Australia launches shark-tracking drones and ‘smart’ drum lines to prevent shark attacks

by Shreya Dasgupta

Drones will now hover above Australian coastal waters in a bid to reduce shark attacks, Australian government announced this week.

The first drone trial began at Coffs Harbor in the southeastern state of New South Wales (NSW) on Wednesday. These trials will track sharks, and transmit their GPS coordinates back to the drone operators, according to a press release by the government.

The drone trials are a part of a AU $16 million strategy to prevent shark attacks. In 2015, NSW recorded 14 shark attacks, resulting in one death.

“There is no easy way to reduce risks for swimmers and surfers,” Niall Blair, Minister for Primary Industries, and Land and Water, said in the statement. “We are delivering on a commitment to test the best science available, including new technologies, as we try to find an effective long-term solution to keep our beaches safe.”

Blair added that these trials are “first of many that will get underway across the state’s beaches this summer as we take an integrated approach to working out a long-term solution.”

The government also announced installation of “smart” drum lines to physically catch, tag and release sharks.

These “smart” drums, according to the Shark Year Magazine, are anchored buoys or drums that are equipped with GPS, underwater cameras and sensors in addition to hooks that traditional drum lines have. If a shark gets hooked, the additional “smart” features raise an alert signal to the operator. And if a non-target species gets caught, the “smart” technology allows operators to intervene relatively quickly, within two hours, according to Shark Year.

The first set of “smart” drum lines will be deployed at Ballina in New South Wales, Blair said. To provide real time tracking of the tagged sharks, the NSW government will also install two 4G “listening stations”, which will be positioned at Sharpes Beach at Ballina and Clarkes Beach Byron Bay, according to the statement.

However, some conservation groups have concerns about this technology. Following the government’s announcement, the Humane Society International (HSI) in Australia expressed regret over the decision.

“Our view is that Smart Drumlines are an unnecessary and lethal addition to the Government’s plans for shark management in NSW,” HSI’s resident marine scientist Jessica Morris said in a statement. “The plan to install these drumlines at places such as Coffs Harbour and Ballina with plans to erect more within NSW later, could result in the deaths of many non-target species such as hammerhead and grey nurse sharks, both of which are protected in NSW…. We have already seen from the drumlines placed in WA, Reunion Islands, and Queensland that these devices are not effective in catching white sharks but have a serious impact on our marine ecosystems. Drumlines catch more marine turtles than white sharks in Queensland and marine mammals such as dolphins are also captured.”

The NSW government also plans to increase aerial helicopter surveillance on the North Coast, the statement said.

“Helicopters will fly at least three hours each day, weather permitting, from 1 December until 26 January 2016, flying from Byron Bay to Evans Head twice daily,” according to the statement.