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Environment and Communications References Committee
Shark mitigation and deterrent measures

COLLIN, Professor Shaun, Private capacity

MEEUWIG, Professor Jessica Jane, Private capacity


CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Do you have any additional comment about the capacity in which you appear today?

Prof. Collin : I am from the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia.

Prof. Meeuwig : I am from the University of Western Australia.

CHAIR: We have some submissions, but I invite you both to make a short opening statement, then the committee will ask you some questions.

Prof. Meeuwig : I am the bad news and Shaun is going to be the good news, so we suggested, when we discussed this earlier, that I would go first. Professor EO Wilson of Harvard University, perhaps one of the most transformational thinkers about evolutionary biology, famously stated that we are both fearful and fascinated by our monsters. By monsters he meant lions, tigers and indeed sharks. He pointed out that we are fearful because in our lower brains from our deep evolutionary history we understand that we are potentially prey, but we are fascinated because we also understand that by learning about these animals we can avoid being prey. We have this dichotomy, so every time there is an incident with a lion, a tiger, a bear or a shark there is this complete media frenzy, there is a massive amount of discussion and we do not know exactly what to do with it. I would point out the timing of this session today, given the death of Laeticia Brouwer and her family's heartbreak, is unfortunate, as we are mired in yet another media frenzy—my phone has been running hot—and a set of political kneejerk reactions from both the federal government and the state opposition.

I think my job today and why I wanted to come along was to point out why lethal methods for managing this risk are a really dumb idea. By lethal methods of shark deterrence I mean culls, nets, drum lines and targeted hunts of rogue sharks. Basically I will point out that they are ineffective, counterproductive, ecologically worrying, woefully arrogant and socially short-sighted. That is why Shaun is going to be the positive person. Why are lethal methods a problem? They are ineffective. We have good data from Queensland, New South Wales and Hawaii that show there has been no reduction in the incidence of attacks when we have targeted these animals through lethal methods—none. We also have no evidence for anything called a rogue shark. Indeed, analysis of New South Wales by Laurenson et al. from Deakin University says that if we think that lethal methods are the way to go, we can increase safety only by virtually removing all the sharks. I think this is an important point because in the last week we have seen yet another resurgence of these kneejerk reactions.

Lethal methods are also counterproductive because we spend a lot of money on them. I think in Western Australia my best estimate, because it was not public, was that there was over $1.5 million spent on the drum line program for three months to kill 173 tiger sharks, a species that had not been implicated in any lethal attacks in the region since 1923, and we are not even sure of that particular identification. By virtue of spending $1.5 million-ish on that program, we did not spend money on other things, and indeed since then I understand that the shark research group within the WA Department of Fisheries has been disbanded. I think that would be a very good question to ask of that department. They are counterproductive because we are not spending money on the things that we should.

Lethal methods are also ecologically worrying, because we know that healthy oceans need healthy shark populations. Where we have good populations of sharks, we know that we are more resistant to crown-of-thorns outbreaks and coral bleaching. We support seabird foraging, and so as we remove these apex predators from the ocean, that is indeed problematic.

'Woefully ignorant'—that is a bit strong. Basically, we do not have a really good handle on how many white sharks are actually out there. Our willingness to open up a commercial fishery, which has recently been mooted yet again, and to have the chasing down of 'rogue sharks' when we do not actually really understand the state of the population is indeed worrying, especially since we know that they are not bunny rabbits. It is unlikely that there has been a population boom in white sharks, given their basic, fundamental biology.

Finally, there is 'socially short-sighted'. We had a whole generation of Jaws. Thankfully, I have never seen that movie. I do not want to, frankly. We were finally, as a community, getting over it, and now we are just scaring people again. I think the idea that in order to make people feel safe in the ocean we have to implement culls takes away from a broader educational approach that we should be taking that encourages people to understand the risks of the activities that they engage in and, indeed, to understand that it is a relatively low risk compared to many of the other things that we undertake take on a day-to-day basis.

Prof. Collin : I am also part of the Oceans Institute at UWA. I am a neurobiologist that has been investigating the neural basis of behaviour in a whole range of different animals, not just sharks. We have targeted sharks over the last five years, but I have been working in this area for about 30 years. Our neuroecology group investigates the influence of such things as lights, odours, electric fields and even water movement on the behaviour of sharks. All of these are critical environmental cues that are used by these apex predators to find food, find mates, communicate and navigate their three-dimensional environment.

