14 July 2017


Within our vast oceans, it's easy for complex interrelationships to go unnoticed. That is, until the delicate balance is disturbed.

Take the glorious Great Barrier Reef. Remove apex predators like sharks from a reef ecosystem already devastated by coral bleaching and the effects can be catastrophic. After bleaching, algae spreads. Without sharks, smaller predators like tropical snappers thrive and consume all the smaller fish that dine on algae. Unchecked, that algae then smothers young coral.

Sharks have a big bearing on our marine systems. But they are slow-growing, can take years to mature and produce few offspring, which makes them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. In Australia's most celebrated marine park, globally endangered hammerheads make up about 15% of the shark catch taken in large mesh gill nets - nets that can also ensnare dugongs, turtles and dolphins.

Which makes Shark Awareness Day important. Not just to highlight our many wondrous shark species, some of them under serious threat, but also to cast a spotlight on their domain, in all its complexity.

WWF's work to protect their environments gives us much cause to celebrate. For me, our daring strategy to crowdfund to buy one of the five largest fishing licences used to target sharks in the GBR was a major turning point.

This inspired decision to retire a licence endorsed to use a 1.2 kilometre gill net within the Great Barrier Reef, potentially saving 10,000 sharks a year, made international headlines.

Within 36 hours we had hit our $100,000 target, with more than 3,500 supporters from around the world, eventually helping us raise enough money - $200,000 - to buy not just one but two shark fishing licences.

Since then, in partnership with other conservation, recreational fishing, commercial fishing and research groups, we have petitioned the Queensland Government to protect not only sharks like the endangered hammerheads but also a suite of other marine species. We had considerable success with the resulting blueprint for reform, acknowledging the need for closer scrutiny of fishers and better data collection to monitor shark and other populations.

But our job is far from over. We're now working even harder with a broader range of stakeholders to ensure that these reforms actually hold water.

The world’s best loved marine park deserves nothing less than the world’s best management. Safeguarding sharks, these amazing sentinels of the deep, is central to achieving that goal.