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Environment and Communications References Committee
20/04/2017
Shark mitigation and deterrent measures

GERRING, Mr Rick, Private capacity

[15:20]

CHAIR: Welcome. 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?

Mr Gerring : I think everyone knows why I am here.

CHAIR: Would you like to make a short statement to the committee, and then we will ask you some questions.

Mr Gerring : Sorry, I am a little bit unprepared; I only came here yesterday. It is a big issue that we have, and I am glad that the federal government is now also getting involved because it is an issue that affects our entire country—we have New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, and ourselves here—so I welcome that.

There is no one single solution that will fix this issue. That is pretty clear, I think. I have heard you all say today that there has been some personal interest, or corporate interest, and that organisations are interested for themselves and not for the public. I want to make one thing very clear: I have no association with anyone or with any companies. I am here to save lives. That is what it is all about at the end of the day. Hopefully, we can get through some of the crap that is out there, because there is a little bit out there, and get to the truth. I think we can work our way to reducing the risk of anyone else being attacked. It will be very hard to reduce that—it is definitely not going to be easy—but I think we can get there and save lives.

CHAIR: Thanks, Rick, and thanks for being so brave and for coming to the committee to give your evidence today and for doing what you do. It cannot be easy for you, but it is very important.

Mr Gerring : It is very important.

CHAIR: In terms of the risk mitigation measures, we are looking at everything from lethal culling through to individual electronic deterrents. Do you have anything to tell the committee about where you think we should be focusing time, research and effort?

Mr Gerring : I have done a lot of research in the last 11 months. Personal deterrents are definitely one way that we need to go. We have a vast coastline and we cannot protect every single beach; it is just impossible to do that. I think personal deterrents are the way for surfers and divers especially, because we are the most vulnerable to attacks. The majority of the attacks have been on surfers and divers.

With personal deterrents, there is a lot of myth out there about the ones that do work and do not work, which is quite scary, and I am trying to do something about that through education. One thing I would definitely like to put forward is that there is either legislation or Australian standards for the testing of personal deterrents. I think that is definitely required. They should not be able to be sold retail to people, because it gives people a false sense of hope or security, which is not what we want. We want a product that is going to give us good protection. Currently they are not 100 per cent, and I do not think you would ever get 100 per cent—I do not think anyone would ever call anything 100 per cent—but for me, personally, a product that is going to work nine times out of 10, or that is going to at least scare off a shark, is better than a product working zero times out of 10. That is something that I am pushing quite heavily myself. I think that with the state government subsidising 1,000 units that will help promote that out to the public. They will only be subsidising the ones that have been independently tested and peer verified, which I think is very important. But, in saying that, I think there is a bit of bias in the research into those products.

CHAIR: Would you like to see more research put into different products?

Mr Gerring : Definitely. There are only really two products that have any real independent testing that have shown that—they are Shark Shield and RPLA. They are both electronic devices. I spoke with Professor Collin a while back. He has been doing a lot of that testing, as well. But, from what I understand, magnets do not work. They are being sold on the market, which is giving people false hope. That is not a good thing. For instance, RPLA is a new product that has come on the market. They have had to go to the New South Wales government to get grants and to get that product going. Shark Shield has had a lot of money invested in it. They are selling the surfing one. From what I believe, the surfing style of the Shark Shield has not been tested. They have tested—

CHAIR: The antenna.

Mr Gerring : the antenna of the diving one. But they are still claiming the same things—it is basically the same. So I think there is a bit there. There is quite a heavy push for the Shark Shield, as well. We need to have multiple products that will work. It promotes competition, which brings the price down so that normal people can buy them and use them. Personally, I have one of both. I have one for my surfboard and I have one which I have for diving and for off the back of the boat now.

CHAIR: The new one on the board, or do you have one of the old systems?

Mr Gerring : Yes. I have the RPLA on my board. Then I have the Shark Shield antenna, as well.

Senator SIEWERT: When you are diving?

Mr Gerring : For when I am diving—yes. And I also throw it off the back of the boat when I go for a swim now. Obviously, it is very hard to get in the water. I do not get in the water now without a device.

CHAIR: It is an excellent recommendation to the committee. We test electric saucepans but we do not test the—

Mr Gerring : That is right. Sorry.

CHAIR: No, that is all right. Senator Reynolds, I will go to you because you have to leave and then I will go to Senator Siewert.

