Listening to the community for guidance on shark management policy in NSW

Impact: Public policy Impact

Impact summary

The five year program of research (2016-2021) helped NSW Department of Primary Industries Fisheries (DPI) to determine and adapt its Shark Management Strategy. Traditionally a policy area driven by technical and ecological expertise, the DPI has purposefully increased its listening to the needs and expectations of all NSW communities, especially beach and ocean users along the coast, allowing it to differentiate approaches and communicate effectively with different communities.

Our research program involved collaboration and co-design between CSU and DPI researchers across six funded studies. It used more than 35 focus groups and surveys of beach and ocean users (surfers, anglers, tourism, small business, councils, conservation etc) along the NSW coast. We developed new research tools for listening to communities, including experimental vignette method and social media listening, to help the department adapt policy to meet the needs of different contexts. The DPI Shark Management Strategy also sponsored the CSU team to generate and jointly supervise a PhD study to develop a standardised system for listening to community sentiment expressed in social media, focused on the information needs of public policymakers.

The main direct users of the research were officials and policy makers involved in the NSW Department of Primary Industries, but the research has also helped councils and shark harm mitigation efforts across the nation. Findings from the research have been published in international marine policy and scholarly journals, and presented at peak industry and international environmental communication forums.

The research program consistently found general preference for less invasive approaches to managing sharks over killing and culling, and support for approaches enabled by newer technologies. This has helped the NSW government to justify and communicate expanding use of drones and SMART drumlines, and a gradual decline in the use of traditional nets which catch and kill both targeted sharks and other marine life.

The research and consequent policy changes have impacted coastal communities in several important ways. With improvements to surveillance and detection,
humans en masse feel sufficiently secure to continue enjoying the ocean for recreation, with wide ranging lifestyle, employment and economic benefits. In contributing to understanding of community preferences for less-invasive approaches to managing sharks, the consequent policy preferences help to preserve the marine environment, and reduce the death and suffering to marine life caused by traditional approaches.

We conducted our last, comprehensive, statewide community consultation in 2021. The final NSW report included separate reports for each of the 25 coastal LGAs, enabling comparison and differentiation of shark management according to local preferences. The 2022 independent report of the NSW shark management strategy said:
"In 2021/22, the Shark Program has expanded state-wide, based on findings from the SMS and recent community consultation, conducted in early 2021."

According to the head of NSW Shark Management Program in 2021: "This research has contributed to NSW DPI becoming a global leader in the use of social research to inform and tailor shark mitigation policy to the needs of different beach and ocean users and stakeholders."

Research and engagement activities leading to impact

The program involved ongoing collaboration and co-design with NSW DPI Fisheries, especially scientists, researchers and community engagement officials attached to the Shark Management Strategy. Project teams comprised CSU and DPI researchers, two included University of Wollongong researchers. This collaboration enabled the research to be planned and executed in ways that targeted the information and evidence needs of the main policymaking body. The program also maintained regular contact with the nation's peak shark harm incident records body the Australian Shark File at Taronga Zoo. A joint CSU/DPI presentation of our research was delivered to the Australian Shark File and also to an Australian Shark management summit held in Adelaide in February 2021.

Our first study used both focus groups and community sentiment collected from a cross-section of comments and discussions from media (eg SMH, The Australian, ABC) and special interest (eg surfing, angling) social media pages - mostly Facebook and Twitter. This data was rich with new insight into community understanding and misunderstanding of policy, lived realities of policy for coastal communities, and attitudes and important values. The insights into community sentiment were deemed so useful to decisions about policy and policy communication that DPI requested the development of a PhD study to aid future systematic capture and interpretation of social media data. This PhD was jointly supervised by CSU and DPI, and completed in 2021.

Other stakeholders engaged through the program included beachgoers, surfers, ocean swimmers, anglers, surf life saving bodies, conservation organisations, Indigenous residents, and tourism businesses and authorities. Numerous coastal councils were involved in meetings and discussion groups. Broad engagement enabled the researchers to understand the diverse perspectives brought by different stakeholders, this ensured that research questions and reporting could be tailored to address different aspects of interest. Surfers are the sub-population of recreational ocean users most affected by physical harm from sharks. Surfers were targeted for inclusion in all project samples and were the focus of a large study (in 2020) that visited numerous locations along the coast. An online focus group method was also used to ensure surfers were included from all parts of the coast.

Discussion groups were held with samples of beach and ocean users in Lennox Head, Ballina, Yamba, Nambucca, Forster, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Port Stephens, Newcastle, Avalon, Dee Why, Maroubra, Wollongong, Kiama, Shellharbour, Shoalhaven, Mollymook, Ulladullah, Narooma, Tarthra, Bega, and Merimbula. Quota sampling was used at each location to ensure representation of all stakeholders.

