You’d be forgiven for thinking that the very existence of national environmental laws creates an obligation on Environment Ministers to protect the environment. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Instead, their obligations are limited by the objects and duties that are specified in the law. And in the case of our...
Last week a joint announcement from the Queensland Fisheries Minister Mark Furner and the Federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley signalled an agreement to end the deliberate culling of sharks in the Great Barrier Reef.
Mainstream media outlets confused the issue greatly and ran headlines alluding to the return of drumlines, some even going as far as saying that “…green groups had been put back in their box.”
In actuality, the announcement signified the backing down of a Queensland state government formerly obstinate in their desire to kill sharks, and the implementation of court orders from a case won by Humane Society International (HSI) 9 months ago.
A court hearing in late January 2019 had seen the culmination of 18 months of lobbying, negotiating and preparation for legal action. HSI was challenging the legality of the lethal Shark Control Program in the Great Barrier Reef at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) in Brisbane. Over two days of testimony from expert witnesses, HSI barristers, supported by our solicitors at the Environmental Defenders Office, had argued that culling sharks does not keep people safe and has a detrimental impact on the ecological health of the Great Barrier Reef. During the hearing, Queensland’s own expert witness admitted that if the lethal program was ended tomorrow, that there would be no impact on the risk to swimmer safety.
In April, the AAT handed down the decision that the lethal component of the Shark Control Program must end, calling it “…superficially attractive albeit unscientific,” and “out of step with national and international developments.” Among the AAT orders were stipulations for the daily checking of drumlines, the immediate release of hooked animals, and the tagging and relocation of large specimens of tiger, white and bull sharks. In addition, the orders mandated a trial of SMART drumlines, and research into the population status of tiger sharks in the Great Barrier Reef. Prior to the court case, hooked animals were left to die slowly on lines that were only checked by contractors every few days, and if any of nineteen species of shark on a target list were found to still be alive, they were shot. Hundreds of sharks met this fate every year.
The AAT’s orders were as follows:
1. The current permit is to be varied to include a condition requiring the permittee (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority) to carry out the Shark Control Program in a manner that avoids, to the greatest extent possible, the lethal take of shark species.
2. The target shark list is to be removed from the current permit.
3. The current permit is to be varied to ensure that the euthanasia of sharks caught on the drum lines is only to be undertaken on animal welfare grounds, specifically when a shark is unlikely to survive release due to its condition or an injury, or which cannot be safely removed alive due to weather conditions or hooking location.
4. The current permit is to be varied to ensure sharks are attended to as soon as possible when captured on drum lines, preferably within 24 hours.
5. The current permit is to be varied to ensure all tiger, bull and white sharks caught on drum lines are tagged, using best available technology, before being released so that their movements may be monitored and researched.
6. The current permit is to be varied to ensure tagged sharks be relocated off shore, where possible, and not at site of capture.
7. The current permit is to be varied to ensure SMART drum lines are trialled and implemented on a progressive basis as soon a reasonably possible.
8. The current permit is to be varied to include a condition that requires research to be conducted into alternative non-lethal shark control measures.
9. The current permit is to be varied to include a condition requiring research be conducted into the tiger shark population.
The battle had been won, but the war was far from over.
The Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (QDAF) appealed the decision to the Federal Court based on legal and jurisdictional technicalities, and shark culling was allowed to continue until a hearing at that court in August. After the Appeal hearing, the Federal Court handed down their decision in September, throwing QDAF’s case out. Sharks had now won in the AAT and the Federal Court of Australia.
Queensland’s next tactic would be to raise public alarm to try to circumvent the court orders. To continue a deliberate culling program in the Great Barrier Reef, the legislation protecting the World Heritage Area would have to be altered which would require amendments in the federal parliament. QDAF unnecessarily removed all drumlines from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park on the eve of the spring school holidays in order to apply pressure to the Federal Government to change the legislation. A media storm of back and forth erupted with Queensland at best ignoring and at worst purposefully misinterpreting science to suit their efforts to continue the lethal program. Over the next few weeks Minister Furner issued 30+ media releases to Queensland coastal media seeking to leverage public alarm over the issue. In addition, in what felt like retaliation, 32 extra lethal drumlines outside the marine park were installed despite the AAT confirming scientific evidence that they make no difference to public safety.
To her credit, the Federal Minister for the Environment stood her ground. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park legislation would not be changed and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority expressed a willingness to implement the AAT orders and issue QDAF a permit to continue operating drumlines in the marine park in line with them. The Queensland tourism industry also called for the orders to be implemented and an end to the media hysteria.
That brings us to last week, which saw the announcement of a joint plan from Queensland and the Federal Government to finally implement the court orders and begin a new era of non-lethal shark control on the Great Barrier Reef.
As proven in the court proceedings, culling sharks cannot protect ocean users, but there are measures that can. Modern non-lethal technologies such as drone surveillance, SMART drumlines and personal shark deterrents are much more effective at protecting human lives in the water. Additionally, education is our most powerful tool to reduce the risk of shark bite. Following good advice given in Queensland’s SharkSmart program can make all the difference.
A note on SMART drumlines – HSI remains concerned over the effectiveness and welfare impact of these technologies. It is still true that the capture of sharks does not affect human safety, but tagging and tracking programs are potentially beneficial. The more we know about these animals, the better we can protect ourselves. Furthermore, SMART drumlines are designed to be non-lethal and therefore are a preferred option when compared to lethal drumlines and shark nets. We support the implementation of SMART drumline trials, as long as they replace lethal methods and exist as an indication of progress towards non-lethal shark control.
It is our hope that when these non-lethal technologies have been trialled and public confidence grows under mature political leadership, the pointless culling apparatus all along the Queensland coast will be dismantled.
While the drumlines return, they will now be managed non-lethally – the shooting of sharks has ended. Concerns still remain regarding the protocols for euthanasia of caught animals too far gone, and the timing of Queensland’s commitments, but ending the legality of a lethal shark control program is a massive victory and a significant step forward in an ongoing journey. Importantly, it’s a journey towards modern technology which will be better for both public safety and reef ecology.
This achievement would not have been possible without the incredible team at the Environmental Defender’s Office, as well as our barristers at the AAT hearings: Mr Saul Holt QC and Ms Natasha Hammond, and the Federal Court hearings Dr Chris McGrath and Mr Edward Muston QC. To these parties we owe our deepest and sincere thanks.
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A marine ecologist specialising in conservation, research and outreach, Lawrence has spent years working with wildlife, the ocean and the public to engender sustainable relationships between them. He has worked as a field biologist, environmental consultant, naturalist and project coordinator with a BA from the University of San Diego, and an MSc from James Cook University. Lawrence’s work at HSI is currently focused on shark welfare and protection, specifically in regards to culling and control programs, overexploitation, and international protection.