Aerial patrol ‘will not compromise on safety’

EYES IN THE SKY: Bendigo Bank Aerial Patrol pilot Adam Brady looks over Illawarra beaches during a recent flyover. Picture: Sylvia Liber

EYES IN THE SKY: Bendigo Bank Aerial Patrol pilot Adam Brady looks over Illawarra beaches during a recent flyover. Picture: Sylvia Liber

The Illawarra’s aerial patrol boss has hit out at the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) for creating a “false sense of security” among beachgoers.

Harry Mitchell.

Harry Mitchell.

The detection of a 3.5-metre great white shark near surfers off Port Kembla beach on Friday shows the need for dedicated shark surveillance from above, Bendigo Bank Aerial Patrol general manager Harry Mitchell says.

Mr Mitchell claims the DPI isn’t in favour of an eye-in-the-sky approach to shark management and has revealed little about changes to its Shark Meshing (Bather Protection) Program (SMP). 

“The simple fact that the DPI has reduced the size of the shark nets from 300 metres to 150 metres … that’s a reduction that the community hasn’t been told [about],” Mr Mitchell said. 

“It’s not up to me to tell the community ... the government is doing all this with public money.”

A DPI spokeswoman said the reduced length claim was incorrect and “shark meshing nets used on all beaches as part of the SMP have always been 150 metres”. 

In the Illawarra, beaches at Coledale, Austinmer, Thirroul, North Wollongong and South Wollongong (City) are netted between September 1 and April 30, as part of the government program. Mr Mitchell’s comments come after Albion Park-based Touchdown Helicopters was earlier this month awarded a state government contract to carry out aerial surveillance from Wollongong to Moruya.

In December, the aviation company was re-awarded the right to conduct patrols from Newcastle to Wollongong City Beach (South Beach). 

“For the last 10 years the DPI has been saying aerial surveillance is useless … but here they are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on aerial surveillance,” Mr Mitchell said.

Touchdown’s contract, which is focused on “marine wildlife aerial surveys”, is in addition to the not-for-profit fixed-wing aerial patrol.

The DPI spokeswoman said the purpose of the survey was to record marine wildlife and monitor sharks that may pose a hazard to swimmers, alerting appropriate authorities if required.

Mr Mitchell said the aerial patrol was willing to share its information about marine life to the government, but his service was “in the business of beach safety”.

“We’re there to enhance beach safety for the community, we’re not there to count fish and seals and seaweed,” he said. “We don’t want to compromise our beach safety, we’re there as the eye in the sky to help the lifeguards and lifesavers.”

The DPI spokeswoman said aerial surveillance was “an important component” of the government’s shark meshing program.

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