Senator REYNOLDS: Mr Gerring, thank you very much for what you are doing. I know it has not been that long since your brother passed away. I am sure he would be very proud of what you are doing. I have to say a lot of what you have just said makes a lot of sense in terms of making sure things are tested and making sure there is more education. I think those are all very sensible recommendations. Thank you for that. You talked about myths. I noticed in an article in the paper you said that there was a stigma around personal shark deterrents. I just wonder if you could explain what some of those stigmas are.

Mr Gerring : This is just from talking to people in the community. Also, I used to be a dive instructor as well—I worked in the diving industry, so I have been around the products before. Basically, there is the myth that they that bring sharks in—that they attract sharks. I believe in Professor Collin's papers that have dispelled that myth. That needs to be out there—and people educated of that, as well. There are myths that they are too heavy, too bulky and too hard to use. Back then they were, but now the technology has advanced. It has gotten smaller. It is lighter than a cup. You do not even notice it on your board. The diving one, I think, is pretty easy to use. There is the downside of them that you do get a slight electric shock from them if you do handle them incorrectly. You do get it, but it is so minute that you just know that it is on, which is good.

Senator REYNOLDS: So it is a little bit reassuring, as well?

Mr Gerring : Yes, exactly right. The first thing I do when I hit the water I run my hand underneath the board and I make sure that I get that shock. Even when I am out there, I make sure that it is still in there and still running, working and doing what it is supposed to be doing.

Senator REYNOLDS: The research, the work and the advocacy that you have been doing is in relation to, as you have said, those who are most at risk—divers and surfers. So, in relation to that group of people, you would like to see more money for more focused research on making them smaller and more reliable but also for educating divers and surfers, dispelling the myths and making them as cost-effective as possible, so that, for anybody diving or surfing, it is just another piece of equipment. You either have it installed on your surfboard or you buy it with your diving equipment, so it becomes a routine. Is that what you would like to see?

Mr Gerring : That is just one part of the whole thing. Basically, I am looking at it as one link in the chain. We have some links in the chain, but we need to continue those links to protect everyone as best we can and reduce that risk. In the past it has been very hard because we have not had the technology. We have now had a bit of research into sharks and what not, and it has only been the last year or two years that the technology has finally arrived and been tested and is starting to become available for everyone.

We have the sonar buoys—the shark mitigation system. I think they are a fantastic thing. We also have eco barriers. They are fantastic. They are engineered to not trap dolphins. I am from Mandurah. We have lots of dolphins down there, so, for me, that is a big one. For the environmental side of things, these sorts of things are fantastic. I think the buoys are fantastic for the simple fact that you do not always want to be swimming in a net. It takes away from the enjoyment of being in the ocean and the visual aspect as well.

Senator REYNOLDS: I guess the reality is that, here in Western Australia, we are not going to confine everybody who wants to get into the water. The nets certainly have their place—as we have heard today in Joondalup—but we are certainly never going to get all West Australians only going into the water in small confines.

Mr Gerring : Correct.

CHAIR: We heard earlier from Shark Shield that they were pleased that the new Western Australian government is going to be offering subsidies to increase the uptake. But they also expressed some doubt as to how elastic that price subsidy might be—in other words, how many surfers will take that up. Given your very powerful experience, is there a role for advocacy to talk to surfers to get them to take up these kinds of devices?

Mr Gerring : Definitely. I have already done it today on social media. We talk about it in our boardriders club. It is a hard role—what I have been trying to do—but I feel it is getting momentum. That education is a very important part, and that is something I will not stop doing. That is why I always have my board; I will show the boys, when we are out surfing: 'Here you go, here's my board; I'll trade you. Have a go. I'll go onshore while you're using my board.' So they can have a go and go: 'Okay, there's no difference to the performance or anything.'

I have noticed, in the last few weeks, a lot more guys are starting to get them now. They are also starting to understand that, yes, they cost around $500 to $600, but that is it; that is a one-off cost. That product will last five or 10 years if you look after it. They are also interchangeable. It costs you maybe $80 to put the support system into your board, and then that is it. So you can go through as many boards as you want.

CHAIR: What is the vibe down at places like Falcon now? Is there still a bit of fear and loathing down there?

Mr Gerring : There are some guys that have still not got in the water. Obviously, with death of the young lady the other day as well, it has just hit everyone in our community again. It is very hard.

Senator SIEWERT: Can I ask a couple of questions. One is: you chose RPELA and Shark Shield because they had been independently tested?

