Ten months after the launch of so-called SMART drum lines off WA’s South West coast, there are calls for a rethink of the multi-million dollar-program amid limited results.
The drum lines have been deployed along an 11.5 kilometre stretch of the Margaret River coast about 200 times since the program to capture, tag, move and release great white sharks began in February.
But more than two-thirds of the way through the 15-month trial, just two white sharks have been caught by the non-lethal drum lines as part of the $3.8 million SMART (Shark Management Alert in Real Time) program.
While more than 100 sharks have been caught in total, the program was specifically targeting white pointers, with a focus on monitoring their behaviour after they were released.
Great whites ‘very rare’ in WA
The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development insisted the drum line program was working well but admitted the lack of captured white sharks was making it difficult to meet the aim of monitoring their behaviour.
“It is probably not as much data as we would like,” statewide operations manager Peter Godfrey said.
“But it is a fishing operation and trial so we can only evaluate the data we have in front of us.”
He said the very small number of white sharks caught was not a surprise, given estimates that the population of the animals between WA and Victoria is just 1,600.
“White sharks are very rare in Western Australia,” Mr Godfrey said.
“The trial is operating well so far and we are very happy with the contractor’s performance.”
The SMART drum lines send an alert when a shark is caught on a baited hook.
(Supplied: NSW Department of Primary Industries)
‘Inefficient way to catch sharks’
It is not the first time a West Australian drum line program has struggled with its goal of capturing white sharks.
The lethal drum line program introduced by the former Barnett government in 2013 failed to capture a single white shark.
University of Western Australia Centre for Marine Futures marine ecologist Jessica Meeuwig agreed that the lack of white sharks caught under the latest program was not a surprise.
“It is a really inefficient way to capture white sharks,” she said.
“If what we are really after is knowledge and information about these animals, a fixed smart drum line trial monitored every day is not how you do it.
“Intercepting a random animal that is in the area also is not going to make people safer.”
Call for program overhaul
Professor Meeuwig said the money spent on the program should have gone towards a targeted shark tagging program, but the drum line trial could be improved by tagging other species.
“We catch lots of tiger sharks … this is a missed opportunity, we should have been tagging those animals as well,” she said.
“An acoustic tag is only $400 so compared to the cost of the program, it’s a mystery to me why those animals were not tagged as well.”
Former fisheries minister Dave Kelly demonstrating the SMART drum line technology in early 2019. (ABC News: Charlotte Hamlyn)
The Government, under new Fisheries Minister Peter Tinley, will ask the chief scientist to review the program early next year before a decision is made on whether to continue it beyond the trial.
But the Opposition wants the trial to run for longer, arguing ex-fisheries minister Dave Kelly botched the program.
“We would like to see some consideration towards extending the trial and mimicking the more successful New South Wales trial,” Liberal MP Libby Mettam said.
“It is fair to say there has been an opportunity lost.”