Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Environment and Communications References Committee
20/04/2017
Shark mitigation and deterrent measures

SMITH, Mr David, Chief Executive Officer, Surfsafe Pty Ltd

CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. We are happy for you to make a short opening statement to the committee and then we will ping some questions at you.

Mr Smith : I have been a surfboard maker and have been involved in the surfing industry for around 30 years now. I got into this space with shark mitigation around five years ago, after the spate of attacks. Before 2012 I got into creating an in-built shark deterrent for surfers. My main goal was to have something that protected surfers that they did know was in their board but gave them maximum protection or a benefit of reducing the risk of being attacked by sharks.

At that stage there were still products on the market. As a retailer, I was selling these products and found that they were not user-friendly and our customers were not confident using them. The further we looked into it, the attacks were continuing and surfers were not supporting the products that were available to them. I set out to try to collaborate with the products that were on the market. That was not met very well. We could not get any support from them, so I went onto the road to creating a product.

We brought out a product which was called Surfsafe. We brought that out in late 2012. We tested this in Australia with bull sharks in the northwest. We did three expeditions there. We found that we needed to get research permits for white shark research, so we put in for animal ethics permits and we received those for South Australia and for New Zealand. We did three expeditions after that to South Australia, in collaboration with Charlie Huveneers from Flinders University in South Australia. We took Charlie on one of the trips. We did two trips for in-house research to work to create a product that was going to be beneficial to surfers and deter white shark attacks. We had a product we came out with called Surfsafe which was in-built into surfboards. Each unit had to be provided with each board, so it was not cost-effective for us to continue with this. We were obviously trying to work on a product that was interchangeable.

We came up with the first interchangeable shark deterrent for surfboards, called RPELA. This device is widely used around the world now. The biggest sales are in Western Australia and Reunion Island. We have sold over 3,000 of these products. The surfers are happy with this product. They believe in it. It is effective to deter sharks, it does not affect the way the board performs, and the surfers do not get affected by its electromagnetic field. It puts out a strong electromagnetic field. We have continued to test for the last two years between Charlie Huveneers and the oceans institute in Mossel Bay, South Africa. This is ongoing and the New South Wales government have funded an independent study. That is continuing currently with Flinders University in South Australia at the Neptune Islands.

This is the first product that is effective where the surfers do not feel it in their board. With other products that are still on the market, the surf is affected and it is not user-friendly. The shock that people are feeling from this, especially kids, means they will not use the other products on the market. Strong electromagnetic field products, due to their strong outputs, are very similar to this, but because of the way they are installed in the board it is not comfortable. People will not use them. This product currently retails for $400 for the unit, and the non-active system that is installed in the board or your housing is $100 per board. So it is very cost-effective for the end user to get one housing installed in each board.

Senator URQUHART: Before you put that away, can you turn it over and show me that.

Mr Smith : This is a reciprocal which is in the board.

Senator URQUHART: Do you buy that in the board or do you get it put in the board?

Mr Smith : You have this installed in the board. I have trained the board makers from Wollongong up to Noosa and all the board makers in WA. I just have not trained them in Victoria. I have trained them in South Australia.

Senator URQUHART: So they will fit any surfboard? You just scoop a bit out?

Mr Smith : Yes, exactly. There is a fitting template that we supply to the board makers on how that gets installed. It takes around 35 to 40 minutes to retrofit it into a board, and it takes around five to 10 minutes longer when they make a board. So it is $100 in a new board and $150 in a retrofitted board.

Senator URQUHART: So the little thing you had in your hand—

Mr Smith : It is just a plug.

Senator URQUHART: But the other thing is the proper thing. How is that secured?

Mr Smith : It is just secured by a—

Senator URQUHART: A screw or something?

Mr Smith : Yes. It has a lever and a lock-in system. There are no tools required. It is designed so it does not need any tools.

Senator URQUHART: So it is included in that and that is what has the 12-hour life?

Mr Smith : Yes, exactly.

Senator URQUHART: It is very neat.

CHAIR: Can you send it around and allow us to have a look at that unit?

Mr Smith : Yes, for sure. We have two battery packs. We have a pro model, which is a lighter weight model, which weighs 125 grams. And we have another model which weighs 155 grams and that runs for eight hours. The pro model runs for four hours.

At Reunion Island, our main customer, every week there were encounters with bull sharks. We went to Reunion Island and spoke to the French government there. They were very interested. I spoke to them again only an hour ago. They are very interested; they just want an independent scientific study. As soon as that is completed, we will be talking with them to further it.

