As part of a first-time project, University of Technology Sydney researchers ran public workshops the Ballina and Byron Bay last week to understand whether swimmers and surfers have been changing their behaviour to reduce their risk of shark interactions in the last few years, and why.
As part of a first-time project, University of Technology Sydney researchers ran public workshops the Ballina and Byron Bay last week to understand whether swimmers and surfers have been changing their behaviour to reduce their risk of shark interactions in the last few years, and why. Marc Stapelberg

What people do to avoid shark encounters

WITH the reputation as the state's shark hotspot, it's no wonder researchers chose the North Coast to determine how people change their behaviours to avoid sharks.

Data collected from the Surf Life Saving New South Wales (SLSNSW) drone trial showed the North Coast to be the state's shark hotspot last summer and January to be the most significant month for shark activity.

The results revealed 370 sharks spotted over summer and Evans Head had the most sightings with 58, or 16 per cent of all NSW sightings.

Byron Bay and Ballina also had a significant number of sightings, as did Pambula Beach, further down the south coast.

While there hasn't been any recent incidents, reducing the risks of shark attacks alongside mitigation is still a focus of the State Government, who will incorporate findings from a project focussing on beach-goers behaviour around avoiding sharks, into its state-wide shark management strategy.

As part of that project, University of Technology Sydney researchers ran public workshops the Ballina and Byron Bay last week to understand whether swimmers and surfers have been changing their behaviour to reduce their risk of shark interactions in the last few years, and why.

Lead researcher Nick McClean described some of the "general impressions” from the shark workshops.

"A couple of impressions I got from the workshops of clear behaviour changes were people swim and surf in groups a lot more, people on the North Coast seem to be reluctant to swim and surf on their own now,” Mr McClean said.

"Obviously tourists and casual swimmers will be much more likely to go where there is a patrolled beach.

"But of course if you are surfer or an experienced beach goer or you live on your favourite beach and it doesn't happen to be patrolled then you will be seeking a lot more information than you used to about whether it's safe or not. Sometimes, that's through people's social networks and what's been going on, talk around the town and your own knowledge of the conditions but also sometimes through the government's Shark Smart App or data released about shark sightings.

"Another main finding was that localised information knowledge could help people make good decisions on the ground.”

He said the project covered a gap in the research around shark management.

"There has been a lot of focus on management and what types of management is best, but there is also information provided to people through the shark management strategies that is intended to assist them to reduce their risk if they should so choose... improving that information makes sense,” he said.

"There hasn't been a lot of research done on what information people want and what types of behaviour changes people are undertaking and how they would respond to different types of situations in terms of changing their behaviours.

"This is the first type of project we've done like this so we'll write up our work from the public workshops and work in the local schools and see what value that has, hopefully we will have the opportunity to do it elsewhere in NSW.

"We will be back up early next year to present our findings and the artworks at a public event in Byron and Ballina.”

A DPI spokesman said the results to date of the trials and research of the government's Shark Management Strategy have reiterated that there is no silver bullet when it comes to shark mitigation.

"The community sentiment and behavioural research, which includes this study, is also showing that every coastal community has it own set of principles and ideals for shark mitigation at their beaches, and that communities respond differently to their implementation.

"This research will provide the government with more evidence upon which to make future decisions about shark mitigation at coastal beaches that are both effective and supported by the community.”