Last summer, in the space of a few weeks, I visited Perth and the Gold Coast and noticed an astonishing contrast. Swimmers at Perth’s Cottesloe and Mullaloo Beach (where a skier was attacked in 2012, a young man mysteriously disappeared in broad daylight in 2013, and near where a diver was fatally attacked last year) barely dared to enter the water past shoulder height, and even then only briefly.
On the Gold Coast, kayakers practised their racing techniques hundreds of metres offshore, surfers were scattered along unpatrolled beaches and families spent entire relaxing days enjoying one of our nation’s finest natural assets.
The cause of the difference was nets and drumlines, the shark mitigation strategies that have been keeping Queenslanders safe for more than 50 years, and which the WA government refuses to deploy.
The contrast was more than superficial. The mood around the Gold Coast was tangibly more relaxed and happy. Life in many parts of Australia is inextricable from beach culture. In Queensland, despite what seems to be a burgeoning in the population of lethal sharks, that culture remains joyful and resilient.
This week, an eight-month senate inquiry led by Tasmanian Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson (which I attended as a witness), published a report that recommended the phasing out of Queensland’s mitigation methods to be replaced with unproven “non-lethal” methods.
West Australian senator Linda Reynolds, who was a member of the inquiry and co-authored with Tasmanian Senator and fellow Liberal Jonathon Duniam a list of alternative recommendations to Whish-Wilson’s, says the opposite should occur.
The state government in Western Australia should instead adopt the Queensland methods.
“We take offence to the assertion in the report that nets and drumlines don’t work,” she says. “I think there is ample evidence that they work.”
The WA government should and could deploy them, she said. “But sadly they are unlikely to.”
Indeed, the state government is instead subsidising personal deterrent devices that the Senate report conceded were not entirely reliable, nor were they appropriate for swimmers, bodyboarders and young surfers on small surfboards. Plus, their cost was prohibitive for tourists.
“If you can get devices that are effective for surfers, divers, swimmers and other ocean users, that would be the ideal solution,” Senator Reynolds says. “But the committee heard these devices are not yet fully tested and there are no national safety standards.”
If a personal safety device, having been promoted by the state government, ever failed, who would be liable, Senator Reynolds asks.
“There is moral and legal liability,” she says. “The state govt has squibbed by not taking more proactive methods.”
But, despite the report “seriously misunderstanding and letting down” West Australians, Senator Reynolds said there would be some experts in the field who would applaud its findings and recommendations.
“It’s up to the CSIRO to provide an opinion about the report but I suspect they will find much to their liking.” - Fred Pawle