drink and do no exercise, and medical science will be able to combat the results.
But what of the impact of population growth, commercial and illegal fishing, climate change, offshore oil drilling and shipping, on marine life?
At this second international conference on sharks, it was established how little we know about these creatures, except that they are needed for the health of our oceans. The effects of climate change is stored in the oceans, and could be disrupting migration and feeding patterns for sharks. Acidity is rising in the oceans, affecting plant and corals, and food chains. Sharks are facing enormous pressures from commercial fisheries, by-catch and illegal shark fin trading.
So it is crucial to keep these gatherings going. The committee for Sharks International is concerned that it may be as much as five years before the next meeting.
Yet biodiversity is of paramount importance for our future. Sharks are crucial in our world and are on the edge of survival. The more we know about a species, obviously, the easier it becomes to protect it, which is why we need to ensure these International Conferences become an annual event.
I landed in Adelaide on a wintry June morning, leaving my comfortable Qantas seat to scurry across the tarmac in the icy rain, to a waiting light aircraft that would take me the last 650 km to my destination. We took off across a rough sea and soon landed in a bland airport that looked more like a field: Port Lincoln. I waited under a small tin shelter for my bag, wind nipping at my cheeks.
Named after the English village in Lincolnshire, by Matthew Flinders, who reached its shores in 1802, while charting our Southern coastline, Port Lincoln still seems remote.
In 1839, settlers made the trip from England, bringing sheep and farming skills with them. Today, agriculture has been surpassed by fishing. The locals catch prawns, abalone and crayfish. The ‘others’, the so-called ‘millionaires’, are catching great southern blue fin tuna. This highly sort- after loot is hunted, gutted and frozen, and placed on waiting Japanese vessels in a matter of hours. Tuna not processed immediately is brought in by purse seine nets, to be kept in holding pens where they are fattened up before being sold.
So, why was I there?
Not for the tuna, as I don’t eat it, due to its exploitation by fisheries, and would never go to a tuna farm to swim with a wild pelagic fish for ‘fun’. I am there for the tunas’ original predator – the great white shark.
I was driven by taxi, a good 20 minutes along the rugged coastline, to the marina, where rows of tuna boats sit, ready to leave before next daybreak. Wedged in among them I found ‘Princess 2’, my ride, looking more like an old Duchess.
I came not for the usual tourist trip, but to join five scientists who were on a mission to tag great whites and deploy buoys with acoustic tracking systems, in an area that sharks frequent.
On board, I was surrounded by laptops, tags, batteries, tape and beer. These guys like a drink. I met the chum boy, Craig, the cheerful hostess, Jennifer, and Andrew, son of legendary Rodney Fox, who started the business 20 years ago after he was attacked by a great white in the 1960’s.
We went to bed late and I woke at 3 am to the gentle rocking of our boat on its way out to sea. I smiled and went back to sleep, until I was woken again, this time with violent rolling and the crashing of waves. This must be the passage they were warning me to take seasickness tablets for. I just made it to the bathroom to throw up. I managed to get dressed and staggered up the stairs to the deck, and while wishing I could be airlifted out, and making one last purge over the side, I looked up to an amazing view. I was hit by a blast of fresh salt air and a spray of waves, and smiled. The rolling waves were raw and wild. A pod of dolphins came past and rode at our bow, until they moved effortlessly away. The shark cages, held tightly by thick rope, rattled in the surge, as if promising me for things to come. Scuba gear was placed neatly along the seats, and defrosting tuna were tied to the rails, bait no doubt.
We arrived in a cove of the Neptune Islands, truck stop for the great white shark. Our chum boy started slapping a tuna head across the waters surface. We waited. Then it came. I think I said ‘holy shit’ out loud. I couldn’t help it. The most enormous grey shape, up to seven metres long, had just breached the surface. My heart was racing. This is it. This is a great white, the most feared yet misunderstood creature on the planet, right below me. It rolled, trying to get hold of the tuna, and missed. As if angry, it slapped its tail as it headed back down.
“Right, who is going down in the cages, “ Andrew called out.
More and more sharks were arriving, some taking a bite at the edge of the dive step. It was like living in my favourite film, as a kid, Jaws. Two of the scientists told me to come with them in the rubber boat to fix the computer on the island for the tracking systems, and my smile faded.
Large sharks, rubber inflatable boat, I thought, but when he said the island is off-limits to the public and a one-off experience, I jumped in.
After trying for several tense minutes to get the engine started, we roared off.
“There is no landing step, only slippery rocks, so don’t fall in,” I was told.
I managed to leap across to the rocks, my life depended on it, and then the most amazing thing happened. A baby seal came up, curious and wide eyed. I went for my camera and was told, “You can’t take photos.” Disappointed, I put the camera away and watched the scientists get closer to the gorgeous seal and wished I had done better at maths and chemistry at school, for that opportunity.
Then we trudged up a hill covered in scrub, seals darting left and right from their sleepy nests.
“Be careful of snakes, they bite,” I was told this time.
The scientists reached their computer, which was in an airtight esky with a satellite dish over it.
“Make sure ants don’t get in the esky,” I was instructed and proceeded to brush them away.
When that was done, we sat on the white sand and watched the brown fur seals around us. Some played with each other in the small surf, while others sunbaked. I imaged this to be what it would have been like for Darwin, when he came ashore to various untouched lands. One scientist pointed out a magnificent white sea lion. He was concerned it was the only one. The fur seals are abundant because they stay and fish close to shore. Their only predator is the great white. The sea lions however, go out far and deep to fish, and get caught in commercial tuna nets.
I was saddened looking at this lone creature, under threat from an industry that would be unlikely to be troubled for its survival.
We sat on the tranquil island and watched another tourist boat arrive with shark cages. I wondered how the sharks could entertain both boats. I was told three or four more operators were trying to gain licences and access to the area. I felt uneasy about that, not only for the sharks’ welfare, but for the future of the island. Would it remain untouched once the tourists got bored with not enough sharks to go around, and head to land for some seal encounters, and upset their tranquil home.
Back on the Fox boat it was time to deploy the buoys that held the acoustic receivers. That was difficult, and took a while. It was dark when the scientists were done and we had a meal and went to bed.
In the morning, it was time to tag the sharks, and seven were identified successfully, with the tag attached to a spear, which they thrust into the sharks back.
Regular white sharks came past and the scientists would call out their names in delight.
Moo was a confident large female. Marina a sweet tempered girl. A newcomer came along with a rope wrapped around its neck, cutting into its gills. Several attempts were made to get the rope off. When that was achieved, everyone cheered. It was felt to be better than the tagging efforts.
Time to jump in the cages. Underwater, I found it wasn’t dark and gloomy, with killer creatures taking a swing at you. It was surprisingly light, majestic with schools of fish swimming past and rays cruising along. I saw a great white swim toward me and open its mouth. I felt privileged to be so close and to see it in its natural environment, doing what it does best, chasing tuna. I wanted to reach out and touch it, but thought better.
I came to the surface exhilarated. I was now in love with a creature that can’t be tamed, can’t be kept, but that is in danger from man.
We cruised home and I sat in the dark on the back of the boat, watching the black waves and thinking of the sea lion and the sharks. I had come close to a creature that has roamed the oceans for 20 million years. It started to rain again. I didn’t care. I was moved.
Shark conservation is vital. The future of marine life depends on sharks. People must respect their place in the ocean and accept the risks when entering their domain. We owe this species its continued survival.