Distressing footage of a dead fur seal caught in netting has reignited debate over NSW’s shark meshing program, two days after a three-metre great white forced several Sydney beaches to close.
In the video, filmed last year and obtained by NCA NewsWire, the seal is seen being dragged alongside a boat near where it was found trapped at Bondi Beach.
Shark nets, which have been used in NSW since 1937, are rolled out at 51 popular beaches between Newcastle and Wollongong from September to April each year.
The nets, which are installed in Cronulla where a great white shark was spotted on Monday, are a source of longstanding community tension because of their toll on marine life.
The state’s new Agriculture Minister Dugald Saunders says the government has no plans to ditch the nets, which it will continue to use “where appropriate”.
Several councils including Waverley and Northern Beaches, whose local government areas take in some of the state’s best-known beaches, last year voted for the nets to be removed.
Research into the meshing program found species other than sharks were indiscriminately caught and often killed in them, while critics claim they fail to protect beachgoers from shark attacks.
Almost 90 per cent of the 375 animals entangled in shark nets during the 2020-21 meshing season were not the “target” white, bull or tiger sharks, according to the shark meshing program’s annual performance report.
In the eight months from September 2020, 65 of the of the animals that were trapped were threatened or protected species including 18 turtles, six dolphins and the fur seal seen in the video.
Of these animals, 44 were killed and 21 were released alive.
Envoy Foundation, whose 2021 documentary Envoy: Shark Cull scrutinised NSW’s shark meshing program, obtained the video of the dead fur seal under freedom of information laws.
“Without this video, the seal is just a line of data in a spreadsheet. I think it’s important that people know it’s going on and see it,” filmmaker Andre Borell told NCA NewsWire.
“This program was designed in 1937. It’s now 2022. Can we move forward? We hope the new fisheries minister does.”
Mr Saunders said the government took a “holistic approach” to shark mitigation but public safety was the “number one priority”.
His predecessor in the agriculture portfolio, Adam Marshall, had indicated the introduction of newer shark deterrents meant meshing would be phased out “at some point in the future”.
The NSW Department of Primary industries says the nets, which do not create a total barrier because they don’t span the entire length of beaches, are designed to discourage sharks from establishing territories.
There have been 36 unprovoked shark interactions at meshed beaches since 1937, resulting in one death in 1951, as well as 24 injuries and 11 incidents where the person was not bitten, the DPI says.
The NSW government in September unveiled its new $21.4m shark management program, which includes new technologies such as shark spotting drones and “SMART” drumlines, but retains the controversial nets at all 51 beaches.
A DPI spokeswoman told NCA NewsWire the program was designed to minimise the impact on marine life, based on feedback to a survey that heard from 25 coastal councils and more than 4000 residents.
“While there is no silver bullet when it comes to protecting beachgoers from sharks, the NSW government is proud that no other jurisdictions in the world that have done as much to increase beachgoer safety,” she said.
Animal Justice MP Emma Hurst has called for the nets to be banned in favour of more humane alternatives including lifeguard patrols, drone surveillance and shark listening stations.
“With a new agriculture minister recently appointed, now is the time for change,” she said.
“The government must listen to the community, listen to science and ban shark nets in NSW.”