Protecting the grey nurse shark

By Justin Gilligan April 15, 2015
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Saving Australia’s grey nurse shark is a major challenge, requiring community cooperation and ongoing research.

HAVING COMPLETED A marine science degree on the NSW Central Coast, and learnt to dive from an early age, I have always admired grey nurse sharks – they are a regular underwater companion of mine to study and photograph.

Their docile and inquisitive nature overshadows their stereotypical ‘shark-like’ appearance. It’s always a thrill to turn the corner of a reef and watch the brigades of fish part to reveal the emerging grin of a snaggle-toothed grey nurse.

Unlike other more predatory species, a wild encounter with a grey nurse doesn’t require burley or the use of a cage. These sharks can be encountered off the east coast of Australia between southern Queensland and NSW on a daily basis: a natural phenomenon that fuels a recreational dive industry.

Grey nurse shark is an Aussie battler

The quintessential “Aussie battler” the grey nurse has not always been the subject of human admiration.

Their liver oil was used to fuel the lamps that illuminated Sydney streets during the early 1900s, and during the ’60s and ’70s divers wielding spears with exploding tips actively hunted these sharks for sport. Their aggregating behavior made them easy targets, which eventually led to a major population decline.

By 1984 they were deemed on the brink of extinction in NSW, and declared critically endangered – the first shark to be granted protected status in the world.

A flurry of research activity soon followed, during which time I was fortunate to assist Dr Nicholas Otway of the NSW Department of Primary Industries to help reveal the grey nurse’s habitat preference and movement patterns.

Protecting the shark’s critical habitats

Management regimes have been influenced by the results of this ongoing research, with many of the grey nurse aggregation sites now protected as critical habitats, or sanctuary zones, within marine parks.

The more we know about these sharks, the better equipped we will be to ensure their recovery.

Although positive steps towards their conservation have been achieved, they continue to be caught as fisheries by-catch, and by swimmer shark nets as they seasonally migrate along the coast between the protected areas.

The fate of the grey nurse is intertwined with our strong fishing and beach culture traditions, only time will tell if the grey nurse will continue its slow re-emergence back from the brink of extinction.

Justin Gilligan is an award-winning photographer and marine scientist based in NSW. Find out more about our fundraising campaign to protect grey nurse sharks in the May/June issue (AG 126) of Australian Geographic.