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Environment and Communications References Committee
Shark mitigation and deterrent measures

MORGAN, Miss Amanda Elizabeth, Private capacity

Committee met at 09:30

CHAIR ( Senator Whish-Wilson ): I declare open this public hearing of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee in relation to its inquiry into shark mitigation and deterrent measures. This is a public hearing and a Hansard transcript of the proceedings is being made. Before the committee starts taking evidence, I remind all witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee. Such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee.

The committee prefers all evidence to be given in public. But under the Senate's resolutions, witnesses have the right to request to be heard in private session. It is important that witnesses give the committee notice if they intend to ask to give evidence in camera. In addition, if the committee has reason to believe that evidence about to be given may reflect adversely on a person, the committee may also direct that evidence be heard in private session. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground upon which the objection is taken, and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground on which it is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may, of course, also be made at any other time.

On behalf of the committee, I would like to thank all of those who have made submissions and sent representatives here today for their operation in this inquiry. This is our second day of hearing evidence in Western Australia. The reason we are here for a second day is that this issue is a major issue of public importance. We have a very large number of witnesses. We will also be hearing for a second time today from witnesses that we heard on the first day to get updates on how their technologies are proceeding. I welcome everyone.

Now, I especially welcome Miss Amanda Elizabeth Morgan. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Miss Morgan : I am here to discuss shark attack mitigation measures on behalf of the science committee.

CHAIR: I invite you to make a brief opening statement. When you are finished, we will ask you some questions.

Miss Morgan : Shark attacks are rare and sometimes fatal incidents. They command a disproportionate amount of psychological space in the minds of the public. However, I feel it is important to note that it is not shark behaviour that is changing but human perception and public activity. From 1990 to 2000, there were an average of 6½ shark attacks per year. In the subsequent decade, there was an increase of 15. However, a study by West, from the Taronga Conservation Society, indicated that this increase was positively correlated to an increase in human growth as well as beach visitations. In the last 10 years, there have been a total of 184 shark attacks in Australian waters. Twenty-one of these have been fatal; 163 have been non-fatal. What is really important to note with these statistics is that more than 54 per cent of these attacks have occurred on surfers. So other major activities, which include body boarding, spearfishing, diving, swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving—each of these categories only represent less than 10 per cent of all shark attacks.

Many of these activities, most notably surfing, do not occur on the beach side of nets and drum lines, which brings into question the validity of nets and drum lines in protecting all oceangoers, particularly the high-risk group of surfers. A number of studies have indicated that nets and drum lines are ineffective at best and are destructive to countless marine life, including non-targeted species and threatened species. The Hawaiian shark cull is a good example of this. Over a 17-year period there were almost 5,000 sharks killed with no significant reduction in shark attacks.

I believe the cost of these measures should also be addressed. Current shark-meshing programs cost in excess of $1 million. As someone who has seen first hand a reduction in funding to university—my neuroecology group was reduced from five staff to one over an 18-month period—I believe that this money could be better spent on research. I can honestly say that it's frustrating as a scientist and a taxpayer to see the government provided time and time again with scientific evidence that suggests current shark mitigation measures are not sufficient in protecting either human life or the non-targeted species that they affect. I believe the government should be putting this money into research funding as well as educating the public, and supporting and subsidising current technology for shark attack mitigation.

CHAIR: Thanks, Amanda. Can you give the committee a bit of background about you and why you are interested in this subject?

Miss Morgan : Sure. I have a bachelor in marine science and a masters in biological science, which I did at the University of WA. Since then I created the initiative called Fin Free Soup, which is basically identifying Australia's role in the shark fin trade and protecting species that are threatened with extinction. Since then we have partnered with the Discovery Channel and we are doing a documentary on it, which is hopefully going to identify Australia's role in the shark-finning trade.

CHAIR: In relation to shark finning, can you tell us the importance of sharks in healthy oceans and marine ecosystems and how that might relate to mitigation measures like baited drum lines and shark nets, which kill sharks?

