Tag Archives: legislation

The Largest Marine Park Network in the World

I’m back from the land of no internet, and boy do I have great news!

On November 16th 2012, the Federal Government officially declared our new network of protected marine reserves, the largest in the world! Australia is now officially among the world’s best marine protectors, something it needed with the world’s third largest ocean jurisdiction and diverse, fragile ecosystems. We also have some of the world’s most unique marine life, including in the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Sea, and here in the South West where up to 90% of marine life is unique and half the world’s whale and dolphin species are known to occur.

Marine Parks Announcement. Save Our Marine Life

Thirty-three new Commonwealth Marine Parks will be added to the 27 marine parks already in place around Australia (which previously only protected about 4% of our waters). Now 36% of Australian waters will be protected.

The announcement is the culmination of 14 years of hard work and preparation, scientific research and consultation. Plus the actions of the community in showing the government how much they value our marine ecosystem, lifestyle and the benefits that come with a protected environment. More than half a million messages of support were sent to the government during the process, and a record 70% of the public approved of the plan. It really goes to show the importance of people power.

For more information and a summary of the great new marine reserves, head over to Save Our Marine Life.

These new marine reserves pave the way for future marine protection in our waters.

Of course, much work is still needed to address overfishing and oil and gas development threats around Australia.

In addition, there is still time to ask for a few last minute improvements to the marine reserves network in “four forgotten areas”:

  1. Endangered Australian Sea Lion colonies in the South West need protection from gillnet fishing.
  2. Seagrass meadows important for threatened Dugongs in the Limmen Bight, Northern Territory, need protection from seafloor dredge mining.
  3. Seismic testing for oil could put endangered blue whales and sea lions at risk off Kangaroo Island, South Australia.
  4. The Bremer Canyon off WA is an important marine life hotspot including orcas and sperm whales, which is also threatened by oil and gas development. The government put in place a ‘No Oil’ area off Margaret River, so there is precedent for protection of these important habitats.

Click here to send a message to the Environment Minister Tony Burke asking for him to include these important places in the marine sanctuaries network.

Thanks to everyone who helped make this historic achievement possible. Now let’s go out and enjoy our marine life for years to come!

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Shark Culling Not The Answer

The government recently announced a new package of funding for ‘shark mitigation strategies’, aimed at reducing the incidence of shark attacks on our beaches.  After five fatalities in only one year the WA government is under immense pressure to be seen to be doing something…  But the announcement that $2mil of the $6.85mil package is to spent on tracking and potentially destroying sharks if they come too close to swimmers has many people up in arms.

Great White Shark. Source: Courier-Mail

White Pointers and Western Australia

The Great White Shark (white pointer) is listed as vulnerable to extinction in the IUCN’s Red List of threatened and endangered species (i.e. it is endangered).  It is protected in Australian waters under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act and internationally under the Convention for the Trade of Endangered Species (CITES).

Not much is known about their populations, but if this apex predator is lost from the ecosystem, there could be significant and far-reaching consequences for the oceans and our fisheries.

Of what we do know, these animals make transoceanic migrations, and global populations appear to be linked.  Therefore culling them could, in fact, become an international issue.

In WA, certain times of the year may be more dangerous than others.  Oceanic events attract large sharks to feed near shore, for example when snapper are spawning in Cockburn Sound.  Educating the public and providing beach patrols could reduce the risk of incidents.

And whilst the past year may have seen more large sharks off WA’s coast, sharks are in reality facing a global crisis.  Illegal and unregulated fishing driven by the demand for shark fin soup in Asia has reduced shark populations by 90%.  There is yet no evidence to determine if populations of large sharks are recovering in WA or if there have just been more visiting the West Coast than in previous years.

The $4mil funding for applied research and tagging programs is very welcome.  We need to understand these animals more in order to deter future incidents.  Money allocated to surf-lifesavers to increase beach safety, and $150,000 for community awareness programs is also really positive.

We need education and research.  Public safety and shark conservation working together.

