A series of shark attacks off Australia’s northeast coast has given the tourism industry the shudders, prompting a controversial deployment of protective nets to save lives and guard the country’s reputation as a holiday destination.
Australia ranked behind only the United States in the number of unprovoked shark encounters with humans last year, the International Shark Attack File of the University of Florida shows.
There have been 16 attacks in the last two years, data from the Shark Research Institute shows, including one death, off the coast of New South Wales, a region favoured by tourists for its proximity to the international gateway of Sydney.
“When I surf, I always think about sharks,” French tourist Alexandre Monteiro, 22, said. “Mostly when it’s cloudy, or when the water is not clear.”
The tourism industry, which supports one in three jobs and brings about A$3.7 billion into the regional economy, hailed the federal government’s use of a national interest exemption to permit shark nets on five beaches over the busy summer holidays.
“Whenever there is a life at stake something needs to be done,” Cameron Arnold, Chairman of tourism body the North Coast Destination Network, said.
Current environmental laws ban such nets, but a decades-long netting programme in heavily-populated areas such as Sydney and northern Queensland dates from before the laws were adopted.
While closely watched by businesses at holiday sites around the nation, the new shark nets have sparked heated debate over their usefulness and the harm they cause to marine life.
“We will see humpback whales, mothers and calves, getting entangled in the nets,” said Jeff Hansen, Managing Director of conservation group Sea Shepherd Australia.
“We’re going to see an increase in turtles, rays and seals trapped and killed in these nets.”
The nets, about 150 metres (164 yards) long and six metres (7 yards) deep, stretch along roughly 200 km (124 miles) of coast between the cities of Newcastle and Wollongong.
Only the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal has a netting programme on a similar scale.
The shark attacks have hit the holiday towns of Lennox Head and Ballina the hardest. Registrations and donations are down at surf lifesaving clubs and plans for several summer events have been scrapped, the New South Wales government says.
Visitors further north, in the tourism mecca of Byron Bay, have been left on edge by four shark attacks since 2015 began.
The attacks had deterred visitors, hurting business, said David Loosemore, who owns Ballina hotel Dunes on Shelly Beach.
“Surf shops, places like mine, are front and foremost,” said Loosemore, who estimated some businesses saw revenue shrink as much as a third after the attacks. Reuters could not independently confirm the figure.