we talk to Jonathan Clark, Coordinator of the Apex Harmony Campaign, Sea Shepherd Australia.
Sea Shepherd's Apex Harmony Campaign exists to end shark killing programs.
If you would like to know more about this program, or have concerns about what the removal of drumlines in Australia would mean to you - read on 🦈
WHAT DOES A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN APEX HARMONY COORDINATOR LOOK LIKE?
One part of me wants to say… like anybody else’s day… but then I need to add some caveats to that.
Like anybody else’s day… if they are already a busy primary school teacher. 😉 My role is a volunteer role and I feel very privileged to be in it. There is so much to do for the myriad of environmental and social issues that we face in our world. I am happy to do my bit.
Apex Harmony is a very active campaign and we have a team of wonderful volunteers so a fair bit of time goes into managing all the roles within the campaign. We have a weekly team meeting, we do it on Zoom now, to organise and plan our work. But there is something to work on every single day. And then it gets really serious when an event such as a whale entanglement occurs in the state’s shark nets. Apart from all the writing and meetings, there is the maintenance of gear including a boat and when we are in a period of lots of on-water activity that of course gets pretty busy.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED WITH SEA SHEPHERD AND THIS CAMPAIGN?
I first learnt of Sea Shepherd through noticing the organisation in the media and through people I knew about ten years ago. I came across a book called “The Whale Warriors” by Peter Heller which documented one of the early Southern Ocean anti-whaling campaigns. I was immediately taken by the “aggressive non-violent direct action” approach. I felt I needed to be involved and found that there was a chapter in Brisbane and so went along to a meeting. Since then I have learnt so much and found so many people who have become wonderful friends. I found my place. After some time volunteering with the chapter, I learnt about the shark nets and drumlines of the Queensland Shark Control Program. I learnt that there were some in the chapter looking to start a campaign because of what this system was doing and how almost no-one knew anything about it. It was about the same time in 2014 that Western Australia was blowing up because of their state government’s rolling out of drumlines in response to some shark bite incidents. Apex Harmony was born out of that and we started to work out how to get out to the gear here in Queensland – mostly self-funded by volunteers and one in particular who purchased a boat and then a jet ski – real sacrifices were involved to do this as I am not talking about wealthy people with much cash to spare.
In 2015, I was invited to take on the coordinator role – the standard joke is that at the time I asked how much time the role might require and was told “oh about 3 hours per week”. Yea right… But that’s totally OK. Things we are passionate about deserve our time and it is freely given.
HOW DO SHARKS PLAY A ROLE IN BALANCED AND HEALTHY MARINE ECOSYSTEMS?
There’s plenty of science around that is unequivocal about the place of apex predators and mesopredators in the food web. But again, it’s not really very simple – there are likely over 500 species of sharks – all adapted specifically to their environments, some highly specialised and ranging from examples that are a 30cm ruler in length to some that are 12-16m plankton eaters.
For example, there is a reason tiger sharks are known as the clean-up crew. The have a role in keeping in check populations of prey species. Like terrestrial predators, they focus on the old, sick and weak – basic equation of effort vs reward really. They keep the turtles and dugongs moving which in turn ensures sea grasses are not overgrazed in particular areas.
Imagine if dead whales we not cleaned up by the tigers and whites. Things would be pretty messy at times.
WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS THE MOST MISUNDERSTOOD THING ABOUT SHARKS?
Sharks simply do not eat people. They do not hunt or attack people. Accidents do occur – but very rarely. But if sharks did all the things some people think they do and much media would have us believe they do, we would simply not be able to swim, surf or dive in the ocean.
And yet we do and we do often. Millions of people swim in our oceans daily. Thousands of people surf every day. Hundreds of people SCUBA dive every day.
Only yesterday, a SCUBA diving friend of mine had a white shark encounter and he was absolutely thrilled – a first in thousands of dives over 38 years! The shark swam towards him, had a look and swam by obviously curious at the oddity in the water, but certainly not aggressive.
WHAT IS THE MAIN CAUSE OF SHARK POPULATION DECLINE GLOBALLY?
Finning for shark fin soup.
By-catch in fishing nets and long lines.
Shark fishing for meat etc.
The huge market in shark products – and this includes products in the cosmetics and pet supplies industries.
None of these things are essential. None of these things are worth the cost of the inevitable trophic cascades in our oceans destroying marine eco-systems.