An important feature of the project was the development of methods that facilitated understanding of different needs and community expectations in different locations. The project regularly went on the road to sit down with groups of local stakeholders in focused discussions. The 2021 "Preferred shark mitigation measures of coastal councils and their communities" study sampled and reported separately against each coastal council in NSW to facilitate local and state policymaking tailored to meet the different needs and expectations of different coastal contexts. This was a rare undertaking in any policy domain, and unique to shark and coastal management. This study helped policymakers to determine which communities were more and less accepting of a range of invasive and non-invasive methods of shark harm mitigation.

An experimental vignette method was developed and trialed to assess whether different features of incidents of shark related harm influenced community expectations of action by coastal authorities and agencies. Each respondent from a large sample from across NSW was randomly assigned one of 48 different scenarios which in turn randomly assigned 5 different features of shark harm incidents. Importantly for policymakers the study found 1, that the community expect some form of response to incidents of shark caused harm from authorities and 2 that the level of response (sharknet, drone, education etc) invasiveness was inversely proportional to community support, irrespective of the context of the incident. Findings were reported in a leading International peer-reviewed journal.

Research outputs associated with the impact

The project has yielded four publications in international peer reviewed journals, five commissioned reports (non-public), one commissioned report, two competitive grants (NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI)), four grants for commissioned research (NSW DPI), a completed PHD, two international conference presentations, one prize winning conference paper at an international communication and media conference (Penang, Malaysia 2018), three invited peak industry presentations, one article in 'The Conversation' and one industry research seminar on using social media in public policy.<o:p></o:p>

Commissioned reports (non-public)
Simmons P, Mehmet M, Curley, B, Callaghan, K& Wolfenden K. (2020) A study of influences on preferences, tolerance and thresholds of acceptability for shark management options in NSW. Major report to the NSW Department of Primary Industries.
Simmons P, Mehmet M, Lewis, C, & Martin, C (2020) Surfer and Body Boarder attitudes to mitigating the risk of shark incidents and determining their information needs.
Major report to the NSW Department of Primary Industries.
Simmons P, Mehmet M & Martin, C (2020) Attitudes to SMART Drumlines as a shark mitigation strategy. Major report to the NSW Department of PrimaryIndustries.
Simmons P & Mehmet M (2018) The attitudes of beach and ocean users to shark mitigation following SMART Drumline Trials in NSW. Major report to the NSW Department of Primary Industries.
Simmons, P & Mehmet, M (2018) Shark Sentiment Study presented to NSW Department of Primary Industries. ISBN978-1-86-467303-6

Competitive grants 
NSW Department of Primary Industries. A scenario study of community tolerances and preferences for shark management. $50,000. Acquitted 2020.
NSW Department of Primary Industries. Shark deterrents and detection: Community perceptions, sentiment and preferences for shark management. $108,051. Acquitted 2018.

Grants for commissioned research
NSW Department of Primary Industries. Mehmet, M, Simmons P, Lewis, C. Local Government preferences for future shark management. Acquitted 2021 $88,000
NSW Department of Primary Industries. Simmons P. (CI), Lewis, C. & Mehmet, M Surfer and body boarder attitudes to mitigating the risk of shark incidents and determining their information needs. Acquitted 2020 $73,000
NSW Department of Primary Industries. Simmons P. (CI) & Mehmet, M. Attitudes of beach and ocean users to shark mitigation following SMART drumline trials. Acquitted 2019. $65,000
NSW Department of Primary Industries. Simmons P. (CI) & Mehmet, M. Attitudes of beach and ocean users to shark mitigation following SMART drumline trials. Acquitted 2018 $63,000

PhD completed 2021
NSW Department of Primary Industries/Institute for Land, Water and Society/FoAE/FoBJBS (leverage): Understanding sentiment concerning human and non-human animal coexistence: Models for shark management and communication. PhD Scholarship. external funds $91,000

International conference presentations
Simmons, P., Mehmet, M., Callaghan, K. and Redshaw, S. (2019) Listening to ocean user perspectives on shark management: Respect for marine life, hope for technology, and anger at the media.
International Conference on Communication and the Environment, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Mehmet, M & Simmons, P. (2018). Sharks, Social Sentiment and Science. Paper presented at International Social Marketing Conference, James Cook University, Singapore.

Prize winning conference paper at an international communication and media conference (Penang, Malaysia 2018)
Simmons, P.& Mehmet, M., (2018) Respect for marine life, hope for technology and anger at the media: A focus group and social media study of ocean user attitudes to shark management, Paper presented to International Communication and Media Conference, UUM, Penang, Malaysia. Best Paper Award.