Miss Morgan : Obviously they're apex predators, so they play a really important role in regulating the food chain. What is below them are referred to as mesopredators. Effectively, if you remove the apex predator, then the mesopredators are going to get out of check and there is going to be a shift in the ecosystem. So a reef system can completely shift into an algae dominated system. Sharks are an indication of ecosystem health. They regulate the food chain below them and they also remove the sick and weak from other populations so that stronger genetics can be passed on.

CHAIR: So shark numbers are correlated to ecosystem health; is that what you're saying? So if we're seeing more sharks along our coasts that is a symptom of healthy oceans. Would that be a fair conclusion for the Senate to draw?

Miss Morgan : Yes, absolutely. Sharks are referred to as K-strategists, so they have low fecundity, late maturity and long gestation periods. They're not something that can really get out of control like a rabbit or something like that on land. They'll never get to those levels because they're regulated by the abundance of food below them. Studies have shown that where there is a large biomass of sharks there are healthy ecosystems.

CHAIR: If we take the great white shark as being at the top of the food chain in terms of those apex predators—maybe putting aside orcas and some other potential threats to them—do we have any idea what impacts there would be on ecosystems if we removed great white sharks or if we removed a percentage of them by, for example, reopening commercial fisheries? Do we know what impact that would have on ecosystems?

Miss Morgan : It is definitely harder to analyse with a shark such as the great white because they are obviously a migratory species; however, they're there for a reason and they keep things like seal colonies in check, which have the ability to explode and then exhaust resources in a local area. They're definitely there for a reason. I don't believe we know the exact numbers of them, so it's hard to really say with any degree of certainty that, if remove a certain amount, they will be able to sustain themselves in the future and what sort of effect that's going to have.

CHAIR: The committee will be hearing evidence today, as we have in previous inquiries, that there has been an explosion of great white numbers on parts of the Western Australian coast. Do you have any comments about the biology aspects of that or any broader comments from your own observations? You spend a lot of time in the water and you study this. What would you like to tell the committee about that?

Miss Morgan : With the amount of fish that we extract out of the ocean for human consumption, I would find that hard to believe. I don't think there is the biomass to support what you would refer to as an explosion of great white sharks. However, I don't really look at anecdotal evidence; I only look at scientific evidence. If there was a scientific study that indicated that, then that is something I would look at and take on board. At this point, I don't believe there is.

CHAIR: In relation to the amount of sharks of different species that we catch and kill for fisheries, for shark finning and through mitigation measures, could you give the committee an idea of how many sharks we kill around the country or internationally and your concerns about the impacts on healthy oceans?

Miss Morgan : It's really hard to quantify, but estimates have been in the vicinity of about 70 million sharks a year, which is about 8,000 an hour.

CHAIR: And that is an international estimate?

Miss Morgan : Yes, that is worldwide.

CHAIR: How prevalent is the commercial industry here in Australia? Is it a significant commercial industry?

Miss Morgan : The shark fishery?

CHAIR: For example, shark fisheries. I understand finning, taking fins, is a by-product of catching sharks—or am I incorrect?

Miss Morgan : It depends on where you are talking about. In Australia, it is regulated differently in different states. However, the premise is the same, that you can't bring back more fins than bodies. Some states say that you have to bring back the fins, land the fins attached to the body. Other states say you have to have equal quantities of fins and sharks. However, other countries don't have these regulations. We import from other countries such as Hong Kong, so it is impossible to say that we are not bringing sharks in that haven't been finned alive, which is a practice that happens often because, logistically and economically, it is more effective to fill the hull of a boat with fins that it is carcasses. The meat might get US$20 a kilo whereas the fins can fetch hundreds to thousands. I think the most was about $52,000 that I heard.

CHAIR: We've had suggestions from some witnesses that the commercial fishery should reopen for great white sharks in Western Australia, and this has been promoted by some politicians as well. How would the economics of that motivate those decisions? Would you expect that, for example, great white fins would be available to be sold into the market as shark fins if that were to occur?

Miss Morgan : Yes, absolutely. I don't think they really discriminate between species when it comes to fins. It is generally more the larger the fin the more money they get for it. It is a matter of what is available.

CHAIR: So shark finning, whether it is a primary economic aim or a secondary aim in terms of a by-product of catching a shark, you think would help motivate the economics of reopening the great white commercial fishery?

