Inside Shark City: What’s tormenting Ballina?
Words by Jed Smith You’ll struggle to find anyone more in tune with the goings on off the coast of northern NSW than Scotty Clifford. A surfer, spearer, and fisherman in the area for over 30 years, he was first introduced to the ocean by his father, the owner of an early Byron diving business. […]
Words by Jed Smith
You’ll struggle to find anyone more in tune with the goings on off the coast of northern NSW than Scotty Clifford. A surfer, spearer, and fisherman in the area for over 30 years, he was first introduced to the ocean by his father, the owner of an early Byron diving business. He was running a scuba diving tour off Julian Rocks one day in 1993 when a six-metre great white devoured 31-year-old newlywed John Ford in front of his wife, Deborah, and saw it all.
In the time since, Scotty couldn’t tell you how many shark run-ins he’s had – everything from having Kingfish ripped off his spear by a Bull Shark, to sharks cruising so close to his head that he’s watched their eyes check him out, plus countless hook ups with his rod and reel.
As the North Coast once more descends into paranoid soup of panic, fact and fiction following the attack of local talent Sam Morgan at Lighthouse Beach, Scotty provides an oasis of rational thought on the issue. It’s a result of more time spent on top of and beneath the waters out here than you’re likely to find, and his message is simple: It’s sharky as shit up here, and it’s always gonna be that way. If you wanna understand why, take a seat. This is gonna take a while.
Lighthouse Beach, 25 minutes south of Byron Bay, where Sam Morgan was attacked, is renowned for sharks. There are two main reasons for this, both of which revolve around the Richmond Rivermouth tucked behind the breakwall just south of where Sam was attacked. The Richmond is the largest river in the area. When the region has a wet Spring, as it has this year, the Richmond is flushed with freshwater pushing the various salt-water species that have crept up river back down and out the mouth.
“We had three inches of rain the other night,” explains Scotty. “All the fresh water comes down and a lot of fish can’t live in the fresh water so they’re pushed down the river system and into the ocean. The sharks sense that it’s all happening and they hang around waiting for it.”
The shark that got Sam is believed to be have been a Bull Shark – a species known to exist in fresh water and famous for breeding and feeding in rivers. Scotty has seen them as far as seven clicks up stream in the Ballina river. They’re just as common in short to mid-range distances offshore.
Another key contributing factor to the shark situation in the area is the prawning industry. Ballina, home of the Big Prawn (a giant fibreglass prawn in honour of the prawn industry), along with the Clarence, Brunswick and Tweed Rivers all have prawn trawlers running in and out of them regularly.
“I’ve known a few of ’em (Prawners), and they’d dump their stuff over the side and they (the sharks) do follow them in,” he says. “The prawners pull their nets up and they have a lot of by-catch (non-targeted fish), and as they go along they throw the by-catch that they can’t sell overboard, and it’s like a big burley trail… they do that all the way in. The constant smell of blood and all that stuff going over the side definitely stirs them up.”
The Byron Bay Cape, as Australia’s most easterly point, further adds to the situation by creating a diabolical junction of currents and river systems (as far as surfers are concerned).
“The (currents) swirl around off the cape here, you can see it on the charts, they hit the cape and it moves it all around,” says Scotty.
The Richmond and Clarence Rivers to the south intersect with the Brunswick and Tweed Rivers to the north off the cape, creating one of the most fertile marine ecosystems on the east coast. The sub-tropical location, meanwhile, adds further spice by providing a meeting place for cold currents travelling up the coast on the south winds at the end of winter, to meet with sub-tropical warm currents on their way down.
“The warm currents meeting cold currents bring in a lot of different fish,” says Scotty. “It all begins to bloom up here and the fish life and bait fish begin to congregate in that area. It brings a lot of feed into the area and the sharks follow that.”
Want some shark stories? Talk to local families who remember the Byron Bay whaling station.
Want some shark stories? Talk to local families who remember the Byron Bay whaling station.The fertile ecosystem just off the coast is amplified by the practice of commercial fishing further out to sea, and government-enforced “Marine Sanctuary” in the area encompassing Belongil Beach to the north, The Pass/Wategos, Broken Head, The Moat and Lennox Head to the south, which forbids recreational fishing within 100m of the shore. Big Liners and Trappers fishing for Tuna, Snapper and Kingfish, meanwhile, operate as freely as ever out of sight of the Australian public, forcing the sharks closer.
“There are more sharks and they’re coming closer to the coast because of so much overfishing out to sea,” says Scotty. “They’re moving closer to the coast, looking for food.”
In no way does he support shark culling, though he says the consensus among surfing and fishing communities on the North Coast is that there has definitely been an increase in the number of sharks in the area.
“The population of sharks has gotten bigger, and protection of the (great) whites has helped that greatly by them allowing to bloom up. Years and years ago you never thought about whites up here – not until the Honeymoon (fatality at Julian Rocks), but that was a one-off. Now, you’re seeing more and more of them cruising around.”
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