Maui mayor Alan Arakawa’s announcement that he would not implement shark nets to combat the rise in shark attacks on the island (four so far this year) was likely the first time many had even heard of the option of installing shark nets.
But the devices are widely used in Australia and South Africa, and Mayor Arakawa may have just saved Maui, and its beloved sea creatures, a whole lot of headache and danger.
In Durban, South Africa, 17 nets that are each over 1,000 feet long form a barrier intended to keep great white sharks away from the largest coastal city in the country. But the nets are only about 20 feet tall, and as the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, the entity responsible for overseeing the nets, admits, “Shark nets do not form a complete barrier and sharks can swim over, under or around the ends of the nets.”
The Australia Zoo took a public stance against the nets, likening having a net that doesn’t reach the bottom of the ocean to “putting up a fence in a paddock that only goes three quarters of the way around -- you may deter some of the cows from coming in but it is certainly not an effective or efficient way to operate.”
Sharks may be able to swim around the barriers, but whales can’t. Last month in Queensland, Australia, a 29-foot baby humpback whale got entangled in a shark net and had to be rescued. He was the third whale to get caught in the Queensland nets this year.
Turtles, dolphins, and other sea life are also in danger of getting caught in the nets, which may indirectly worsen shark attack risks. Last year, then-Western Australia Fisheries Minister Norman Moore told the New York Times that despite five fatal sharks attacks in his jurisdiction in 10 months, shark nets were not necessarily a solution. “They trap other marine life. What that does, in fact, is attract sharks that come to feed on the other marine life caught in the nets.”
Finally, it is not uncommon for the nets to come loose and wash ashore after strong surf, endangering sea life, surfers and fishermen, and giving sharks a free lunch ticket.
That is not to say that shark nets do not achieve their main objective. Between 1943 and 1951, Durban saw 21 shark attacks, and suffered seven fatalities. After the city installed the nets in 1952, the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board claims there was never another serious attack.
But did the nets just make other beaches more dangerous? While Durban enjoyed the new protection, the rest of the KwaZulu-Natal coast endured “Black December,” a period beginning in December 1957 during which 5 people were killed by great whites in a period of 107 days.
So yes, shark nets are a thing. They’re just not necessarily a good thing.
Maui Mayor Arakawa has a more long-term vision for solving the uptick in attacks: “I don’t think we’re going to have a huge escalation unless we keep acting silly and depleting all of the natural resources and dirtying up the resources ... What we really need to do is build up the fish population. We really need to start working on cleaning the ocean and making sure we’re not putting so much sediment and rubbish in the ocean -- then, I think things will settle down.”