NSW shark netting trials: an exception that should not become a rule

The NSW Government’s North Coast shark netting trials were approved under exceptional circumstances that bypassed the usual environmental assessment processes. It’s critical that no further exemptions to our national environmental laws are granted to allow the nets to remain without a proper environmental assessment.

By EDO NSW Solicitor Sarah Roebuck

Published 19 January 2017, updated 10 February 2017

This week the NSW Government released its second monthly report detailing the marine animals caught in shark nets being trialled on beaches on the North Coast of NSW.

Between 8 January and 7 February 2017, 72 animals were caught in the nets. 32 of those animals died. In the first 30 days of the State Government’s controversial trial between 8 December 2016 and 7 January 2017, 43 animals were caught in the nets, and nearly a third of these died. Animals killed since the trial started include rays, bottlenose dolphins and green turtles.

Many in the community are rightly confused that a government-run scheme such as this can be legally allowed to kill protected animals. It is an offence in both NSW and under national environmental legislation to harm protected marine species. NSW and national laws also require that an environmental assessment be undertaken for any activity likely to have a significant impact on the environment, such as shark netting.

So how has this shark netting trial been allowed to proceed?

The answer is that late last year the NSW Parliament introduced new laws to authorise the shark netting trial, effectively bypassing the usual environmental assessment process required under State fisheries law.

The Australian Government facilitated this extraordinary move by exercising a rarely used power under federal law which allows the Environment Minister to exempt what would otherwise have been a prohibited activity if the Minister is satisfied it is in the ‘national interest’ to do so. This is the third time in three years we have seen the Minister grant an exemption from federal laws to allow a State Government to target protected sharks (the Minister also used this power in 2014 to authorise the WA Government’s controversial shark cull off Perth and South West WA beaches).

Turtle caught ina sharknet

A turtle caught in a shark net. Image: Coastal Watch

So the North Coast shark net trial was authorised through an exceptional set of legal mechanisms. But it’s important that these exceptional circumstances do not continue without the usual legal checks and balances enshrined in our environmental laws. The trial’s exemption expires at the end of the year. Any proposal for the ongoing use of shark nets on the NSW North Coast should undergo a thorough environmental assessment, and not be permitted to continue under an exemption to federal laws.

These North Coast shark netting trials are an addition to the long-running netting program operating off Sydney’s beaches, in which 748 animals were caught in the 2015-16 summer period. Uncertainty surrounding the effectiveness of the nets in protecting beach goers and the disproportionate impact on non-target marine species such as rays, turtles and the critically endangered Grey Nurse shark has long generated concern among community members.

We’ll continue to advise community groups about how the law offers protection to endangered species, and how they can have their say to support non-lethal shark mitigation measures. Please donate online to help us continue this vital work.

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