9 min read

Giant Rays Are Being Caught In 'Shark Nets' — And Left To Die

Anyone who tries to save them can be fined thousands of dollars.

The eagle ray was going to die if help didn’t come soon. He had gotten snarled in a submerged net off the coast of Sharpes Beach in Ballina, Australia, and was struggling to break free.

Last weekend, Jonathan Clark and a boat crew from Sea Shepherd Australia, an organization that works to protect marine animals, approached the net — known as a “shark net” — at Sharpes Beach and discovered the struggling ray.

Eagle ray caught in net
The eagle ray caught inside of the shark net at Sharpes Beach | Sea Shepherd Australia

The group regularly monitors this shark net, which was installed to prevent sharks from getting too close to shore and bothering swimmers — although experts argue that shark nets do nothing to protect people. What the nets actually do is lure sharks close to shore with bait — while some of the sharks then get tangled up in the net, others are able to swim above or below the net without getting ensnared.

The nets are also responsible for accidentally catching and killing hundreds of marine animals each year, including turtles, dolphins, whales and protected sharks like great whites, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies as a critically endangered species. And, of course, eagle rays get enmeshed in the shark nets, too.

Dolphin caught inside shark net
A dolphin caught in a shark net off the coast of Noosa, Queensland, in 2017 | Sea Shepherd Australia

“As we approached the net, we noticed a bait ball and saw a large shark under the bait ball,” Clark told The Dodo. “It moved away quickly. We noticed another shape on the seafloor near the net, and using our viewing scope got a very clear view of a dead manta ray that had been heavily predated upon within 10 meters [32 feet] of the net. We then checked the net and found the spotted eagle ray.”

The eagle ray didn’t move, so the crew initially thought he was already dead. But when a couple of scuba divers jumped in the water, they discovered the sad truth.

“[They] quickly found that the ray was indeed alive and struggling,” Clark said. “Its gills were opening and closing, as was its mouth.”

Eagle ray on ocean floor
The entangled eagle ray from above | Sea Shepherd Australia

“It is always a shock to see these beautiful animals caught and struggling,” Clark added.

The crew could have saved the eagle ray’s life, according to Clark. All they had to do was lift up the ray and carefully cut away the net. 

But sadly, they weren’t allowed to do so. This shark net — as well as four other nets in Ballina — had been installed by the New South Wales (NSW) government, and the only people who could legally touch them were contractors working for the NSW Fisheries Department

Eagle ray caught inside shark net
Sea Shepherd Australia

“As captain of the vessel and leader of the campaign, I called NSW Fisheries by telephone and had to leave a message,” Clark said. “I then called an officer directly on his mobile phone.”

When Clark finally got ahold of an officer, he didn’t get good news. 

“I was told by the NSW Fisheries officer that they would not send the contractor to release the ray at Sharpes Beach, [and] that the contractor would stick to his normal routine of checking between 12 and 48 hours,” Clark said. “I asked if they would be leaving the ray to die and was told that was correct.”

The second eagle ray the crew found at Lighthouse Beach | Sea Shepherd Australia

Clark and the crew knew that by the time the contractor did arrive to do his normal check, the eagle ray would probably be dead.

“I informed them that we had capable crew on board who could have released the ray, [and] that we would not even have to enter the water, [but] I was told that we were absolutely not to release that ray,” Clark said. “The officer cited concern for our safety and that if something happened he would not like it on his conscience.”

Eagle ray caught on shark net in Australia
The second eagle ray the crew found at Lighthouse Beach | Sea Shepherd Australia

If the crew had gone against the officer’s command, they could have faced a fine up to $22,000 AUD (about $17,200 USD). So with heavy hearts, they left the area, knowing that the eagle ray was going to die. 

Later that day, the crew discovered another eagle ray caught in a different shark net at Lighthouse Beach — but they weren’t allowed to rescue this animal either.

A hammerhead shark caught in a shark net in Australia
A hammerhead shark caught in a shark net in January 2018 | Sea Shepherd Australia

Sadly, these two eagle rays are not the only animals who have gotten caught in the shark nets off the coast of Ballina. Since the nets were installed in late 2016, they have ensnared 275 animals, including rays, dolphins and turtles, according to the government. “Many sharks and other species are killed and injured unnecessarily in this equipment,” said Clark, noting that many other animal deaths are not reported by officials.

In New South Wales, there are currently 51 shark nets installed at popular swimming beaches, and 30 nets in Queensland.

Two rays caught in shark net in Australia
Two different rays caught in a shark net in 2017 | Sea Shepherd Australia

However, there are plenty of alternatives to shark nets, according to Clark. For instance, people could use drone technology to detect sharks and warn swimmers of any apprehended danger. Another alternative is to use buoys that emit sounds to deter sharks from getting close without trapping other marine life.

For the moment, shark nets will continue to cause issues for eagle rays and other ocean animals in Australia, but more and more people are voicing their opposition to shark nets. In fact, many are calling for shark nets to be completely phased out altogether — and if this happens, hundreds of animals could be saved.

Ray caught in a shark net in Australia
A ray caught in a shark net in December 2017 | Sea Shepherd Australia
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