Mr Gerring : Correct.

Senator SIEWERT: The RPELA one has gone through the testing but has not had the results yet.

Mr Gerring : Yes, that is only a few weeks off. I have seen a little bit of it, so that is why I went: 'Yep, no worries.'

Senator SIEWERT: Even the fact that Mr Smith had undertaken that research and shown a willingness to get it tested was enough?

Mr Gerring : Yes—correct.

Senator SIEWERT: You spoke strongly about the need for standards and I absolutely understand where you are coming from. Regarding one of our recommendations, are you suggesting that one of the things we should be considering is recommending that all of these devices are subject to the Australian standards process?

Mr Gerring : Definitely—100 per cent. We need an Australian standard for testing and for being able to put them out on the market, because people will go for the cheapest option and buy it, and an attack will happen while they are wearing that product—

Senator SIEWERT: It will put people off.

Mr Gerring : It will put everyone off. People will not use it; we will be back to square one again and people will be getting taken again.

Senator SIEWERT: They were attacked while they were wearing a device; therefore, all devices are labelled as poor.

Mr Gerring : Correct, which has happened before with a magnetic one. I think there was vision of it happening on YouTube and then it dropped off. People stop using them. They all got labelled the same—that they do not work because old mate got taken, which is not the case.

Senator SIEWERT: Can I go back to the issue around advocacy. Once those devices have been independently tested and proven to be effective—and I understand that nothing can ever be 100 per cent—

Mr Gerring : No.

Senator SIEWERT: there is then a role for advocacy, in terms of promoting the effectiveness of particular devices.

Mr Gerring : Definitely, and that is why I put it to both sides of government that the main idea of the subsidy, to start with, was to get them out there and get people talking about them. People will start realising, 'They are actually a good product and they will help me.'

Senator SIEWERT: My understanding from something that I think Mr Smith said was that pro surfers are now starting to use them. Is that your understanding?

Mr Gerring : From my understanding—yes. From what I know, I am pretty sure he even paddled out over in Reunion Island, which is one of the top three shark attack places in the world. Australia and WA are in that mix of the top three. It takes some confidence in your product to be able to do that, too.

Senator SIEWERT: Could I ask you about the comment you made about bias in the research. Could you just articulate that a little bit more.

Mr Gerring : Shark Shields have been around for a fair while now and the product has been trialled in new models and whatnot, but it appears that the majority of research funding just goes into that one company instead of other companies that have products that potentially work. So we need the funding for research to test these products to see if they do work. Even if we could test them so far and say, 'No, it is not going to the next phase because it has not passed these tests yet'—fine. But it just seems that the company is getting a lot of funding when there are other products out there that could also need the funding to be able to be put on the market. If you are a company who is trying to do the right thing, you will want to wait until you get that testing as well. The testing is quite substantial, from what I understand. They basically need to go to South Africa to get the numbers of sharks to be able to do the testing, and so many interactions to be able to do that. For a start-up company, it is a lot of money. We could be missing out on products that cannot get to that stage.

Senator SIEWERT: You cannot develop them further and take the next jump in technology, or whatever.

Mr Gerring : Yes.

CHAIR: You have obviously been on a very powerful personal crusade to save lives and, yet, you are advocating for these technologies. I have to ask you this question: is there a reason you are not advocating for lethal culling of sharks?

Mr Gerring : The very simple answer is that we have had the shark cull debate for how many years now—eight, 10-plus years. It has got us nowhere. It has been a waste of time talking about it. When I sat back, I thought: 'Everyone was talking about that. Where has it got us? Nowhere. Let's see what is out there. Let's see what is available.' When I started doing the research into it and finding all of these personal deterrents, the clever buoys, the ecobarriers and whatnot, there is a lot there that we could be doing now to instantly save people and protect people. At the moment, if we were to do a cull, it would not give us what we need now to save people. It will be five to 10 years down the track once we have fished enough of them out. We need something that is going to protect people now not in five years time when we get the numbers down enough that it is ecologically sustainable.

Senator URQUHART: You talked about education. It has been a theme throughout this hearing. You said you had offered your board with the protective device on it. Is that enough? Where do you think the education should actually start to make people aware of sharks, about the water and about particular things that might help? Where do you see that starting?

Mr Gerring : I have not really looked into the education too much myself. The subsidy for a thousand deterrents is a good start to education. People will talk about it and eventually people will get interested more and more in them. Surf lifesaving clubs is where you can start, and school swimming lessons. I did school swimming lessons in the ocean. That is a great place to learn about it.

