Thu. Jul 29th, 2021

A PREGNANT tiger shark hangs lifelessly from a metal hook, as the camera draws closer the predator blinks – she’s still alive and could suffer up to three days before her death. 

This heartbreaking memory stuck with conservationist Madison Stewart, 27, who fears sharks could be wiped out in years if action isn’t taken. 

One shark hooked on a drumline in Australia, the creatures are unable to free themselves and suffer a horrific, painful and slow death

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One shark hooked on a drumline in Australia, the creatures are unable to free themselves and suffer a horrific, painful and slow deathCredit: Envoy: Shark Cull
Madison, nicknamed 'Shark Girl', has campaigned for years to end abuse towards sharks

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Madison, nicknamed ‘Shark Girl’, has campaigned for years to end abuse towards sharks

The Australian, from the Gold Coast, earned the nickname ‘Shark Girl’ due to her work educating others about one of the most misunderstood creatures of the ocean. 

Madison, who dropped out of school at 14 to be homeschooled, was horrified by how the environment had changed under the water.

She became aware of fishing nets and giant hooks suspended on buoys, known as drumlines, that were used in a bid to reduce shark attacks. 

Madison features in the new documentary Envoy: Shark Cull, which examines this approach – and airs July 18 as part of Discovery’s Shark Week. 

‘Floating seafood buffet’

It shines a light on the tactics used to deter sharks from swimming in the waters near to family and surfing beaches, which the doc claims do not work. 

Sharks and large amounts of bycatch are caught in the traps, which reportedly lures more sharks and was dubbed “a floating seafood buffet”.

Madison told The Sun: “The things we captured on film are horrific.

“I’ve seen turtles, stingrays, harmless sharks without teeth, rays and lots of different species of sharks.

“I think one of the hardest things for me to see was a large female tiger shark that appeared to be pregnant hanging on a drumline.

“She was hanging vertically so I assumed she was dead but when I tried to get a close-up shot, her eye began to move and I realised she was still alive.

“I was in the water with such a powerful predator that had been left in such a weak and defeated position by being trapped. 

“It was horrific, I’ve never seen a tiger shark so exhausted from her struggle that all she could do was blink her eye due to being a victim to a drumline.

“For some sharks, when water passes over their gills it allows them to breathe, so when they are trapped they can be alive for at least three days, which is really horrific to think about.”

57 attacks last year

Over the past few decades, there has been considerable debate about how to deter sharks from public beaches. 

Last year, 18 of the 57 world’s shark attacks happened in Australia, according to the Florida Museum, but campaigners believe government measures have gone too far.

After an apparent spate of casualties, Queensland and New South Wales implemented drumlines and sea nets to discourage sharks from swimming close to the public.

But the nets, which are around 500 metres from the coast, do not reach down to the ocean floor nor the surface, so there are gaps where sharks can swim around. 

It’s a horrific, slow and painful way to kill a bunch of animals.

Madison Stewart

Campaigners claim older sharks are more likely to get caught in the nets and on hooks, which mean juveniles that are less used to human interaction swim closer to the public.

Footage shows other sea creatures are trapped in the net too, which the doc claims teaches sharks that they can get an easy meal near to busy beaches. 

They allege that many Australians are unaware that the drumline hooks are baited so they can catch and reduce shark populations.

‘Poor protection’

Conservationists like Madison condemn the current measures, claiming it’s a “horrific, slow and painful way to kill a bunch of animals” that does not work. 

She told The Sun: “It’s not protecting people at the beaches that’s the biggest factor and the whole point of it.

“The public deserve protection against sharks and this process is destroying other marine life in an archaic way so that people can feel comfortable.

“Sharks are dangerous and we do need protection – there’s no point of ignoring that – but killing animals in this way is an ineffective control programme.

“The way we react to sharks is like they are terrorists… it’s like ‘we’re out for blood now, it’s revenge time.’”

It’s a false sense of security at best, which is only luring more people into the ocean to risk their lives.

Paul De Gelder, shark bite survivor

Shark bite survivor Paul De Gelder, who lost his right lower arm and leg in 2009, is also against the use of nets and drumlines.

He said: “The problem that I have with the culling of sharks… is that it’s not a solution by any means.