Invited peak industry presentations
Taronga Zoo Australian Shark File - Invited Presentation Simmons, P, Mehmet, M and Callaghan K. (2018, May) Attitudes to sharks in NSW. Presentation to the findings of the Shark Sentiment Report to the Australian Shark File staff, Taronga Zoo, Sydney. June 2018.
NSW Department of Primary Industries - Invited presentation Callaghan, K, Simmons, P & Mehmet, M (2018, November) presentation NSW Department of Primary Industries Strategy, Policy and Engagement team. Orange.
National Shark Bite Mitigation Summit - Invited Presentation Simmons P (2020, February) Social media and other listening to community thinking on shark management. National Shark Bite Mitigation Measure Workshop, Adelaide.

Article in 'The Conversation'
Simmons, P & Mehmet, M (2018) Feeding frenzy: public accuse the media of deliberately fueling shark fear. The Conversation

Industry research seminar on using social media in public policy
Simmons P and Callaghan K (2019) Analysing social media for better public policy.
One day symposium at Charles Sturt University. <o:p></o:p>

Researcher involvement

Research projects were led by CSU Chief Investigators Associate Professor Peter Simmons and Dr Michael Mehmet. Other CSU research staff involved included PhD student Kane Callaghan, Dr Clifford Lewis, Dr Nicola Ivory and Dr John Xie.

After the initial 2017 competitive grant study led by Simmons and Mehmet, DPI asked the CIs to design and co-supervise a PhD to develop a method for capturing social media data. Funding support for the PhD was also provided by the ILWS, the Faculty of Arts and Education, and the Faculty of Business, Justice and Behavioural Sciences.

Each subsequent project was led by CSU and co-designed with DPI research officers as team members. This collaboration enabled the combination of different technical and experiential expertise, as well as an accretion through the program of research of insights and capacity to address the complexities of a high profile public policy challenge. It also enabled the passing of research social science methods expertise to DPI research officers.

The second competitive 2020 grant used methods that are ideal for policymakers. Social media analysis, focus groups, and experimental vignette method enabled the gathering of finely tuned information and insights concerning principles and values underlying community preferences, as well as statistical popularity of options. The research design drew heavily on the chief investigators' methodological expertise, but was also largely driven by real-world policy needs to understand community expectations of authorities' response. The 2021 study of coastal councils drew similarly on research team expertise in design and execution, but was keenly guided by real-world policy needs of state and local governments with differing imperatives and stakeholder expectations.

The research used a range of methods (including interviews, survey, literature review, experimental vignette, social media sentiment analysis) to develop a very substantial evidence base for policy and decision-making. The 2022 Cardno report on NSW shark strategy and management quotes our advice and findings many times. Some advice based on trends within and across studies enabled us to comment on important general preferences, for example:

"Simmons et al., (2021a) found almost unanimous support for education and research as preferred response to managing risk from sharks in NSW, and little support for invasive strategies perceived to harm marine life, such as shark nets and drumlines. Support for shark management responses decreased as invasiveness of the response increased." (Cardno, 2022, p32)

Some findings enabled advice on specific features of different mitigation strategies:

"..VR4G shark listening stations were considered to contribute to research and
understanding of shark movements but ineffective for reducing harm from sharks because only a tiny proportion of target sharks are tagged (Simmons et al., 2021b)" (Cardno, 2022, p32)
Our findings have helped to identify gaps in knowledge or community understanding that have led to calls for further research:

"Simmons et al., (2021b) identified that personal deterrents were considered expensive and cumbersome and not many people trusted them. They were considered to potentially lead water users to ignore danger signs and make poor
decisions. Simmons et al., (2021a) also identified that there was limited knowledge of them among surfers and that many would not purchase them without proof of efficacy. The latter is understandable. Overall an education campaign on the use of personal deterrents that communicates efficacy of various products and based on an understanding of other barriers to uptake is warranted". (Cardno, 2022, p32)

"A challenge for a shark bite mitigation program is balancing the actual efficacy of approaches with community perceptions. For example, from their surveys in NSW, Simmons et al., (2021a) found that the community had a preference for prioritising beaches that are popular with tourists. However, as discussed in
this report in NSW such beaches may not be where risk is currently greatest." (Cardno, 2022, p54)

Researchers led projects and contributed experience, expertise and accumulated insight to deliver a large body of rigorously collected evidence and insight that was of great value to policy and other decision makers.

Outcomes of research leading to impact

In 2021 the NSW Government increased its commitment to shark management with a $21.4 million 'world's largest shark-management program' including a 'raft of 'effective, evidence-based technologies, including a beefed-up shark-spotting drone program and an expansion of SMART drumlines .. from Bega Valley to the Tweed'. (ABC NEWS, 2021)

Since 2017 the research has influenced DPI policy and communication about shark management. It has and continues to feature prominently on the DPI website, including advice based on research findings, quotes from research and whole reports, journal papers and executive summaries of reports made permanently available.