Miss Morgan : Yes. The demand is, I think, decreasing with public education, however, as more regulations come in, it sort of opens the market to the illegal black market fin trade because of the high price that it can fetch. Often, the punishment doesn't really outweigh the economic benefit.

CHAIR: As a matter of interest, what is the marketing angle behind a shark fin? Is it a cultural thing for some countries—that it gives you libido? What is the go there?

Miss Morgan : Yes. There are a number of supposed health benefits associated with shark fin soup—increased libido and good skin. One of the quite predominant theories is that sharks don't get cancer and therefore if you eat shark fin soup you won't get cancer. Scientists have known for 150 years that sharks get cancer. There are 24 species that it is documented in. Most recently is, in fact, the great white shark, which was documented off the Neptune Islands in South Australia with a large tumour on its lower jaw.

CHAIR: Would it be reasonable that if a restaurant, for example, could market that the particular soup you are having had a great white fin in it—the king, apex predator; the lions of the ocean—it would be a drawcard for consumers?

Miss Morgan : Quite possibly—it might be. I think it's going be quite polarising.

CHAIR: Of course.

Miss Morgan : You're going to get the people who are outraged about it and then the people who might see it as a sign of affluence or whatever they might think of it. I'm not sure how well it would go down in Australia, to be honest.

CHAIR: And this is your area. You're basically raising education and awareness on this conservation issue.

Miss Morgan : Correct.

CHAIR: Do you think there would be outrage if, for example, those sharks were to be sold in restaurants here in Australia and elsewhere?

Miss Morgan : Yes, I do—definitely. I think there's a long way to go in education. I have found from my research and when I speak to people as well that lot of people don't believe it's served here. They think it's illegal. They're quite surprised to find out how many restaurants actually sell it.

The other side of it is the health concern for the general public. Sharks can contain high levels of mercury and a neurotoxin called BMAA, and together they have synergistic neurotoxic effects. That's something else that we need to educate the public on as well, because there are supposed health benefits which have no scientific backing; however, there are scientific studies that show that eating sharks is detrimental to human health.

Senator LINES: You said earlier in your evidence you were interested in the scientific evidence around sharks. Do you have a view as to why the federal government won't fund scientific studies in Western Australia on sharks?

Miss Morgan : Do I have a view on why they won't fund it?

Senator LINES: Yes.

Miss Morgan : It's disappointing. As I mentioned before, I've seen firsthand the effects of not having enough funding on some of the top scientists in Australia—if not the world—in shark research. That had a direct impact on me, the students I was working alongside as well as the staff. We lost some incredible scientists to jobs overseas because we couldn't sustain their positions. That's obviously going to affect the next generation of students coming through. It's also going to affect what we're able to do in future research. I definitely believe it requires more research and more understanding.

Senator LINES: So you're saying that it definitely requires more research. It'd be good for you to spell that out and, secondly, to say what you think a federal government funded study of sharks in Western Australia would bring to the debate.

Miss Morgan : I believe it would bring a better understanding. There's a lot we don't know about their behaviour, their breeding patterns, where they breed or where they give birth. These are really important fundamentals to understand if we're going to protect people and live alongside these animals in the water. I believe the more you understand something the less you fear it as well. It's not just about getting the scientists to do the research and have an understanding; there's a really big gap between that information that's published in peer-reviewed articles and the information that's relayed to the general public. That's probably where there's a large gap that needs to be filled.

Senator LINES: Do you think you can extrapolate from the studies of eastern states to say that the same applies in Western Australia, as far as sharks go?

Miss Morgan : Do you mean shark numbers? I'm not really sure—

Senator LINES: There have been studies done in the eastern states. Can you use that data to extrapolate and say, 'X, Y and Z apply in Western Australia,' or is that a dangerous assumption to make?

Miss Morgan : It could be, because I believe that the population on the eastern side is sometimes completely separate. Depending on how long they've been separated for, there can be differences in the genetics between species. There can be differences in behaviour as well. Great whites from WA obviously go to South Africa, but I'm not sure whether the populations in the eastern states take the same transit routes, so perhaps their breeding and mating areas are going to be different. If one is X amount of kilometres offshore we can't really assume that this population is going to be the same distance from the shore. It may be similar, but it is a difficult assumption to make and possibly a dangerous one.