In the context of today's hearing, our group received funding, as part of the previous government's shark mitigation applied research program, to test some of the existing deterrents that were on the market at that time and to develop and test some novel deterrents based on our knowledge of the sensory abilities of a range of different sharks, with specific emphasis on whether light—like bright, strobe lights—sound or bubbles could be used and developed as a personal and/or beach-based deterrent. This information can therefore be used by state government and industry to educate the public and to bring to their attention whether these deterrents are actually effective. The third grant that we received was to investigate the theory of mistaken identity—that is, that sharks may mistakenly target humans for prey such as large fishes, turtles or small marine mammals, such as seals—and whether these cues could attract sharks and could ultimately be masked somehow.

Some of this research has now been published in open-access journals, which are freely available to the public, and there is more to come. A clear result of the research over these years is that not all sharks are the same, with respect to how they react to environmental cues, and therefore the unnatural presentation of deterrent measures may actually need to be species specific. Another outcome is that there is a dire need for any shark deterrent devices entering the market to be robustly and independently tested so as to provide the public with a clear understanding of the effectiveness or shortfalls of any of these such devices and for them to make an informed decision about how they can reduce their risk of a shark attack.

Our recent paper on Shark Shield—I have got copies for the panel, if interested—did show that some electric devices can be effective at close range. This has been backed up by three other studies on the same device, and I might hasten to say that this was not just by UWA; this was part of research from Flinders, Macquarie and South Africa. We had all of the scientists in the southern hemisphere, really, dedicated to robust testing of a particular device that was currently on the market. I should add that even in this study it was shown to be relatively effective at close range, but I would say that no device on the market could be 100 per cent effective. Other research, which we are about to publish and which is also on another electric device similar to Shark Shield, revealed that this was in fact not effective. It failed most of the tests that we did with great whites in South Africa, and therefore it would not provide protection for swimmers or surfers.

Finally, shark mitigation is a very complex issue, which needs debate, obviously. We do believe that education, surveillance, whether it be human or technological, beach enclosures and tagging remain important measures for preventing attacks or protecting ocean users and for understanding the behaviour and movement patterns of sharks. However, we also believe that, given the number of deterrent devices currently entering the market, these should also be robustly scrutinised by independent, third party researchers, and that research is ultimately peer reviewed and shared with the public. Many of the current devices on the market have not received adequate testing, in our opinion, or, if they have, the results are not open to scrutiny. The state and federal governments should consider legislating that testing of such shark deterrent devices currently or those entering the market in the future be rigorously tested and that the public be made fully aware of the risks of entering into their ocean based activities. There are a lot of industries in Australia that are dedicated to protecting both humans and sharks. With the help of independent research organisations, we have an opportunity and a responsibility, we believe, to help reduce these attacks, while allowing sharks to remain a vital part of our marine ecosystem.

To sum up, the idea of being able to effectively detect a shark in the area, to rapidly react to that, whether it is through many of the other mechanisms no doubt talked about today, and to deploy some of these larger beach based deterrents quickly and effectively can ultimately do both—protect sharks and humans. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Professor Collin. It is a big question: how close do you think we are to cracking the nut, with technology that is non-lethal for sharks but not 100 failsafe but effective for humans?

Prof. Collin : At beach based levels or personal?

CHAIR: At both. We have heard evidence that they are quite separate things in terms of public safety. So I would be interested in your comments.

Prof. Collin : I believe they are interconnected. We can learn a lot from looking at personal deterrents, whether they be existing deterrents and their improvement if they do not actually remain effective or whether it be developing novel deterrents, which have not even been tried before based on basic evidence based research. We are some way from cracking the nut, as you say. As I said, all sharks are not quite the same. The great whites react differently to tiger sharks and bull sharks. All of them are in fact sensory specialists. Great whites are visual specialists, the bull sharks are certainly relying more on electro reception and the tiger sharks are olfactory or base most of their behaviour on smell. So, one deterrent will not, in my opinion, deter all types of sharks. Obviously, these three sharks are the most implicated in the fatal shark attacks. So a multisensory approach is probably the best way to go, and that is why it is important to take all of the great ideas that are coming up, test them, potentially improve them and provide the public with this information. There are some breakthroughs but I think we have still got some way to go.

CHAIR: Can you give us some idea in terms of 'some way to go'? I know it is a difficult question to answer, and you may not be able to answer it. Are we talking months, years?

Prof. Collin : It is fairly open-ended. It depends on where you are concentrating your efforts. The great whites are probably most responsible for a lot of the attacks on the west coast, but possibly in Queensland at least it is bull sharks. They are operate quite differently in how they locate and target prey. So I believe that there are some things on the horizon which can be effective. The electric based deterrent, as I have explained, has been shown to be effective. At the present time, it is the most studied and tested device on the market, but it is one particular device—

CHAIR: Which is the Shark Shield.

Prof. Collin : the FREEDOM7, the Shark Shield. I will also just mention that the new device impregnated into a surf board is a different device. It is similar and based on similar principles and may be effective, but this has not been tested.