Culling: Necessary or Knee-Jerk?

The current legislation (Section 7[2] of the Fish Resource management Act 1994) allows the Department of Fisheries to kill sharks after a fatality, if they can properly identify the individual involved.  To date, they have never acted on this legislation.  Now the Department of Fisheries will have the option of killing sharks before an incident.

The proposed culling would take place if a human life was in danger.  The authorities are still trying to work out how this would be determined.  But how could they prove that a specific shark would in fact cause an incident?

Killing an animal in its natural environment – especially a protected species – pre-emptively is unscientific, unnecessary and a knee-jerk reaction.  ‘Guilty until proven innocent’ is killing without a purpose.  No shark that has been spotted by authorities has ever been implicated in a later attack.

$2mil allocated to track, catch and destroy sharks is an overreaction.  It is a ‘cosmetic’ reaction, an appeasement tactic, based on emotion rather than science.  Sharks are already killed in their millions every year due to overfishing and shark-finning.  Hawaii once culled 4,668 sharks (including 554 tiger sharks) between 1959-1976, but no significant decrease in the rate of shark bites was detected.

In comparison, aerial patrols have been shown to work, along with taking personal responsibility for your own safety.  Four out of the last five fatalities were people diving, surfing or body boarding – further from shore than most swimmers would go.

There may also be the problem of increased risk with this new policy, if ocean lovers choose not to report a sighting of a large shark for fear of it being killed.  On the other hand, the policy may perpetuate the fear that all large sharks are potential killers, when in fact we don’t know this.

Education and research will help reduce fear of swimming, not culls.

Shark Nets

Port Jackson Shark caught in a net in NSW. Source: HSIA proposed method of protection in my local area is to introduce shark nets on swimming beaches.  These have been around on the East Coast for around 70 years… but shark nets are cruel, indiscriminate and they also don’t work.

Shark nets give the public a false sense of safety, but in reality sharks are free to swim around the nets, often getting caught as they leave the shallow “protected” areas again. They are indiscriminate and catch any and all marine life that come in to contact with them, including dolphins, turtles, whales, manta rays, dugongs and other sharks.  Nets which have caught other marine animals may even act as floating bait for sharks.  (Drumlines set to capture and kill sharks have also been suggested, and would do the same thing).

And nets have even been known to catch people: in 2007 a teenage boy drowned when he got caught in a shark net off NSW.

In a Department of Primary Industries report in 2009, focussing on NSW, shark bite incidents from 1937-2008 showed that of the 38 shark attacks recorded in the state, 24 of them (63%) took place at netted beaches, with 14 injuries.  There was only one fatality at a netted beach (1951).  However, survival rates for shark bites are now up to 80%, due to better on-scene treatment and antibiotics, and a 63% failure rate of attack prevention isn’t encouraging.

In addition, a report commissioned by the WA Department of Fisheries (August 2012) actually said: “Due to the environmental impacts of shark control activities, it is not recommended that either shark nets or drum-lines be introduced into Western Australia”.  Someone didn’t read the report, it seems.

Education and surveillance are the best prevention against shark attacks until better repellent devices are developed.

So What Now?

Shark nets, drumlines and culling are environmentally hazardous, cruel and indiscriminate means which are not necessary if money was instead invested in non-lethal methods and increased understanding of these animals.  The government is wasting time and money on something which the WA public is overwhelmingly against, for the sake of appeasing a loud voiced minority.

I am not a shark expert, but as a marine biologist I campaign for conservation of our oceans, so that we can have a sustainable future.  The removal of a keystone species could have far-reaching consequences for our ecosystem and fisheries, and methods designed to indiscriminately kill any marine animal could also be devastating for our local populations, as well as our fisheries and tourism industry.

Some people have said that overfishing has led to sharks coming closer in to shore to find food, others say that ocean currents affect their movement patterns, but until we understand more about the real – and likely multiple – reasons behind the recent spate of shark attacks we need to invest in education, surveillance and research.  Culling is not the answer.

