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Does Minister Furner listen to the QLD shark control Scientific Working Group?

Humbpack whales in a bay in Antarctica, image by Rod Long
Will they make it home this year? Shark nets along east coast Australia are a lethal threat to whales migrating north from Antarctica each year. Pictured: Humpback whales in Antarctica. Image Credit: Rod Long

More than 78 humpback whales have been entangled in shark nets since 2001 (AMCS). These magnificent animals are intelligent and live up to 50 years. They are protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and under state legislation of Queensland (QLD), New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria. Humpback whale population numbers are recovering, but they are still considered vulnerable (Australian Museum).

Despite the protections offered by Commonwealth and state legislation, the number of whales becoming entangled in shark nets increases during the annual whale migration along the east coast of Australia (DAF). To reduce the number of whale entanglements, the NSW Department of Primary Industries removes the shark nets during the core period of the

whale migration from May to August each year.

Humpback whale entangles in shark net, east coast Australia
Whale caught in shark net. Image Credit: HSI-AMCS, N McLachlan

However, in QLD the shark nets remain in place all year round. This is despite calls from the QLD shark control Scientific Working Group that shark nets be removed and replaced with drumlines during the annual whale migration. Drumlines pose a lesser threat to whales than shark nets, although drumline entanglements show that this risk is not zero.

Entangled whales can drown, be predated upon or die from injury, stress and exhaustion. In August 2021, a young humpback struggled in shark nets on the Gold Coast for more than two days before it was released. The brave crews involved in its release did their best, but there were concerns about the whale’s chances of surviving, as it was released dragging chain and shark net buoys (Sea Shepherd).

In QLD, Mark Furner the Minister for Fisheries says the protection of human life always comes first, but whale entanglements are potentially life-threatening to humans too. The Minister seems to forget that crews are risking their lives when trying to free entangled whales, and also that there is no scientific evidence that shark nets keep beachgoers safe.

There are other risks to human life too—a whale in distress gets the attention of large sharks. A fully grown humpback whale can grow to 18 metres long and weigh about 30 tonnes. The thrashing and distress calls of the whale lure sharks closer to shore, actually increasing the likelihood of human-shark encounters. It is worth noting that there is no protocol to close beaches when shark nets are known to contain catch (essentially meaning they are now baited), not even when that catch is as large, as visible, and such a well-known shark attractant like a distressed humpback whale.

There are modern non-lethal alternatives available to keep beachgoers safe. There is no justifiable reason to continue putting human and marine life at risk by using outdated shark control measures, especially shark nets. This is not just our view, but also that of the Scientific Working Group.

The QLD government might be able to set aside the views and recommendations of the Scientific Working Group for now, but ‘there is mounting social pressure for management agencies to deal with the social and safety issues of shark bites in a non-destructive way’ (Pepin-Neff and Wynter, 2017; Simmons and Mehmet, 2018; as cited in Colefax et al).

Will you help us keep that pressure mounting?

Editor's note: Readers may be interested in The kindest cut: the Australians fighting to save humpback whales tangled in fishing nets. This is an article by The Guardian on 30 January 2022, showcasing the dangers involved in whale rescue, includes a short video and discusses related issues such as the dangers of shark nets.

References and further reading

ABC News, 2020, Shark nets should be replaced by drumlines in Queensland, scientific working group says

(AMCS) Australian Marine Conservation Society, Media Release, August 2021,

Avoidable humpback whale entanglement in the Gold Coast follows ignored scientific recommendation to remove shark nets

Australian Museum, website, Humpback Whale

Colefax AP, Kelaher BP, Pagendam DE and Butcher PA, 2020, Assessing White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) Behavior Along Coastal Beaches for Conservation-Focused Shark Mitigation, Frontiers in Marine Science.

(DAF), Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Queensland, website, How we minimise environmental impacts

Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, The Humpback Whales of Eastern Australia Fact Sheet

Federal Register of Legislation, website, Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, Australia

The Guardian, 2018, How one man died so a whale might live, Life and Style

The Guardian, 2022, The kindest cut: the Australians fighting to save humpback whales tangled in fishing nets, Whales

In Queensland, 2021, online article, Whale freed to continue journey, but concerns about its survival

Queensland Shark Management Plan and Scientific Working Group, The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, website

Sea Shepherd Australia, 2021, website, Exhausted Whale Left Trailing Chain and Shark Net Buoys After Harrowing Two-Day Rescue Attempt in Queensland, Media Release.

Shark Champions, What's the catch in NSW Shark Nets?,

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