An issue dead and buried?
In January 2016, a dead baby sperm whale washed up on the beach at Casuarina, northern NSW. Following established practice, Tweed Shire Council dragged the carcass up onto the foredune and buried it under two metres of sand.
Beach burial isn't the easiest method to dispose of a whale carcass - that would be to leave the carcass in situ and let nature take its course - however it's cheaper than removing the whale carcass from the beach. A year earlier in 2015, Pittwater Council had to pay $150,000 to remove a dead sperm whale from a rockshelf at Newport. Faced with these costs, it's understandable a council, particularly a regional council, might hire a bobcat and start digging.
Unfortunately for Tweed Shire Council, they had to hire the bobcat twice: once to bury it, and the second time to exhume the carcass after locals raised concerns about fluids leaking from the carcass and attracting sharks.
At that point there'd been no scientifc study to determine if whale leachates attracted sharks, however through 2015 and 2016 a string of fatal shark attacks created fear on the NSW north coast and, irrespective of cost, burying dead animals on the shoreline no longer seemed wise.
Jane Lofthouse from Tweed Shire Council was frank in admitting council was folllowing community wishes and not the available science: "I suppose we are really responding to that community concern rather than any scientific evidence," Lofthouse told North Coast ABC.
By the following year, the burial of whales had become a wider concern. In September 2017, a humpback whale washed up on Nobbys Beach at Port Macquarie with the local council promptly burying it. As in Casuarina, the locals opposed it and ultimately won with the whale being exhumed at a cost of $65,000. Following the Port Macquarie dispute, the issue became a national debate with mainstream media running articles, not just on specific stranding events, but also the arguments for and against beach burial.
The debate was sustained with beach burials, and later grisly exhumations, at both Ballina and Wurtulla in the following month, and Ocean Grove, Victoria, the next year. In each instance, the relevant authorities - either local council or the National Parks and Wildlife Service - deferred to the adopted practice of burial and subsequently bowed to community pressure. Fuelling the debate was a lack of scientific research, but Southern Cross University attempted to fill that vacuum with a two year study titled, 'Whale carcass leachate plumes in beach groundwater: A potential shark attractant to the surf?'
The study, which was completed last year, concludes that, when done correctly, burying whale carcasses on beaches will not attract sharks. James Tucker, the lead author of the study, said when he began his research, the belief was the opposite.
"The public perception at the time was that whale carcasses - even when they were buried on beaches - would attract sharks," said Tucker. "It seems a majority, or at least the most vocal majority were saying that they would attract sharks and make beaches more dangerous effectively." Tucker was of the belief his study would sway public opinion.
However, rather than resolving the issue, the SCU study only stirred the already muddy waters. For one, the study was based on just one trial and the researchers acknowledged assumptions from the study site could not be applied to all beaches given conditions and groundwater presence can vary. Also, the number of qualifiers in the study left the door ajar for doubt to creep in - a powerful force when human life is at stake.
In lieu of persuasive science, the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment compiled their own report, which recommended the National Parks and Wildlife Service provide a central advisory service to all landowners should a dead whale wash ashore. In response, the NPWS published a flowchart for managing whale carcass disposal and a checklist that all landowners can draw upon to make decisions.
Twice this month, Jane Lofthouse from Tweed Shire Council has had to refer to the flowchart. On the 6th October a dead humpback washed up at Casuarina Beach, while just two days ago on the 12th October, a pilot whale washed up at the same place. In both instances, Lofthouse chose to dispose of the body at a nearby waste facility. The NPWS checklist states removal is the "preferred option in urban and peri urban areas or there are health and safety risks to public at or adjacent to the site."
Since the NPWS assumed the central advisory role in May they've been a number of whales beached along the NSW coast. In July a Blainville beaked whale washed ashore at North Entrance, while in September whales washed ashore at Old Bar and Fingal Bay, both on the Mid North Coast, Bulli on the Illawarra coast, and Patchs Beach at South Ballina. In every instance they were removed from the beach for disposal in a waste facility.
"Ultimately, the decision [to remove a whale carcass] depends on where it washes up," Lofthouse told Swellnet, yet most of the Tweed coast would be considered "urban or peri urban" and hence require removal. The NPWS checklist still allows for beach burial, however what was once the default option for all local authorities has become, "the least preferred option for the disposal of a dead whale carcass," as defined by the NPWS. Recent responses would bear this out.
In an era where faith in government is at an all time low, this is one issue that people can feel they were listened to.