Senator LINES: Why is there the difference between four and eight hours? Is it cost?

Mr Smith : No. The only difference is the weight. The four-hour battery is lighter weight. The charging cycle on it is very fast. It takes three or four hours to charge. It charges on a car charger and on an AC wall charger. We have had it lab tested, so it is safe to use. We have CE certification and EMC certification.

Senator LINES: Where is it manufactured?

Mr Smith : The electronics are manufactured offshore and it is assembled in Australia. It is a wholly Australian owned company. There is no licensing to South Africa or anywhere else, unlike other products. This product is totally user-friendly and you will find that most surfers in Australia are using this product and have been using it for three years. Where the last attack was in Esperance, most of the local surfers have been using this for over two years now. They are using it in the bay where the last fatality was two days ago.

CHAIR: Have there been encounters since surfers have been using it?

Mr Smith : Since it has been installed down there? No. A shark has come near three of them. They were paddling 700 metres across that beach, across the break to an outer offshore break. They did have a shark come close to them. This was around six months ago. The shark did not come any closer than four or five metres from them.

Senator URQUHART: Sorry. We are jumping in over the top of your presentation, which is quite interesting. How many surfers would have your device?

Mr Smith : Now?

Senator URQUHART: Yes.

Mr Smith : Over 3,000.

Senator URQUHART: In Australia?

Mr Smith : In Australia, it would be around 2,500 and around 500 overseas—in the US. We did not want to go in to the global market until we had finished our scientific study just to make sure that was all accredited. Reunion would not wait for it. It has been such a huge impact on their community.

CHAIR: There have been riots over there over it.

Senator LINES: What is the cost?

Mr Smith : The device is $400. This has been self-funded research. It has been very costly for me. I have not been able to get any support from the WA government for the last—

Senator LINES: The Barnett government?

Mr Smith : From the Barnett government—for the last 4½ years or from the universities in WA. We have been solely using the institutes outside—the research institute in South Africa and Flinders University in South Australia for all our consultation and—

Senator SIEWERT: I just want to put on the record—

Senator REYNOLDS: Has Mr Smith finished his opening statement?

CHAIR: We have had a hybrid opening statement, which we are very happy with.

Senator SIEWERT: Before I ask my questions, I do want to put on the record that my husband owns several of Mr Smith's boards, although he has not bought any of the shark products. What is the extent of the coverage of the device? How many metres around the board?

Mr Smith : We can measure the field to three metres in diameter and we can detect the field from there with our equipment. We can measure the perimeter. When we do the field testing with sharks, we noticed them detecting it before the 3-metre mark.

Senator SIEWERT: Can it go in any sized board?

Mr Smith : It can go in a body board and a kayak, and it is versatile to any watercraft.

Senator SIEWERT: You mentioned kids' boards?

Mr Smith : Yes. The smallest board is in northern Florida. We have a girl using a four foot six board. She is six years old. This is the youngest kid on the smallest board. She has been using that for coming up to one year now. She is absolutely confident in it.

Senator SIEWERT: You mentioned your research—with Flinders and?

Mr Smith : Ocean Institute in South Africa. They are the ones who have done the testing on all electronic devices. Electronic shark deterrents have been tested at Flinders University by Dr Charlie Huveneers. Dr Huveneers has done more testing on electronic deterrents than anyone in Australia.

Senator SIEWERT: When is that research going to be available?

Mr Smith : It is in the hands of the New South Wales government. It should be finalised before the end of the year.

Senator SIEWERT: We are not going to be able to get it before the report is prepared. That is where I am coming from on that.

Mr Smith : In July, the testing should be totally finished. The report will not be ready for another month or two after that.

CHAIR: We can consider that. You have sold it to lots of surfers—3,000—but you have not had the independent scientific study done yet.

Mr Smith : No.

CHAIR: How have you managed to convince surfers that it works?

Mr Smith : Surfers want a product like this. This is where they have supported it. They have supported it solely in purchasing it to support the ongoing research. Every cent of that and more has been put back into research.

CHAIR: You have given us one anecdote about some surfers in Esperance. Are there others?

Mr Smith : No, we have not had any others. We make it very clear to them to get in touch with us. We had one at Mettams Pool last year. We had a surfer there who was approached by a large shark and found it deterred it straightaway. He put a post straightaway on our website. That is the only other one we have had where we have had any feedback with an encounter.

CHAIR: Obviously the independent verifications would be very important for the committee. You mentioned you have taken it to the Neptune Islands already.

Mr Smith : No, we have taken it to Stewart Island. We have done three expeditions to Stewart Island off New Zealand.