Shark sentiment report

Assessment of community attitudes towards SMART Drumlines

Assessment of the attitudes of beach and ocean users to shark mitigation following SMART drumline trials in NSW

Preferred shark mitigation measures of NSW coastal councils and their communities

In 2021 Kane Callaghan competed the design of a new system for listening to social media for public policy

Beneficiaries of the impact

Good policy can fail without community support. The body of evidence generated by this research has directly benefited policymakers in NSW Government, who in turn acknowledge widespread benefits to large coastal populations:

"This research has contributed to NSW DPI becoming a global leader in the use of social research to inform and tailor shark mitigation policy to the needs of different beach and ocean users and stakeholders.
The ocean is integral to coastal lifestyles and economies, especially in NSW and across Australia, and managing the numerous coastal activities is critical for community and economic wellbeing. To be effective, shark mitigation policy and operations must be evidence-based and informed by understanding the many stakeholder perspectives ..." Marcel Green, Head of Shark Programs, DPI Fisheries, November 2021.

With confidence in shark management and safer waters, NSW coastal communities have continued to enjoy the economic, recreational and other lifestyle benefits of the ocean. From the Tweed to Bega, ocean activities are associated with recreation and business, providing livelihoods and lifestyles that are highly valued. Diverse contributions to economy include food and accommodation, environmental maintenance, tourism, recreation, clothing and sports equipment, energy and real estate, all of which provide employment and buoyancy to coastal economies.

The trends to reduced use of lethal methods of shark management have saved and will continue to save the lives of thousands of marine creatures, and help to protect the natural integrity of marine environments and ecosystems. This includes underwater species as well as coastal birds and wildlife. As well as long-term environmental benefits, less invasive shark management (such as SMART drumlines, and aquatic and aerial shark surveillance and deterrence) brings economic benefits. Each method for mitigating harm from sharks generates employment associated with new technology development, manufacture and operation.

Details of the impact achieved

In 2022 the NSW Department of Regional NSW commissioned an independent report by Cardno of the NSW Shark Management Strategy and Shark Programs 2020/2021 and 2021/22 (NSW DPI, 2022). The report refers to six of our publications and reports and refers to or quotes Simmons 25 times and Mehmet 14 times. It shows clearly that shark management in NSW has undergone a "paradigm shift", adapting to 'shark interactions and public perceptions', and that detail of our research findings and recommendations are seriously considered in deliberations about shark management in NSW. Importantly many of our recommendations for ongoing policy are quoted, some examples:

"The public views shark bite mitigation as a combination of personal accountability and government responsibility (Lucrezi et al., 2019), and some form of government response is generally required when an unprovoked shark bite occurs (Simmons et al., 2021a)." (NSW DPI, 2022, p55)

"The research funded by the SMS on the perceptions of various mitigation measures is valuable for informing strategies. While it is important to understand public perceptions, in the context of public safety policy, it is not the case that the most popular approaches are always the best." (NSW DPI, 2022,p61)

Cardno, 2022 provides detail of some of the impacts arising to considerable extent from our research and findings concerning community support for less invasive strategies such as surveillance, education and non-lethal SMART drumlines: "In addition to the SMP nets deployed at 51 beaches within the Metro area, the Shark Program for 2021/22 includes a significant state-wide expansion of the non-lethal area-based shark bite mitigation gear that has resulted from SMS trials and research (i.e. SMART drumlines, drones and VR4G listening stations). The gear is deployed in areas popular to water users and/or where significant shark bites have occurred and will include 170 SMART drumlines, 37 VR4G shark listening stations and drone surveillance (by Surf Life Saving NSW) at 50 beaches. The Shark Program for 2021/22 includes education and awareness strategies, including funding for Surfing NSW to provide the tools and training to increase protection for their board rider clubs and surf schools, and it will continue to be supported by research, including tagging of target sharks." (NSW DPI, 2022).

"The SMS has funded work (e.g. Simmons and Mehmet, 2018; Mehmet and Simmons, 2019; Simmons et al., 2019, 2021a, 2021b; Stokes et al., 2020) which demonstrates that the public has a clear preference for mitigation measures that do not harm sharks or other marine life. This provides a strong evidence base for understanding public perceptions and preferences which needs to be incorporated with information on efficacy to address both risk and risk perception." (NSW DPI, 2022,p31).
Impact date20162021
Category of impactPublic policy Impact
Impact levelState


  • public policy
  • environmental sustainability
  • Policy analysis
  • Policy reform
  • marine policy
  • stakeholder engagement

Sustainable Development Goals

  • SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • SDG 14: Life Below Water