CHAIR: This is the Surf Safe one we just heard from?

Prof. Collin : No, FREEDOM+ Surf—that is right. I think it was explained earlier.

CHAIR: Professor Collin, you mentioned in your statement that there was another one similar to Shark Shield that showed no—

Prof. Collin : That is right. That is not that one; this is another one.

CHAIR: I just wanted to clear that up.

Prof. Collin : It is not Shark Shield; it is another company that put a device onto the market. I probably should not mention it, but I believe this has actually been retracted from the market. But it does emphasise the fact that not all electric devices are necessarily effective.

Senator SIEWERT: Can I just clarify that the one that you have tested is not the one that is actually in the surfboard.

Prof. Collin : That is right.

CHAIR: Including the Shark Shield? Have you tested the Shark Shield in the surfboard?

Prof. Collin : No. This has not been tested.

Senator SIEWERT: It is the diver one?

Prof. Collin : It is the diver one with the long antenna, the two-metre antenna.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay. That is what I was trying to understand.

Prof. Collin : Although it is a similar principle to the surfboard—

CHAIR: Will you be doing separate tests on the surfboards, or have you run out of money and funding for that kind of thing?

Prof. Collin : We would like to test this, but we have no plans to do that, because there are no resources to do so. I know Shark Shield are keen to do that, but they have been unable to raise funds to have that independently tested.

CHAIR: Perhaps that is something we could put to the Western Australian government when they appear a bit later on this afternoon.

Senator LINES: Have you had a look at the deficit recently?


Prof. Meeuwig : You mentioned the deficit. I think that is one of the reasons why it is so important to look at what strategies are actually going to increase our understanding. Rather than putting dollars into lethal strategies which do not make us any wiser—we do not learn anything—there is real value not only in investing in specific deterrents—and, to be clear, that is not an area that I work in—but also in the need for continuing to invest in the tagging so that we understand what these animals are doing and in education so that people are more aware of the risks and what is going on, because there is no silver bullet. There is no magic thing. We also need to remember that these are really low risks. They are horrific when they happen, but it is 1.3 people per year on average, compared to drownings and a number of other things. That does not take away from the horror of it, but, in terms of investment in education and not scaring people, people should be able to go in the ocean and feel good, because the chances of having a negative interaction with a shark are a lot lower than those of having a negative interaction on the road.

Senator REYNOLDS: First of all, Professor Collin, Professor Meeuwig said that you were going to be the good news. I am just wondering what the good news was. It was not very clear.

Senator LINES: We were all struggling with that.

Prof. Meeuwig : Sorry.

Prof. Collin : I can possibly provide some hope in relation to reducing the risk. As Jessica has said, this is extremely difficult and there is no silver bullet here, but I believe that any of the devices coming on to the market could be tested within a two- to three-year period at a cost of, say, $2 million to $3 million. We have spent a lot of time and developed a way of doing this together with all of the known scientists that are interested in this in the Southern Hemisphere. So we have a mechanism to do it. We know where the sharks are, so we can test it, typically, on the three major sharks of threat. We can test a lot of the existing devices. That does not mean they are all going to be effective and that there will be a Holy Grail that we can then roll out effectively, but it will provide us with mechanisms of knowing what works and what does not. They can then be improved by industry. There are a lot of very good scientists around, and a lot of R&D can progress quite quickly and go to commercialisation if there is a need to develop something quite different.

We actually think that the way the technology is going is excellent. The detection system is very important, as is the ability to react, but I think what we are missing is the deployment of something effective as soon as we react to the animal: something that could be deployed, even automatically, that we know works—and this can be where the research comes in in general—to just change the behaviour of the shark, causing it to swim by and not come in close. So there is hope, but I think we have to tread carefully.

Senator REYNOLDS: The bottom line is that your good news is: there might be good news with funding and many years of testing and development. So the good news is a long way away still.

Prof. Collin : Well it is, but I think it is foolhardy to progress so quickly that we are not sure that, where lives are at risk, it is not a good idea to have people exposed to even more risk than they would, especially, if they are going into areas and think they are actually protected by something that they may not necessarily be protected by.

Senator REYNOLDS: Here's the issue I have got, and I am struggling to get through the dissonance on this today: on the one hand, we have heard evidence that there could be solutions, there are a range of things being trialled and some really good things happening but, as you said, there are no silver bullets. So Western Australians who go out tomorrow and swim outside of the Sorrento 450 metres and right across are at risk. For them, that is not good news. What I am struggling with is: of course, I do not want to see any unnecessary shark deaths, but how do you justify saying—and I think Professor Meeuwig said that you just have to accept the risk. I think in your paper you actually said that ocean users simply have to accept the risk, and I cannot accept that. Is there some interim solution to keep Western Australians safer? If you are taking lethal methods off the table in certain circumstances, what comfort does that give Western Australians for the next five to 10 years before technology catches up, is tested and approved, which I agree with? What can you offer Western Australians, if you want to take that off the table?