Senator URQUHART: I did too in Tasmania and it is freezing there.

Mr Gerring : There are definitely lots of different avenues and different government and non-government things that go on where the education can start. It is getting to that point where we can start to educate a bit more and have people who actually want to get engaged in it and do that as well. These last few months has been a long fight to get anything positive and to get someone to think that we do have an issue and that we need to try and sort it out.

Senator URQUHART: Why is it such a fight?

Mr Gerring : I have been trying tirelessly to get to the people who can make the difference and I have basically been fobbed off. I have a whole page here on it. I went to the government to start with and nothing was done. They did not want to take on the ideas. There were some slight improvements but nothing really. The politics need to come out of this issue. The politics need to be squashed. The federal environment minister said, 'Give us a proposition and we'll have a look at it for culling.' That was an absolute slap in the face, I think. I was gutted by that. He turned that into something political against the current government. Politics need to come out and we need to focus on saving the people.

Senator URQUHART: Which government have you met with? The state government or federal government?

Mr Gerring : The state government.

Senator URQUHART: The previous state government.

Mr Gerring : Yes. I have met with both.

Senator URQUHART: I am trying to put the pieces together.

Mr Gerring : The previous state government basically fobbed me off and did not want too much to do with me, or any of my ideas which I had sat down with other people about as well. Some of them would cost nothing to do. It is matter of organising and some logistics.

Senator URQUHART: Have you had a chance to meet with the new government on those proposals?

Mr Gerring : Yes, I have a meeting with Mr Kelly tomorrow, which is fantastic. This issue is not just a state issue; New South Wales and Queensland, we all have the same issue. We are spending the same sort of money in the same areas where we could be going, 'Right, you trial that, we'll trial this and let's work together.' I think the federal government has a big part in this, especially funding-wise to support all the states. It is a countrywide issue that we need to deal with. I hate to say it, but tourism definitely comes into it. We need to get it sorted and try and protect our people.

Senator URQUHART: I will leave my questions there. Thank you very much. Keep up the fight, because it is certainly worthy of it.

Mr Gerring : I will not be stopping; I am not going anywhere. My next step moving forward was going federal, so thank you very much for seeing me as well.

CHAIR: We will certainly be looking forward to the independent testing, when it has been released, on the alternative mitigation device. Once again, thank you for being so brave and—

Senator URQUHART: Sorry, I go have one more final question. You are obviously a firm believer in the devices that are attached to your surfboards.

Mr Gerring : I have to be!

Senator URQUHART: Yes, obviously. Do you see a time where that is almost going to be a compulsory sort of measure? Do you think that is worthy of seeing that or should it be a choice for people?

Mr Gerring : I definitely think it should be a choice for people. I have spoken to a few people, and some people do not want to do it. A guy who I actually work with, who is a mad surfer, has got a bit of a religious belief about it all so he does not want to. I thought it was a little bit spun out, but that is basically what his thing was. I think it should be a personal choice. We do not want to make it like how you have to wear a helmet on a motorbike.

Senator URQUHART: I am just interested, because I am not a surfer. I do not look like a surfer, I have never surfed and I do not think I would be very good at it. I am just interested about the understanding of people who, such as yourself, rely totally on that and others who do not, and whether or not you are passion would be that it should maybe be a compulsory thing. But you are saying no, you are happy for people to make their own choice?

Mr Gerring : I would not like to see it as compulsory thing. I think people should make very choices, but they need to know have the education. If there was an Australian standard on testing, then that issue goes. With this subsidy, I think a lot more people will start taking up because it will create the discussion about them.

CHAIR: Good luck with getting surfers to do anything. I say that being one myself! As in telling them what to do, like with compulsory—

Mr Gerring : Yes, exactly right. But I think once people do start seeing them and actually get have the use of them, then they will change their minds, definitely.

Senator LINES: There is really a whole strategy that could be employed. Just last week in the news, we heard that drownings are mainly young men who are intoxicated. I know that we are also educating our kids around recognising rips before they go for a swim. There is a whole sweep of issues around going into the ocean or being responsible when you make that decision to go into the ocean and what to look out for, which is part of a range of strategies.

Mr Gerring : Yes, and it will take a range of strategies to deal with this issue.

CHAIR: Thank you very much again, Mr Gerring, for giving your evidence today. It has been greatly appreciated.