Senator LINES: So we shouldn't be making those assumptions.

Miss Morgan : No.

Senator REYNOLDS: Thanks for appearing here today. I didn't quite catch it when you said who you were here representing. You said it too quickly and I didn't actually understand whether you are representing yourself or if you are here on behalf of an organisation.

Miss Morgan : Just the scientific community. I am here on behalf of myself.

Senator REYNOLDS: Which scientific community, just for a bit of specificity for our report?

Miss Morgan : I don't want to say I'm representing UWA because I'm here representing myself, but that is my background. I worked with a group that has done the two scientific studies on the current shark attack mitigations on the market—the only two published studies. I don't believe one of them has been published yet, but it's about to be. That one is on the wetsuits, and the other one was on the shark shield. So that is my background and where my shark knowledge has come from and grown from.

Senator REYNOLDS: Thank you. I just wanted to make sure because I think you have worked with Mr Deschamps, who is giving an appearance. So your relationships with him and some of the other witnesses are just professional relationships?

Miss Morgan : It's really just—

Senator REYNOLDS: A common interest?

Miss Morgan : Yes, basically. We haven't worked professionally as yet, but we have very close, similar interests and professional fields.

Senator REYNOLDS: How would you describe those interests in common?

Miss Morgan : Shark conservation. I think it's bringing what we do—that information—to the general public. As I mentioned, there is a big gap between what happens with science and what happens on the ground as well. People that are out there working with sharks and working on the water all the time have a better understanding of sharks, their nature and their natural behaviour which isn't always conveyed in the media correctly. It's just about bringing that real information to the public.

Senator REYNOLDS: At our last hearing in Perth we did have, I think we would say, a rather robust discussion or exchange on the media. Can you just clarify if you think the media is reporting correctly? Why do you think that is and what do you think the implications of that are? You are talking about public debate, so you could you just pick that a bit for us?

Miss Morgan : I mentioned in my opening statement that shark attacks command a disproportionate amount of psychological space in the public mind because I believe that any incident with a shark gets so much attention that you could interpret that as something that is happening often, whereas it's just highlighted to the extent that it seems like shark attacks are happening on a very frequent basis. However, they are incredibly infrequent, especially mortalities from shark attacks. They do sensationalise things. I understand that they are coming from a point where they need to command a certain amount of attention and make the story interesting—

CHAIR: Do you mean to sell newspapers? Is that what you mean?

Senator REYNOLDS: I will let the witness say.

CHAIR: I don't want to put words in your mouth, Miss Morgan.

Senator REYNOLDS: I think Miss Morgan is well and truly able to answer the questions, thank you. Are you saying that they shouldn't report it?

Miss Morgan : No, absolutely not. People are entitled to know what is happening, especially when it happens in their area, on their local beach or things like that. I just believe that it's done in a way that gives the impression that they are more frequent than they are. They are not put into perspective. We think about sharks—

Senator REYNOLDS: I guess the question then is: is there a kinder and gentler way of describing the impact of a shark attack on someone's body? Is that what you are trying to say—that maybe you can find a nicer, kinder, gentler way of describing what happens?

Miss Morgan : It's not even in terms of reporting shark attacks; it might be in terms of reporting a shark sighting. When you use words like 'sharks lurking off WA beaches' it gives the impression that they are doing something wrong or having a sinister demeanour. However, a shark is just swimming in its environment. If you used that same analogy with humans, where they were eating lunch or just walking past something, it would be ridiculous. However, when we put it onto sharks people seem to accept it.

Senator REYNOLDS: What are you saying the implication is of the media reporting of sharks and shark attacks? I'm still not clear. You raised that in your opening speech. What is the significance of it?