CHAIR: Professor Meeuwig, you can answer this too, considering you talked about it.

Prof. Collin : I can start. I think some areas of the coastline can be totally protected by enclosures. They are 100 per cent safe, and children and families can bathe there with 100 per cent certainty that there will not be any sharks coming into the area. So that would be one mechanism.

Senator REYNOLDS: So that is through the use of nets?

Prof. Collin : Not nets; these are enclosures.

Senator REYNOLDS: Is that the eco net we are talking about at Sorrento?

CHAIR: I think it would be really useful at this stage for the committee, if we could distinguish between the eco barrier and nets, which I understand are designed to reduce populations of shark numbers. They are not designed to reduce interactions.

Senator REYNOLDS: Okay; thanks.

Prof. Collin : So these are just hard physical barriers that are environmentally friendly and 100 per cent protect a particular area of a beach. In certain areas, that could be a very quick solution as long as it is tested and shown not to kill other animals and/or stop the flow of nutrients et cetera from exchange across the coastal areas of the beaches. Other areas would be, yes, further and, ultimately, direct and rapid testing of whatever deterrents are on the market, and that could be done, as I said, as quickly as possible, but will still take some time—

CHAIR: And funding.

Prof. Collin : And funding of course.

Senator REYNOLDS: So funding and time: even with the barriers and all the requirements, we are still looking at years.

Prof. Collin : We are but we actually have come a long way. We started this about five years ago and have progressed greatly in relation to testing of some of the deterrents. Some, when we actually said we were going to test things, were retracted from the market immediately, which was quite interesting.

Senator REYNOLDS: Very interesting in itself.

Prof. Collin : So we have made advances in protecting humans in that way but, obviously, education—

Senator REYNOLDS: Is important.

Prof. Collin : about shark behaviour: when they are most active, where not to go in, signage et cetera. We are doing this but we can probably improve that as well.

Senator REYNOLDS: Do more of it.

Prof. Meeuwig : So I would love to be able to reassure Western Australians that there is absolutely zero risk of going in the oceans and having an interaction with a shark. It is just not pragmatic at all and so, from my perspective, the challenge is that, rather than wasting money on knee-jerk reactions of culling et cetera, which we know does not work—there is really good evidence that it does not work; let's just put that one aside—we need to avoid having these ridiculous debates in the media, framing it as shark huggers putting sharks ahead of human lives. That is not the debate; the debate is: how do you best invest dollars in solving a problem that is tricky? It is not through lethal methods; we know that. The reality is: it is going to take time, right, because it is a difficult problem.

It is also a difficult problem because the risk is so tiny. The fact is we have this massive coastline. Yes, there are areas that we can put aside in enclosures where people can swim as if they are in a sea pool—that is cool—but for surfers and divers, unless we get personal deterrents that work, we are not going to be able to solve the problem, and it is not helped by thinking that a small risk is easily solved.

CHAIR: Could I ask you just to clarify—

Senator REYNOLDS: Could I ask one on that first?

CHAIR: Sorry; I will use my prerogative to ask a point of clarification. Professor, you said these lethal methods are not proven. We have heard evidence today, and it has been in the media in recent weeks, that Queensland is an example of how they do work. You have addressed this in your submission. Could you very briefly let the committee know why you do not believe that is the case.

Prof. Meeuwig : Alright.

Senator REYNOLDS: With respect, I do not think that is actually a clarification of my question. That is an additional question.

CHAIR: Senator Reynolds, I am asking the witness to clarify—

Senator REYNOLDS: There is no prerogative. I gave you the fact that there was no prerogative, Chair.

CHAIR: I am asking the witness to clarify something she said—and I do not think that is unreasonable—and then we will come back to you. There is plenty of time.

Senator REYNOLDS: Okay.

Prof. Meeuwig : The reason I do not think drum lines have worked in Queensland is that, again, the numbers are so low. If you look at where the drum lines are, you see that 83 per cent of the drum lines are in locations where there never ever had been a fatality before they came in. So it is a bit of—

CHAIR: Comparing apples with oranges?