HOW HAVE SHARK NETS AND DRUMLINES IMPACTED SHARK POPULATIONS AND MARINE LIFE IN AUSTRALIA?
Shark populations are already in decline generally and in some cases devastatingly. The spending of government money to target sharks, including otherwise protected species, in a pointless exercise is clearly counterproductive. And especially given that there are non-lethal methods available right now there really is the question of whether it is worth it and whether any of it ever has been. Shark populations do not need the extra pressure of the culling programs of the Queensland and New South Wales Governments.
Shark nets capture humpback whales and when this happens we can never be sure of the ultimate impact on the animal even if released alive. They capture and kill grey nurse sharks – critically endangered in some areas – the first sharks ever to be protected by law – by the same government that manages the shark nets in New South Wales.
They also catch and kill dolphins, rays including mantas, dugongs, turtles and sea birds.
Shark nets and drumlines also impact on the public perception of sharks – when a government deems it necessary to cull these animals then some will feel they must be dangerous. Some will feel they must be detrimental to everything and gotten rid of. And hype driven media does the same.
FOR THOSE PEOPLE WHO HAVE CONCERNS ABOUT HUMAN SAFETY IF SHARK NETS AND DRUMLINES ARE REMOVED, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?
There’s no adequate quick and easy response to this. It’s just not that simple.
We have the same concerns. We are concerned that people should be safe when recreating. But people must also understand that recreating in a wild environment bears some risks and those risks can only be mitigated to a certain extent. It’s the same with many other human activities such as bush walking or mountain biking. Recreating in a wild environment also brings responsibilities to look after that environment and the ocean in that regard is no different to say, a national park.
We also stand strongly by our view, derived from much work in the area, that the current system of culling marine creatures using shark nets and drumlines do not provide any safety benefit. There simply is no science that backs the view that culling sharks leads to fewer shark bite incidents. We would even take it further and say quite clearly that they may well do the opposite - by providing a false sense of security may lead people to make decisions that are less safe. For example, if you thought that drumlines made surfing safer, you might think it OK to surf near a river mouth following a rain event.
So, let’s turn it around and imagine a better system – one that would provide a level of mitigation and do it without bringing destruction to marine environments.
Imagine the comfort of seeing the local surf life-saving patrol expertly operating aerial drones equipped with the latest in artificial intelligence software and spectral imaging giving us the ability to enact the safest method of shark bite mitigation – removing people from the water when a shark is detected nearby… and allowing people to make an informed decision to re-enter the water knowing it has left the area. Imagine that system catering for swimmers at flagged beaches and surfers at nearby breaks.
Imagine the comfort of an eco-friendly barrier in the calm waters of a tourism hot spot like Palm Cove in the shadow of the Great Barrier Reef.
Imagine the benefits of a comprehensive education program demonstrating the virtues of these effective and non-lethal systems allowing people to make informed decisions about entering the water and how they should behave in it and in the event of encountering a shark.
WHAT ARE THE MOST EFFECTIVE NON-LETHAL ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS TO SHARK NETS AND DRUMLINES?
Sea Shepherd Australia, through the Apex Harmony Campaign, has for some time now been articulating a solutions-based approach to changing the Queensland Shark Control Program and New South Wales Bather Protection (Shark Meshing) Program. Three main solutions should and could be implemented right away:
Drones are now armed with artificial intelligence software and spectral imaging tools that make them excellent at spotting marine animals. Operated by beach safety experts, they can be flown over swimmers and surfers alike. They can be used not only to identify possible hazards from animals but conditions such as rips and people who are in trouble.
Shark Barriers (not to be confused with nets) in specific calmer-waters such as those at Palm Cove could be set up to provide a very safe swimming enclosure that has zero effect on the eco-system.
A long-term science-based and pervasive education program is required to develop public understanding and to counter the myths currently pedalled by some parts of the media. The education program must aim to assist swimmers and surfers make informed decisions and to take personal responsibility.
HOW CAN PEOPLE GET INVOLVED TO HELP PROTECT THIS IMPORTANT SPECIES?
Some people like to get directly involved and Sea Shepherd welcomes volunteers. Some people like to make donations and they certainly can do that – it all helps. Some people like to add their voice and letters and emails to their local members of parliament are very effective when there are enough of them. We provide assistance for doing all of those things on our web site.
For more information about how to get involved and help Sea Shepherd defend, conserve and protect our oceans head on over to their website - seashepherd.org.au/get-involved/