Miss Morgan : It's a heightened sense of fear, I believe. People feel that they don't understand, and most people don't understand sharks. They don't spend a lot of time in the water. They might go to the beach and enter the water up to their knees. The majority of people don't dive on a regular basis, or scuba dive or surf. It is hard to understand what you're not exposed to frequently, so I believe there is a heightened sense of fear. However, what was really interesting was a previous study that was done in New South Wales and South Australia on beachgoers. I think less than one per cent of all respondents who were surveyed chose a particular beach because of current shark attack mitigation measures that were there.

Senator REYNOLDS: Just on that, in relation to the mitigation measures in New South Wales and Queensland, the statistics, to me, clearly demonstrate that they are effective and they do provide reassurance. You don't think that those measures should be there at all?

Miss Morgan : I don't believe those kinds of measures should be there, no. People want something to be done, which is understandable. When a shark attack happens it is extremely emotional, and I understand and appreciate that. I believe that there can be more effective measures used. I believe there can be more humane measures used. I believe that there need to more education for people, because if less than one per cent of people are choosing those beaches because those shark measures are in place, then there is something missing in that data.

Senator REYNOLDS: In terms of—

CHAIR: We are running out of time.

Senator REYNOLDS: As Miss Morgan has said, she is here representing the scientific community. We haven't even gone into that yet.

CHAIR: Senator Reynolds, last question.

Senator REYNOLDS: And so it begins. Miss Morgan, I have a rather large question. You said that you value scientific evidence above all else. Senator Lines asked you a question about research. As I understand it, and according to what this committee has been provided, there is no reliable research about shark numbers. We heard anecdotal evidence from people that the shark numbers on the WA coast are increasing. There is a current CSIRO study that is attempting to map populations of sharks. Do you think that is a good thing?

Miss Morgan : Yes.

Senator REYNOLDS: Can you expand on that a bit further, because I got the impression you were saying that research wasn't happening. But you are supportive of this?

Miss Morgan : Yes, absolutely. I'm supportive of any research that people are doing on sharks, especially someone like the CSIRO or universities. I think the more we know the more we understand, and is only going to be beneficial for humans.

Senator REYNOLDS: So if the CSIRO study come back—I understand it is bi-coastal—and finds that the great white population, in particular, is increasing here exponentially, what would you then think if the government sought to have its status changed under the EPBC Act and international treaties. What would your position be on that?

Miss Morgan : I don't believe that population could increase exponentially.

Senator REYNOLDS: So you've already predetermined? You think it will find that the population hasn't increased?

Miss Morgan : No, it could increase, but not exponentially.

Senator REYNOLDS: But enough to pass the threshold test for a reclassification of the great white? Or are you saying you don't think—

Miss Morgan : If they have increased to a point where they are deemed by the proper authorities to be at a level where they are not threatened or endangered, then, of course, I would not question that.

CHAIR: In relation to the questions from Senator Reynolds about the media, were you suggesting that the media reporting is counterproductive? You said it was important that the media report on shark encounters, but you said that it is leading to a heightened state of fear. Are you suggesting that reporting can be counterproductive for the public debate?

Miss Morgan : Yes.

CHAIR: Do you want to quickly expand on that?

Miss Morgan : It can be very one-sided. It can be subjective. It may not provide all the facts. It can be a dangerous thing. If someone's not provided with all the evidence and they just read a small article, then it's very hard for them to make an educated opinion on that matter. People can voice their opinion, and that's fine, but I think it's quite dangerous when people start doing so without looking at all the facts and all the information.

Senator REYNOLDS: I think you've at least once or twice referred to sharks as animals. Would it be more correct to call them fish?

Miss Morgan : Yes.

Senator REYNOLDS: It's only a small thing. So sharks—great whites—are fish?

Miss Morgan : Correct.

Senator REYNOLDS: Thank you.

CHAIR: I wasn't aware, until you mentioned it earlier, that you'd been working on shark shield research.

Miss Morgan : No, I haven't, sorry.

CHAIR: You haven't?

Miss Morgan : I said my neuroecology group. I worked alongside the group at the university that did the scientific research on shark shields.

CHAIR: When you go diving, do you wear a shark shield at any time?

Miss Morgan : I have before, but not all the time.

CHAIR: Not regularly?

Miss Morgan : I don't own one.

CHAIR: Thank you for giving your evidence today. It's most appreciated.