Prof. Meeuwig : To say, 'Oh, look: since we brought drum lines in there have not been any fatalities,' when there were never any there before is awkward. At Magnetic Island there was one in 1923, and since they brought in a massive number of drum lines, yes, there has not been one, but how do you compare zero and one? There has been a tremendous amount of energy put into these lethal methods, but the places that are not protected by drum lines have seen a decline in fatalities as well. In fact, they have seen a more rapid decline in fatalities than the places that actually have the drum lines in place. Data from New South Wales shows the same thing, and in Hawaii they spent 15 years killing 4,500 sharks with no change in the impact on fatalities. [The official transcript as first published referred to '4,500 tiger sharks'. This has been changed to '4,500 sharks' by order of the committee after the witness corrected this evidence.] So there is good data out there that they do not work.

CHAIR: Okay. Thank you for clarifying that. Senator Reynolds?

Senator REYNOLDS: I just wanted to explore this issue of mitigation further in light of your comments. Yes, it is a low risk, but it is a serious risk. Today we have had some rather unfortunate analogies with driving drawn. Driving and having a fatal car accident is, again, an incredibly low risk but it is a significant one, so we do not have just one measure; we take many measures of mitigation to try to protect as many people as possible. In that sense, and with many other dangers, we accept that we cannot save everybody or prevent every accident, but we do everything we can to mitigate it. I am still struggling to see why for West Australians, even though the risk in total terms might be low, we would not have a look at all of the options available. I think what Professor Collin is doing is fantastic, but it is going to take time to do it properly. Just saying Western Australians have got to suck it up, I find a little unsatisfactory, because in other areas we do look at all mitigation measures. Why don't we accept that in the short term we might have to take some measures that we might not otherwise like to take? Why would we take off the table those measures to save people's lives?

Prof. Meeuwig : With all due respect, I think we do not actually invest all the time in managing risk. There are all sorts of areas where we would like to put in more funding but it is just not available. There are black spots on roads and all sorts of things. Having said that, if the government—and you mentioned the tight budget—wants to put more resources into mitigation around shark interactions then that is fantastic. I am just saying: do not waste your money on lethal methods, because we have got enough evidence by now that they do not work. We spent $1.5 million to kill 173 tiger sharks as a gesture of 'Let's look like we are doing something.' That is money that would have been much better spent on looking at alternatives. That is the challenge: to avoid the knee-jerk reaction.

Senator REYNOLDS: This is my final question for now—

CHAIR: If we have got time, we will come back to you.

Senator REYNOLDS: and if we have got time we will come back. Professor, I was very interested in your comments about media frenzies, and we heard similar but harsher comments—that basically the media were responsible for inciting the deaths and were responsible for these issues. I am just wondering: you are not saying the same thing, are you?

CHAIR: I just want to make a point of clarification.

Senator REYNOLDS: Is it the media frenzy and that the media is scaring people?

CHAIR: No-one said that they were responsible for the deaths. I actually think that will not be reflected.

Senator REYNOLDS: Go back and have a look at the Hansard. They came very close to saying that this issue was being stirred up by the media and that, in essence, the media have blood on their hands. Go back and have a look at the Hansard. They said it twice.

CHAIR: That is not what I heard, though.

Prof. Meeuwig : I thought they said that David Kelly would have blood on his hands now. Wasn't that what was said?

Senator REYNOLDS: When these things happen—while the occurrence might be low—isn't it legitimate for the media to report these things, because what they are doing is reflecting what is happening in the community? Why is it the media's fault?

Prof. Meeuwig : The media can choose how to do stuff, but I would make two comments: first of all, I am always amused that, when somebody gets bitten by a small little reef shark up at Ningaloo, I get a phone call. I do not get a phone call when somebody has been bitten by a labrador or a Doberman.

Senator REYNOLDS: But, then again, you do not work at the dog research centre—you work in an ocean research centre.

Prof. Meeuwig : But you do not see the same level of interest, and the language that gets used is quite strong: 'mauling', even when it is a bite. I also think that there are some considerable issues around the editorial decisions that get taken by the press. So, for instance, around the drum lines, after having had a reasonable level of engagement with the media around a number of ocean issues, there was an editorial decision from the west that they were pro drum lines, and the number of experts that they trotted out for a long series of articles did not actually include very many active experts in research around sharks. So I think that, yes, there is a level of responsible reporting that needs to be done when events happen, and obviously these are particularly traumatic events—and I go back to my opening comments about our lower brain; we are much more challenged by a death in these circumstances than we are by those from fires or car accidents. So we need to figure out how to manage that, I think, in a more responsible way that does not terrorise people from being in the ocean.

Senator REYNOLDS: Fifteen deaths, versus one on the east—can't you see there is a concern here?

CHAIR: No, that is actually factually incorrect.

Senator REYNOLDS: That is actually Queensland, I am sorry.

CHAIR: New South Wales has had a very saddening spate of deaths as well.

Senator URQUHART: Professor Meeuwig, I just wanted to ask you about your research. Do you use the acoustic tag testing?

