Shark netting is an outdated technology and it is time to move on to another solution to keep beach goers safe.
That's the view of Dr Leah Gibbs from the University of Wollongong.
A new study led by Dr Gibbs concluded that shark nets should be ended and more focus placed on beach patrols and emergency response instead.
The study published in the journal People and Nature, looked at the NSW Shark Meshing (Bather Protection) Program, which was introduced in 1937 and is the world's longest-running lethal shark hazard management program.
The researchers found that shark nets were not effective for keeping people safe. At the same time, they had a significant negative impact on marine life, both on the targeted species and on other species as well, including threatened and protected species.
"We found that shark netting is outdated technology. It is time to move on," Dr Gibbs said.
"We're not alone. The NSW Department of Primary Industries, manager of the Shark Meshing Program, is itself investing strongly in new non-lethal strategies.
"Our study provides further evidence to support this move."
Dr Gibbs, from UOW's School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, said that while the issue of shark nets often polarised the community, she hoped the study would help to move the conversation on.
Hopefully our study can help us to move beyond a 'people versus sharks' debate.Dr Leah Gibbs from the University of Wollongong
"Both research and public debate usually focus on human safety or marine conservation, and frequently the two are pitted against each other," she said.
"Hopefully our study can help us to move beyond a 'people versus sharks' debate. We brought together expertise from the social sciences, biological sciences and fisheries, to examine the wellbeing of both people and marine life.
"We argue it is possible to improve both human safety and marine life conservation."
Researchers made three key findings.
Firstly, they found shark numbers have declined, both for species targeted by nets (tiger, white and bull sharks, all of which are threatened or near threatened) and for non-target species also caught in nets.
Secondly, the number of shark bites has also declined over the long term.
And thirdly, the impact of beach patrols in preventing shark bite, and emergency response in treating those who had been bitten, is frequently overlooked.
In NSW, 50 of the 51 beaches netted through the Shark Meshing Program are also patrolled beaches. Yet, improved safety is generally attributed to shark meshing and the role of lifeguard beach patrols is largely overlooked.
"We found that there is no reliable evidence that lethal shark hazard management strategies are effective," Dr Gibbs said.
"At the same time, many people oppose them, institutions are moving away from them, and threatened species are put at risk as a result of them.
"We argue that investment in beach patrol and emergency and medical response makes good sense. They have none of the negative impacts of lethal strategies, and are very likely responsible for the improved safety we enjoy today at the beach and in the ocean."