Australia to trial shark deterrent technologies

Jamie Smyth
Ralph A. Clevenger | Fuse | Getty Images

Australia is to begin trialling some of the world's most advanced shark deterrent technologies in the next few months in an effort to curb a rise in attacks that threaten its beach tourism industry.

After nine deaths in two years, authorities in New South Wales on Tuesday outlined plans to test electronic repellents, plastic shields, sonar and other technologies to detect or repel sharks.

Business is also tapping into global interest in shark deterrents, which has been heightened by a spate of recent attacks in the US and elsewhere.

Scientists say the rise in attacks may be linked to the growing popularity of surfing and other watersports, bait fish moving closer to shore or a recovery in large species such as Great White sharks following conservation efforts.

"We are seeing a lot of interest in our products from divers and spear fishermen due to these attacks," said Lindsay Lyon, managing director of Shark Shield, a company based in Perth, Western Australia.

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Shark Shield has developed a device that emits an electrical field that disturbs the gel-filled sacs in sharks' snouts, causing them to spasm. Divers, swimmers or surfers attach the 1.8m long antenna-like device to their ankle to create a field measuring several feet.

Tests by researchers at the University of Western Australia found the shield had a "significant effect" in deterring sharks, including Tiger and Great White sharks. But they said further testing is needed to be confident about species-specific effects of the device.

Uptake of Shark Shield has been limited so far due to the bulky nature of the product. But the company has signed a deal with surfing equipment company Oceans & Earth to embed the device within boards, which may increase its popularity.

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Shark Shield's technology is based on research originating in South Africa, a country also trialling deterrent technologies. Last year the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board installed a 100m long cable at a beach in Cape Town. It emits a similar low frequency pulsed electronic signal to repel Great White sharks.

Advocates of electronic barriers say that if it can be proved they work, the systems would be preferable to deploying shark nets, which kill marine life that become entangled.

"Shark nets are another way of culling sharks and marine life," said Daniel Bucher, marine ecologist at Southern Cross University. "It is similar to setting drum lines and baited hooks."

Last year the Western Australia state government ditched a shark cull policy using baited hooks and drum lines after community protests. Local councils have sought alternatives with the City of Cockburn trialling an Eco Shark Barrier at Coogee beach.

"The beauty of the product is it doesn't kill marine life, it's cost effective and has a 10-year lifespan," said Craig Moss, inventor of the Eco Shark Barrier.

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The barrier is made from flexible nylon that stretches from seabed to surface, from shoreline to shoreline. But it is probably best suited to protecting swimmers on enclosed beaches rather than surfers, divers or spear fishermen further from shore, who tend to be most at risk from shark attacks.

New South Wales is at the forefront of the search for solutions following 13 shark attacks this year. On Tuesday at a summit in Sydney, 70 shark experts discussed detection and deterrent technologies, including real-time tracking of tagged sharks using satellite technologies.

Shark Attack Mitigation Systems (SAMS), a Western Australian company, has developed a shark detection system that does not rely on tagging sharks. Its Clever Buoy system deploys sonar technology around beaches and uses software to analyse readings to determine if a shark-sized object has entered the vicinity.

"It is a type of facial recognition software for marine life," said Craig Anderson, SAMS co-founder. "We use multi-dimensional sonar and the software to send a warning message to local lifeguards."