Prof. Meeuwig : Personally?

Senator URQUHART: What sort of research do you do?

Prof. Meeuwig : My group largely works using what we call mid-water baited camera systems. We use video to document the status of both reef fish and shark communities and open water communities. We have done some tagging in the past. I have had PhD students who have worked, for instance, on looking at movements of grey reef sharks in Palau and satellite tagging of tiger sharks along the Western Australian coast, but it is not a core area.

Senator URQUHART: What information is gathered from the acoustic tags?

Prof. Meeuwig : When you think about tagging, there are basically two levels of information, depending on the tag that you use, and a lot of animals are now what we call double-tagged. Acoustic tagging requires a network of acoustic receivers, and generally that means that an animal has to pass by a receiver in order to be logged. You can have areas that have lots of receivers, so you can get a really good sense of small-scale movements of animals, which is work we did, for instance, in Palau, or through the wonderfully-funded federal program of the Australian Animal Tracking and Monitoring System, AATAMS. There is a whole series of acoustic receivers along the south and west Australian coast and New South Wales, and as animals move past you get a ping and you can log it. But it does depend on the interaction between receivers and the tagged animal. The lovely thing about satellite tags is that they log the entire journey and, when they pop back up, you get a full profile of where all the animals have gone, independent of any infrastructure. New tags can actually tell you things about diving behaviour and residency and whether they are feeding or coasting.

Senator URQUHART: What does the information that you collect—whether it is acoustic or from a camera—give you in terms of the issue that we are talking about here today?

Prof. Meeuwig : What we would get from our camera work is a documentation of the abundance and size structure of shark populations through time, or through space. One of the things, for instance, that we have been able to document is that in northern Australia, where there are some incursions from our northern neighbours, the abundance and size of sharks is actually much lower than you would expect for a relatively pristine area. What we get from the cameras is a status, like a report card, about the animals in those areas.

Senator URQUHART: Given the impact of global warming, are you seeing any changes in the location of sharks from your research? Please, Professor Collin, jump in if you have anything as well.

Prof. Meeuwig : We have been able to document shifts in fish generally—tropical ones coming further south. The Department of Fisheries also has some good data on rock lobsters moving further south. There are big challenges with climate change. Firstly, these animals are being affected. You have the combined effects of fishing, whether it is for safety or commercial fishing or recreational fishing—which is a big challenge; Shark Bay is supposed to be opened up for trophy hunting of sharks now. These animals are already dealing with the challenge of climate change, and we maintain, then, the impact of fishing on top of them. The second issue around climate is this question of resilience and that sharks, in particular, play an important ecological role in regulating marine ecosystems, and, when we hammer their numbers, we are actually making reefs less resilient as a whole. We need to be able to do a better job.

Senator URQUHART: You talked in your opening statement about the educational approach, and that has been something I have been interested in throughout this hearing. You talked about signs, areas, times—all those sorts of things. What sort of funding needs to be put into educational research to educate the community? It is probably an open-ended question, but I am sure you have a figure in your head.

Prof. Collin : There is some educational information that has been passed on to the previous state government. Part of their shark mitigation strategy was to do just that. We provided some of that and many other shark researchers provided that. They actually now have a compendium of the dos and don'ts of interacting in the ocean in relation to sharks. They did go a long way, and a lot of that is now online. We can always improve that. It should always be updated with new papers and research that is coming out by various groups, so we cannot take our finger off that pulse. I do not know what figure one could come up with quickly, but I think the opportunity to submit the work that is coming out and pull that together will take some resources, and that could be communicated to the new government to update what is already there and to also just try to coalesce all the information that is coming in from various sources. It might be anecdotal, but it can be important because we still do not know a lot about sharks. They are still quite unpredictable. All of that could be coalesced by an educational officer, for instance, for the state. That will help educate the public and open a very good communication channel which is always there.

Prof. Meeuwig : I think it also comes down to seeing sharks as wildlife and not just as these really scary monsters. One of the highlights, the positives, about all the concern is the number of phone calls I get from high school students saying, 'I'm doing my project on sharks.' It has been fantastic. I think there is a grassroots effort to engage young people with oceans. It relates also to issues around STEM and improving our attitudes towards science, the environment and mathematics. Again, not to be rude about the media—how many of you are here?—there are much more positive messages that could go out that would help educate people and engage them, as opposed to this 'Oh, my God; the only way you are going to be safe is if there are drum lines with big pieces of flesh hanging off the coast.'

Senator URQUHART: You mentioned high school. What role do the education institutions have, if any? Also, a tag to that is the media—and you have mentioned that. We tend not to see much in the media unless there has been an incident. Could another avenue for an educative process be through the news?