CHAIR: Do you put out a board like that with some bait?

Mr Smith : We do not use a board. We do not want to encourage any surfing. We put it in a tube and we set the two electrodes one metre apart. There is a bait on there and we do it with a control and without a control.

CHAIR: Were you encouraged by what you saw there?

Mr Smith : Absolutely. We have had to do this all in house. We have obviously changed frequencies. We went from very high frequencies, up to around 50 pulses per second, down to low frequencies, and we saw the reaction and the change. The difference between this and other electromagnetic deterrents on the market is that this runs at a much higher frequency. This runs at DC, whereas the others run at low-frequency AC.

Senator SIEWERT: You said that it was $400 for the unit.

Mr Smith : For the main unit, yes.

Senator SIEWERT: And then the housing is $100.

Mr Smith : It is $100 installed in a new board. To buy the housing itself is $50.

Senator SIEWERT: Surfers own a lot of boards. Can you put housings in each of your boards and then just transfer them?

Mr Smith : Yes, just transfer it from board to board. Our main goal was to have something that was portable and plug and play basically from board to board.

CHAIR: You said that you were a rep for some of the other deterrents that were on the market originally but you decided that there needed to be a better product. Was that the electric shock issue?

Mr Smith : Yes, the electric shock issue was the main thing. Often the devices were powerful to the point where the consumer could not use it. It was not friendly.

CHAIR: I have had one for over 10 years. It is good to know it is working. How do you know that this one is working?

Mr Smith : You just put your hand under where your eye sticker is at the front. It is right under your chest. When you paddle, you wave your hand past the eye, which is the front electrode, and this will tell you straightaway. You just get a mild tingle in your fingers. We encourage people to do that.

CHAIR: And there is no sensation when you are standing up?

Mr Smith : None at all. We found that with one of the other products. I had a brief meeting with Tom Carroll and he told me that it was basically shocking the hell out of him. That was one of the new products on the market. He found it very hard to use.

Senator URQUHART: I am interested in the electrodes. I am not very technology minded. Could you tell me how it actually works? What does it do? We know that the other one sends out electric shocks. How does this actually repel the shark?

Mr Smith : The batteries and the electronics are all in the one unit, to make it as compact and as light as possible. It has a water-activated switch. So, as soon the board touches the water, it is on and the second it comes out it is off. The three electrodes altogether create an output. You get a 200 volt output from this. This runs one way. Unlike the others, it does not go back and forwards; it is a direct current.

Senator URQUHART: So it just pushes a current out into the water?

Mr Smith : It emits a current, which is a complete dome or sphere underneath the board. It is a three-dimensional field under the board.

Senator URQUHART: So, if you are sitting on the board and paddling with your legs over each side, do you feel that at all?

Mr Smith : No, not at all. We have gone to the point where we have pushed it right up to the limits, where it is unsafe, and we made sure that this one was safe.

Senator URQUHART: What do you mean by 'unsafe'—in terms of the voltage that it sends out?

Mr Smith : Unsafe under the World Health Organization standards for the amount of joules that the body is allowed to withstand.

Senator URQUHART: What does the eye do?

Mr Smith : There is a cable. I was not clear, but there is a cable between the two. This actually creates a field between the two.

Senator URQUHART: So there is a wire that runs up the middle of the board and that is hooked up to that little eye?

Mr Smith : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: I understand that now.

Mr Smith : It is very similar to other systems that have been on the market; it is just that it is built in and there is no drag on this product.

Senator URQUHART: What is the lifespan of the product?

Mr Smith : This product has around three years. It has around 350 recharges. The original product that we had, which is coming up to four years now, is just starting to wear out.

Senator URQUHART: What you do then is buy a new unit, not the whole thing, obviously, because the rest of it is okay.

Mr Smith : Yes, we buy a new unit.

Senator SIEWERT: The obvious question is: how do you know when it has run out?

Mr Smith : When it has run out?

Senator SIEWERT: Yes, like when you need to recharge it.

Mr Smith : There is a red light that comes on.

Senator SIEWERT: There is a red light—okay.

Mr Smith : There is a green and red light that comes on when it is running. If the red light is activated, you are down to your last hour, so it gives you a warning that you are on a low battery. We have kept it as simple as possible. We did not put in any extra switches. If you put a switch in there, it is obviously a way that people can leave it off. We wanted to make sure that it was as automatic as possible.

CHAIR: Unfortunately, we have very limited time today. We really appreciated you coming in at short notice, but one of the reasons I suppose that you did come in at short notice was that we were not that aware of your product.

