Operator defends aerial shark patrols

Harry Mitchell can list more than a dozen reasons why he disagrees with a state government report that branded his work costly and inefficient when it comes to protecting swimmers from sharks.

"It contradicts what is actually happening out there, the weekend just gone," the general manager of the Illawarra-based Bendigo Bank Aerial Patrol said.

Mr Mitchell said the patrol's planes spotted about 14 sharks between 50 to 100 metres off unpatrolled Jervis Bay beaches "at which people were having a pleasant day" on Saturday.

The sightings, which forced swimmers from the water, followed an earlier pass over Port Kembla Beach where the patrol spotted two hammerhead sharks.

Mr Mitchell's patrols were not part of a Department of Primary Industries helicopter trial, which began again on December 21.

The trial coincided with the release of a department report on last season's trial, which spotted only one shark per 100 kilometres flown from December 2012 to January 2013.

The report questioned the effectiveness of aerial surveys - highlighting one instance where the trial failed to locate a shark that bit a surfer's board at Dee Why last December to underscore its "serious concerns" about their role as an early-warning system.

The company contracted to carry out this year's trial, the Illawarra-based Touchdown Helicopters, was unavailable for comment, a spokeswoman for the department said.

But Mr Mitchell, who counted flights among a raft of measures working together to protect swimmers, was critical of the trial's methodology and cost.

These twice-daily flights on 47 days are part of the $200,000 the government has committed each year to initiatives within its aerial observation program.

Mr Mitchell said his company patrolled for six months of the year, funded by $500,000 in sponsorship, donations and contributions from local councils.

"I'm the first to admit that there's probably sharks that we don't see," he said, such as a tiger shark reported off Puckeys Beach in October.

"But we see other things as well that can attract sharks like large schools of fish."

Brent Manieri, a lifesaving officer at Surf Life Saving NSW, said the flights were an "additional asset" that fed information back to beach patrols.

Mr Manieri said sharks moved quickly, and could disappear from sight soon after they are spotted by someone on the sand or in the water.

"All we can do is provide information to nearby patrolled locations and that's what they [aerial surveillance] do as well, they provide a heads up to our on-the-beach services," he said.

Mr Manieri said the risk of a shark attack on a swimmer was small.

"The best decision they can make is to swim at patrolled locations where there is surveillance the entire time," he said. "The aerial patrol obviously can't sit over one beach."

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