Prof. Meeuwig : Absolutely. For instance, The West Australian has its 'dead fish' column on Fridays, where someone who has been recreational fishing is pictured with a dead fish, and there is a whole story around that. It would be absolutely marvellous if once a month we had an ocean column that talked about why oceans matter and you could weave some of those stories about sharks into that. UWA, through its SPICE program, does a lot of education around science and the environment, and I know that there has been increasing interest around that. My group provides a fair bit of information into that process.

As we pursue the opportunities around mitigation and minimising risk, the challenge is to also embrace the fact that we have this amazing coastline that many of us enjoy and, for the most part, largely, we are all pretty safe and tickety-boo. I have been diving for 35 years. Sometimes people say to me, 'You probably don't ever get in the water, ' and I tell them, 'Thirty-five years.'

CHAIR: Just as a matter of interest, is there any data that shows whether any of the sharks involved incidents or any of the sharks that have been caught on drum lines have been tagged sharks?

Prof. Meeuwig : My understanding is that one of the animals that was killed in Esperance was a tagged shark. One of the bits that I brought along today, which I will share with you, is an article that I wrote with the head of AATAMS and the international tagging network on how tagging may be putting animals at risk, because we then use the fact that we can hear them to hunt them down.

CHAIR: Is that a genuine fear that you have?

Prof. Meeuwig : And another of other colleagues.

CHAIR: A number of other research colleagues?

Prof. Meeuwig : Yes, and sufficient to be published in a top journal.

Senator SIEWERT: I want to go to the issue of numbers. There has been a lot of chatter about the 'shark explosion' and increase in the shark population and a call—which was referred to earlier—for the white shark to come of the vulnerable species list. You touched on it in your opening remarks or in answer to one of the questions—

Prof. Meeuwig : Yes; they are not rabbits.

Senator SIEWERT: Yes. Can you give us a bit of an understand about what the population is of white sharks, for example? That is the one that is mostly being talked about in relation to the most current attacks.

Prof. Meeuwig : The best estimate we have so far is a paper from Blower and Ovenden from Queensland. They are geneticists. They have looked at the variability in genes to try to estimate the number of white sharks in Australia. Their best estimate for south-western Australia—not just Western Australia but south-west—is 700 breeding animals. The Department of Fisheries did a series of modelling efforts to try to work out best estimates based on a number of lines of evidence, including anecdotal information—people talking about this, that and the other. The conclusion from that is that the confidence limits were so large that they could not actually get a good handle on the number. That was the basis for the WA EPA closing the drum lines, right? They could not guarantee that, for a threatened species, we had a big enough grasp on the numbers to justify removing X individuals. Then it comes back down to basic, fundamental biology. If you do not start reproducing until you are 17 or 20 years old, if you only have one or two offspring every couple years because, oh my goodness, white shark babies are 1.5 metres, and why really wants to go through that that often! They are just not capable of rapid rebound like a herring or a pilchard.

Then there is all this anecdotal information about there being more sharks around, right? There are a couple reasons that that might be the case. There are more people in the water, so there are more observations, because 'sampling efforts' increased. Social media makes it easier to comment whenever they see an animal. But a real issue is also whether climate change is changing the distribution of animals. It may well be that we are seeing more animals close to the coast because of changes in the movements of their prey, of water temperature et cetera. But that does not mean that the population of white sharks in general has increased.

The other thing we need to pay attention to on sharks is that they are actually quite smart. If you are chumming off the back of your boat, as occurs with lobster boats when they throw their bait off the back, animals will learn to follow you around.

Senator REYNOLDS: I think you touched on an issue you raised in one of your articles. I was quite interested to see that sharks could mitigate against climate change. Could you explain that a bit further? I found it quite a curious throwaway comment.

Prof. Meeuwig : It is a really amazing paper. This is actually some work out of Shark Bay as well. There is a whole new field called the ecology of fear. Traditionally, scientists have thought about predators as controlling other animals by eating them as prey and changing their abundance, but what we are increasingly recognising is that they also change behaviour. The argument is that, in places like Shark Bay, when you have got lots of tiger sharks, they keep the turtles in check, and the turtles—and the dugongs as well—cannot overgraze the seagrass beds. Seagrass beds are one of the highest sequesters of carbon on the planet. If you remove your tiger sharks or reduce their numbers, turtles and dugongs go nuts. They graze on the seagrass, and you lose your blue carbon store. This is exactly the same thing that happened with wolves at Yellowstone. What we are learning about is that all these same principles that matter on land are happening in the ocean, but, because it is harder to see, we kind of missed it. We need to make sure that we do not screw it up.