Mr Smith : We have been keeping it very low key.

CHAIR: Could you explain to the committee why—I am quite interested.

Mr Smith : Despite a lot of other products being in the marketplace to generate a whole lot of money, I got in this as a parent to protect my kids. I surf in high-risk areas with seal colonies around. With that, I wanted a product that was going to be as beneficial as possible for surfers. I did not want to get in there and start selling a product that we were not in 100 per cent. We have not gone to market. All we have done is provide it so that people can buy it online. We have not done any promotion at all or stated any facts that we could not back up. That is why we are waiting on our independent study to go to market.

CHAIR: But your kids use this?

Mr Smith : They have been using it for four years, yes.

CHAIR: And you are happy with it?

Mr Smith : Absolutely—I am 100 per cent confident. The surfers around the world that have been using it for four years will not surf without it. You get to the point where you become so reliant on it that all the family have it. The hotspots around Cowaramup Bay—the families there use it. There was a huge number of attacks there and the families there using it now are not seeing any sharks. There has been a massive reduction in encounters in those areas.

CHAIR: Could we get a hold of the unit, if you do not mind, so we can have a quick look at it.

Senator URQUHART: While we are all having a look at that, can I ask Mr Smith—and I asked this of the previous witness in relation to Australian standards—I guess there are a number of products out there in the market that claim to do lots of different things. Is there an intent to have Australian standards applied to your product?

Mr Smith : Absolutely—we want to have a standard, for sure. This is where the scientists, as well, want to have a standard of testing for it to make sure that it complies. That was one of the reasons that we have not been marketing it in a big way. We just want to make sure that we tick all boxes before we go there.

Senator URQUHART: Part of your getting the research done would be to follow on with that?

Mr Smith : Yes, that is why we went and had it lab tested. We had an EMC certification on that and a CE certification so that we could sell it in Europe.

CHAIR: Have you had discussions with the Western Australian government about the subsidy program—

Mr Smith : Yes, I have.

CHAIR: How were they?

Mr Smith : They were very keen to have us involved in that subsidy. They were just waiting, obviously, to have an independent study report finished. We agree with them; we are in no hurry. We have just made a product available for people that want something. We are not out pushing it, but we—

CHAIR: On the plane on the way here, I read an interview in a surf magazine with a French surfer from Reunion Island. He said he is going back there to surf with an Australian product. Is that yours?

Mr Smith : Yes, it would be this one. We have people trying every way they can to get the product. I just had a meeting with the officials from the French government an hour ago, wanting to know why they have stopped our product coming into their country. They have stopped it and, even though the Reunion surfers have been using it and embracing for over two years, they cannot give me an answer as to why they have stopped it. They just do not want people in the water.

CHAIR: There is a big issue there with safety at the moment. They are actually putting people in jail for getting in the water.

Mr Smith : Yes, like I said, we had areas where—

Senator LINES: You said you had had discussions with the government. Do you mean the current government or the Barnett government?

Mr Smith : I did have discussions with both. I could not get any joy with the Barnett government. They basically just said that there was no funding—there was no money available for anything like this. That has been for quite a while. That was for over four years. I put in for one round of funding and just had no luck at all. The current government that I have been talking to have been a lot more interested in what we have been doing. I know that this product here has been saving lives around the world. Like I said, we have not been promoting it but we know that this is going to be the biggest saviour of surfing lives.

CHAIR: Did Cardno have a look at it at all?

Mr Smith : Cardno? Yes, they did.

CHAIR: Have they published anything on it that we can look at?

Mr Smith : No. Cardno—I would have to speak to them. This is in New South Wales. I went over and had a meeting with them 18 months ago. We got Bond University and some professors; we got Vic Peddemors and a few others in there. We have just found that it has been very one-sided for quite a while.

CHAIR: One-sided as in Shark Shields as the main one that they have—

Mr Smith : Yes. All the support has gone to one, as far as all the finances have gone there. There was a fin system that was funded. Nothing ever came out of that. A whole lot of money has been wasted in pointless exercises. That is why this product should have been available two years ago and should have been half the price of what it is. But, unfortunately, because of the costs involved in research and development, it is the price of what it is. We set out originally to make this product—this was to be $200 and the system installed in the board was to be $50. So every person could afford that.

CHAIR: Mr Smith, thank you for presenting today. I hope the independent trials go well for you. The committee will discuss how we may be able to incorporate that into our final report. Certainly, it looks very promising.

Mr Smith : Thanks for your time.