Confusion over beach closure signs

Last week’s shark attacks off the South West coast spurred a number of enquiries to local authorities as beach users reported confusion over which signs and alerts should be heeded.

Dunsborough resident Blair Ranford was on Injidup Beach last week when two white sharks were spotted by the Westpac Surf Lifesaving helicopter, and said despite local awareness and chatter on the beach about the sharks, no closures were effected for hours.

“Handmade signs are often written up and these blow away in the wind and rain, but they tend to be the ones surfers and locals pay attention to,” explained Mr Ranford.

He said an encounter with two surfers about to enter the water the following day highlighted the need for updated and relevant shark information on beaches.

“Two were about to go into the water and I pointed out the shark warning signs in front of them.

“They didn’t seem too bothered until I explained it was great white sharks and that they were over three metres, then they said ‘If we had known there were actual sightings of specific sharks at specific times we would never have considered going in’,” he said.

“I would like to see signs that can be updated in person by relevant authorities so that people coming down to the beach know that this is not just a generic shark warning for the area but a specific and real threat occurring that very day.”

A Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions spokesperson said the Department of Parks and Wildlife worked closely with the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development to decide on the appropriateness of signage or beach closures based on DPIRD’s advice and other factors.

“Risk signs were installed on Wednesday afternoon due to the repeated shark sightings. Injidup Beach was closed for 24 hours between Canal Rocks and Injidup Point after consultation with DPIRD on Thursday,” the spokesperson said.

“There are some permanent signs in the South West that notify visitors of the presence of sharks in the area, but nearly all of these are at local government authority beaches and are not managed by DPAW.

“DPAW’s aim is to deploy signage in response to heightened shark risk at specific beaches and remove the signs when the risk has passed.”

Much of the confusion and mixed messaging with signage stems from the management of beaches being down to specific locations – depending on marine park status and other factors, beach closures can be managed by local government authorities, Parks and Wildlife and the police.

"Each land manager is responsible for management of signs and this is assessed according to the level of risk. Parks and Wildlife Service assesses the risk in consultation with DPIRD,” said the DBCA spokesperson.

City of Busselton acting chief executive officer Paul Needham said the vastness of the coastline meant beach users needed to rely on a number of factors. 

“The city has a policy on when and where we erect advisory signage to warn beach goers about shark activity, noting that we have 85 kilometres of coast line and not all sightings result in warning signs being erected,” he said. 

“It is not possible to identify the species of shark spotted with great accuracy and people should consider all warnings seriously before entering the water.  

“People can access up-to-date information on known shark activity via the WA Government’s Shark Smart website which also provides options for updates via social media.”

Augusta Margaret River Shire ranger coordinator Mick O’Regan said all shark sightings should be reported to the Water Police, who then disperse the information to the relevant authorities.

“Stakeholder agencies all subscribe to an agreed response procedure which is informed via risk matrix.

“The level of response required depends on the situation including the number of sharks, size, species, distance, proximity to swimmers and name of break.”