CHAIR: In fact, is it true that the fishing industry—I do not know if this is an old wives' tale—were partly responsible for getting the white sharks listed in the first place because seal numbers were getting so high that it was having impacts on fish stocks?

Prof. Meeuwig : I do not know. Do you know?

Prof. Collin : No, not really.

CHAIR: If you could get any insights on that, I would be very interested.

Prof. Meeuwig : I do know that an abalone diver once told me that he did not really want restrictions on rock lobster, because, the most rock lobster, the poorer the abalones. So there are these little interactions.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator SIEWERT: I go back to the water temperature. I understood what you have just said about Shark Bay. The idea being that, if the water temperature is changing, you are changing the behaviour of all of the sea life in the food chain, so that could be influencing sharks' behaviour. Is that right?

Prof. Meeuwig : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: In terms of the 700, what was the number—so we have a comparator? Is there an estimate of what the population used to be?

Prof. Meeuwig : That is highly debated as well. One of the things that Barry Bruce from the CSIRO is trying to do is work out, by looking at what they call kinship genetics, where you can look at relatedness and back-calculate what the numbers are—but my recollection is that white sharks are probably down to about 40 per cent of what they were. But I would need to check. Do not quote me on that. I can check that out. The IUCN red list would give a number on that.

CHAIR: My understanding is some of those sharks go back and forth from South Africa. Would they technically be their populations if they are migratory?

Prof. Collin : I believe that they are a separate population in South Africa. There is one on the west cost and another on the eastern seaboard. They do have large sojourns through the Indian Ocean guided by—well, we do not even know all that much. It appears to be something that could even be related to gradients in the earth's magnetic field—things that we cannot see but they can detect. But generally the two populations remain separate.

Prof. Meeuwig : On that: there is work that recently came out of New South Wales, and hats off to them for investing in tagging. I think they have 28 or 30 animals that they have tagged, and it does show that a number of them have gone walkabout to New Zealand and one has come over to Albany.

CHAIR: From New South Wales?

Prof. Meeuwig : Yes. But the interesting thing about it is they are all juveniles. None of them are adult white sharks, so we still have a big question. It may be that when you are young you go walkabout and go to Europe on your gap year or whatever but your breeding is still separate. We do not know that. The genetics suggest that there are two separate populations. The tagging suggests that, at least amongst juveniles, there is some mobility, but overall they are basically homebodies in Bass Strait and up the east coast. They are boring.

On that note—to be a little bit cheeky—you asked me about what we learn from the videos. We can also do behavioural studies, and what we see frequently is that, within a population or a species, it is the young animals that are aggressive. It is not the big ones. It is the teenagers who do not understand a V8 engine. They just bang into your cameras and are quick to come in, and the older sharks within the same species—the bigger ones—are sitting there going, 'Not too sure about that.' I do not want to anthropomorphise overly, but when we say the scary sharks are the big ones and they need to be culled, those are the reproductive engines of these populations. Those are the animals that we should be protecting. They have made it through and they, according to our videos, are not the aggressive ones.

Prof. Collin : I will add one slight thing to that in relation to climate change. We also know that some sharks change their ability to detect their environment in all its guises during development. What is guiding the behaviour of a small juvenile might not guide the behaviour of a much older individuals of the same species. Climate change and the changes in pH, temperature, currents et cetera can actually change the behaviour of juveniles differently from that of adults. That is certainly well documented in behavioural and physiological means.

Senator SIEWERT: I am being given the wrap-up—even though some of my time has been used by others! In Ballina they are talking about the amount of unusual shark activity there. We have had the same discussions here in WA. Have you looked at what that might be? Is it maybe something to do with sharks learning a certain behaviour? You were talking about crayfish and an attractant or something.

Prof. Collin : All sharks do learn. Most animals in the sea and otherwise do learn certain things. A good example is shark depredation on recreational fishers and their ability to home in on where bait is available around engines and boats et cetera. It does not necessarily mean there are higher numbers, but via a lot of these different sensory systems they can home in on food, olfactory cues, sound et cetera from quite long distances away. This plus increased activity—greater numbers of people entering the oceans—and potential influences of bait fish not being in such high numbers or moving south with seals following them and sharks following them can change the whole ecosystem. It is finely balanced, and so all of these things—

Senator SIEWERT: So not necessarily learned, but they are adaptable?

Prof. Collin : To some degree. Many animals have very discrete temperature ranges, for instance. Once they get beyond that, they are going to struggle, so then they are going to move into other areas that are probably unpredictable in finding where that optimal physiological range is.

CHAIR: Sorry to cut into your time, Senator Siewert, but you will have to put some questions on notice. I have some that I would like to put on notice as well. Thank you for appearing today. I wish we had more time.

Prof. Meeuwig : Thank you for the opportunity.