Please sign a petition (there is a list here) against shark culling and destructive shark nets in WA.

– Some of these comments appeared in my local newspaper on 5th October –

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Don’t feed the dolphins – they can learn bad habits from each other

Wild dolphin visits boat. Picture by Gail Broady on FlickrYou’re out on a boat fishing and a dolphin appears beside you.  It looks at you sideways, with those intelligent eyes.  What harm could there be from giving it a bit of fish?  Maybe it’ll stick around. You toss it over to the animal.  Yum.

What could be the harm in this?

Sadly, the answer is: quite a lot.

Studies into provisional feeding (humans giving animals food in the wild) have shown that animals can become dependent on these food handouts. The classic example is the famous Monkey Mia, where visitors have been able to feed local dolphins by hand for over 40 years.  In the 1960s, fishers returning to Monkey Mia began sharing their catch with some local dolphins.  Over the years, the dolphins’ trust grew and several more were fed at the jetty and later the beach.  As increasing numbers of visitors came to see the dolphins, news of the phenomenon spread.

Yet as the practice grew, some of the dolphins came to rely on hand-outs and began to lose their wild instincts, such as their ability to hunt.  Calves of some overfed dolphins even starved to death because of neglect by their mothers.  Between 1987 and 1994, 92% (11 of 12) of nursing calves born to provisioned (hand-fed) females died.   Since 1995, when the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) changed the feeding program, only 23% (3 of 13) of calves born to provisioned females have died, one of whom was killed by a shark.  Careful management means that the dolphins can continue to be able to support themselves naturally, and pass on these survival skills to the next generation.

Bad Habit

It is illegal under state and federal law in Australia to feed wild dolphins.  The managed feeding of wild dolphins occurs in only a few places, where interactions are licensed and subject to stringent regulations so as to protect the animals.

Monkey Mia taught us why.  And another recent study from Cockburn Sound near Perth emphasises it.

Bec Donaldson from Murdoch University’s Conservation Medicine Program started researching the Cockburn Sound dolphins in 1993, focusing on social ecology.  Further research was carried out until 2003 by Hugh Finn of the University’s Cetacean Research Unit (MUCRU).  The 80km2, semi-enclosed bay south of Fremantle includes Perth’s main industrial area, a naval base, and important recreational and commercial fisheries. There are also about 75 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins resident year-round.

Over the years, the researchers collected information on illegal feeding of the dolphins by recreational fishers in the area.  The number of dolphins ‘begging’ for food increased from one individual at first (‘Touch’) to fourteen (especially males, I might add).  How?  Associates of beggars learned how to do it themselves.  Dolphins were more likely to become beggars if they spent more time in areas with lots of recreational boats, and associated with other begging dolphins.

Dolphins are social animals, and can learn from each other.  Even bad behaviours.  So what?

Begging is not a good thing to learn.  The researchers also found that dolphins who had learned to beg from humans had higher rates of injury from boat strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.  They became conditioned to human interactions.  One dolphin, ‘Hook’, disappeared after eight years of begging, in which his behaviour changed dramatically.  He became a loner and started travelling  to beg from boats far out of his home range.  He hasn’t been seen since 2008-9.

A community education campaign in the area in 2008 reduced the amount of illegal feeding, but it hasn’t stopped entirely.

What to do?

Managers need to take into account that dolphins can potentially learn harmful behaviours from each other socially.  More research must be conducted on individual animals to determine what factors may influence this.

Secondly, we as the public need to be aware that – no matter how cute they are and how harmless it may seem – feeding animals in the wild is just not good for them.  Don’t do it.  If you’re out on the water and a dolphin pops up beside you that’s great… In fact it’s pretty awesome!  But please think about the potential effect you could have before tossing into that grinning mouth a big delicious fish.

Link to the scientific paper:

Donaldson, R., Finn, H., Bejder, L., Lusseau, D., Calver, M. (2012), The social side of human–wildlife interaction: wildlife can learn harmful behaviours from each other. Animal Conservation. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-1795.2012.00548.x

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