05 November 2005

Australia: Divers claim grey nurse shark sanctuaries not working

Divers and conservationists have claimed the grey nurse shark sanctuaries created to help save the threatened species are not working.

Photographs taken off South West Rocks on the mid-North Coast reveal what divers claim has become a common sight: grey nurse sharks with fishing hooks hanging from their mouths.

Left unattended, the hooks eventually cause infection and can kill the shark.

When The Saturday Daily Telegraph visited Fish Rock, a bombora off the fishing town this week, eight of 23 sharks spotted carried fishing hooks – one with a 1.5m-long wire trace wrapped around its body and tearing into its skin.

There are 10 "critical habitat areas" providing limited protection for sharks on the NSW coast.

However the Nature Conservation Council is demanding the creation of 16 sanctuaries, in which all fishing is banned, to protect the creatures.

Currently fishing on the bottom where the sharks live is banned, while keeping baits on the surface is allowed.

They claim about 12 sharks are being lost each year to fishing.

It is believed, although there is no proof, that just 500 grey nurses are left along the east coast.

The sharks, which breed extremely slowly, are yet to recover from a slaughter by spearfishermen in the 1960s and '70s.

South West Rocks Dive Centre operator Peter Hitchins said yesterday he removes hooks or fishing wire from at least 15 sharks each week.

"What people don't realise is the grey nurse shark grips on to fish and swallows them whole, despite their many teeth they can't chop up food," Mr Hitchins told The Saturday Daily Telegraph.

"If (a fishing hook) is in their stomach they form septicaemia and die within days.

"You see thin sharks all the time, which is sad because you know they will eventually die."

Divers are also headed for a clash with the State Government next month over a proposal to introduce a fee for scuba diving.

While the Government argues the fee will support a recovery program for the grey nurse, divers have attacked it as "a tax on breathing".

Nature Conservation Council fisheries spokeswoman Megan Kessler said the diving fee was "a distraction from the real issue, which was creating real sanctuaries for the sharks".

"The fee isn't going to fix the problem which is the deaths caused by commercial and recreational fishing," she said.

Mr Hitchins said divers were "not the problem".

"I'm not against fishing but it's fishermen who take from the environment, divers take nothing and when we leave the water everything is alive," he said.

However Arthur Ciantar, president of the Amateur Fishermen's Association of NSW, said the calls for shark sanctuaries were based on incomplete information.

"They're trying to impose these sanctuaries on grey nurse areas and haven't done a complete study of it," Mr Ciantar said.

"It's impossible to determine how many sharks there are without doing a tagging program, which they didn't do."

There has been intense speculation in fishing circles that there are actually far more sharks in NSW waters than divers and conservationists claim.

There has also been undercurrents of internet chat that fishers know of many more reefs inhabited by grey nurses but that the fishers will not reveal their locations for fear of the reefs being put off limits.

Source: dailytelegraph.news.com.au


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