Australia Employs Drones In Effort To Track Sharks And Prevent Attacks

Australian officials recently announced that they will employ drones as part of a new “shark strategy” aimed at tracking the predators in the waters off New South Wales and mitigating the unusual number of attacks that have injured or killed beachgoers over the last year.

The trial program was announced on Wednesday and will take place in the coming months. In addition to the use of drones to track sharks in shallow waters, the government of NSW will also deploy a series of 4G listening stations, which will allow them to more effectively monitor tracking data from tagged sharks. The program will also involve a series of “smart” drum lines that are set to be tested off Ballina in the coming weeks.

The announcement comes amid a year that has seen over 30 shark attacks along the Australian coast, ranging from injury-free to fatal. The governments of several Australian states have previously employed methods of dealing with the sharks that have been highly controversial, including culls that have, in recent years, garnered widespread protests and international condemnation. As Niall Blair, the minister for primary industries, lands, and water, pointed out in a statement released Wednesday, there is no easy method for government officials to guarantee the safety of beachgoers.

“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.”

The drones used in the program will relay real-time images of coastal waters back to operators, along with GPS coordinates, as NPR reports. They will allow officials to monitor the region’s coastline for any potentially dangerous animals in shallow water, giving them an opportunity to more quickly alert beachgoers.

While the use of drone technology is innovative in this context, the “smart drum lines” that will also be deployed as part of the AU $16 million ($11.6 million) program will likely be a much more controversial aspect of the strategy. Traditional drum lines consist of baited hooks suspended from anchored buoys, which can somewhat indiscriminately kill or injure any animal unfortunate enough to take the bait. The new versions of these traps include GPS monitoring and integrated cameras, which will allow operators to respond to the buoys more quickly should an unwanted animal become ensnared, as Engadget points out. The drum lines will still be capable of snaring sharks, however, and that fact is likely to remain controversial.

While sharks can potentially be dangerous and even deadly to beachgoers, attacks on humans are most often thought to be cases of mistaken identity. Shark culls and drum lines are controversial precisely because they target entire species, instead of the particular animals responsible for deadly attacks.

This exact aspect of Australian shark policy came to a head last December when the government of Western Australia targeted a great white shark off Warnbro Sound. The animal did not interact with beachgoers in any way but remained in the area long enough to worry officials, who invoked a “serious threat” policy to target the shark using tracking data from its tag. Though the white shark was able to evade its hunters (as well as several baited drum lines) to escape, the damage was effectively done, eroding trust between researchers and government officials. Several scientists even threatened to withhold tracking data from the state government in the wake of the decision by officials to preemptively target the shark, as the Guardian notes.

The new program will also see increased helicopter patrols introduced along the northern coast of the state in an attempt to better track the sharks. With over a dozen attacks taking place in New South Wales during the last year, and 33 shark incidents in total being reported continent-wide, the drone program represents just the latest effort to manage the often unpredictable relationship between sharks and humans.

[Image via Elias Levy — Own Work | Flickr | Cropped and Resized | CC BY 2.0]