“It’s a false sense of security at best, which is only luring more people into the ocean to risk their lives… It’s not a solution by any means, they’re just killing sharks.”

‘Maneater’ misconception

Lawrence Chlebeck, a marine biologist from Humane Society International, argues that shark attacks aren’t as frequent as we think. 

He also believes the public has great misconceptions about the oceanic predator and branded attacks unfortunate interactions.

Lawrence said: “We hear words like ‘maul’, ‘man eater’ and ‘attack’ but most accurately these are interactions… it’s a bump or an investigative bite.

“We all understand that those bites can be very tragic and traumatic, but it happens very, very rarely and is almost never an actual attack. 

“It all feeds into the public psyche… and they think the sharks are out there hunting them and that’s really not what’s happening at all.

“Shark scientists will tell you shark numbers are dwindling and have been for the last 50 to 60 years.”

What if our ignorance was about to wipe them out – not in 100 years, not in 50 years, this generation, right now?

Envoy: Shark Cull

The documentary, which was made by Andre Borell, brands Australia’s shark deterrent measures “an 83-year cull”.

The deaths in Australia join more than 100 million that are killed in the fishing industry each year – sometimes through bycatch and other times for shark fin soup. 

A 2013 report found that world shark populations had declined by between 90 and 95 percent over the last 30 years, which leads campaigners to fear they will become extinct.

“What if our ignorance was about to wipe them out – not in 100 years, not in 50 years, this generation, right now?,” the documentary asks.

Declining shark populations also pose a problem for the planet too and the delicately balanced ecosystem under the water.

Great Barrier grief

The effects have reached the Great Barrier Reef, which is the world’s largest coral reef system, can be seen from space and is home to thousands of species. 

The natural wonder is in “very poor health” from our oceans getting warmer, acidification and the “extraction of predators” including sharks.

Without sharks to serve as the “doctor” for these waters, populations of other sea creatures “explode in number”.

This puts more pressure on the reef and also reduces the amount of carbon underwater habitats can trap leading to increased global warming.  

Non-lethal alternatives

Envoy: Shark Cull also explores non-lethal alternatives that can be used to deter sharks including a device that emits an electromagnetic field. 

In an experiment to test the tech, only one of the 322 sharks crossed into a ‘forbidden zone’.

Other options include creating a thick forest of kelp out of plastic, which sharks naturally avoid because they fear getting stuck.

Madison believes great responsibility needs to be taken by beachgoers and surfers, who she believes should educate themselves. 

They can survive without us, but we can’t survive without them.

Madison Stewart

She told The Sun: “We need to create a safer future where humans and sharks can coexist together. 

“Most countries would be absolutely ecstatic to have the kind of wildlife that we do [in Australia] and we just abuse that privilege so much.

“I always remember in school people talk to us about sex, drugs, all kinds of things but nobody told us about sharks.” 

Sharks have existed on the planet for more than 450 million years and survived mass extinctions in the past – today their greatest threat is mankind. 

Humans desperately need sharks too as they keep fish populations in check, which helps the ocean bed continue to serve as a carbon sink.

Madison, who calls for urgent action, said: “They can survive without us, but we can’t survive without them.”

Envoy: Shark Cull airs as part of Discovery’s Shark Week on July 18. For more information on the campaign visit here.

Sharks caught in the Indonesia fishing trade, which Madison is trying to combat

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Sharks caught in the Indonesia fishing trade, which Madison is trying to combatCredit: Caragh Fraser
Madison Stewart, dubbed 'Shark Girl', spoke out about the creatures she's seen trapped in nets and on drumline hooks

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Madison Stewart, dubbed ‘Shark Girl’, spoke out about the creatures she’s seen trapped in nets and on drumline hooksCredit: Envoy: Shark Cull
A whale trapped in the nuts that were used to try to keep sharks away from Australia's shorelines

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A whale trapped in the nuts that were used to try to keep sharks away from Australia’s shorelinesCredit: Envoy: Shark Cull
Madison Stewart described seeing animals struggle under the water as 'horrific'

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Madison Stewart described seeing animals struggle under the water as ‘horrific’Credit: Envoy: Shark Cull
One hammerhead shark caught in a net – some sharks are trapped for three days before they die

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One hammerhead shark caught in a net – some sharks are trapped for three days before they dieCredit: Envoy: Shark Cull
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