It’s summer in Australia, which for many of us means the beach and all the enjoyment associated with it. But even though it is a very big ocean that surrounds our continent – actually, there are three of them – it is a rare beachgoer that doesn’t succumb to at least a fleeting through of the creatures with which we share those oceans.
One creature in particular – the apex predator.
Australians’ fraught relationship with sharks has existed uneasily since the first settlers saw an aboriginal woman taken in Port Jackson in 1791 in the first recorded attack, and of course it would have gone back longer than that. More recently, suburban Perth beaches and northern New South Wales surf spots have been in the news for all the wrong reasons; and in the latter, a fractious debate has opened up as to whether to use shark nets, or even reintroduce fishing quotas, to ameliorate the threat to lives – even though shark attacks actually kill very few people each year.
However, the thought of “Noah’s arks” sharing the same water is an unwelcome one to many of us as we hit the waves.
This is where Shark Mitigation Systems Limited (SM8) comes in. It is a marine technology company that has developed two patented non-invasive technologies targeting the prevention of shark attacks on humans. The first technology, called SAMS (Shark Attack Mitigation Systems), which was based on work undertaken with the University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute and School of Animal Biology, focuses on countering the visual systems of large predatory sharks.
While sharks use a number of senses to locate prey, it is known that vision is the crucial sense in the final stage of an attack. By disrupting a shark’s visual perception, an attack can either be diverted altogether, or at least delayed, to allow at-risk people to get out of the water. The first licences to use the SAMS visual shark deterrent design technology have been signed with global swimwear maker Arena and wetsuit makers Radiator, Sheico and Yamamoto.
The second technology, called Clever Buoy is a near-shore shark detection system that utilises sonar and proprietary software to identify the presence of sharks and provide alerts to beach safety authorities. Developed in partnership with Optus – and with initial project funding from Google – the Clever Buoy technology uses a combination of newly developed multi-beam sonar imaging, sonar interrogation software and satellite communications to provide critical warning systems to beach users, and vital information to shark researchers around the globe.
The fact that these technologies were developed in Perth has a lot to do with the fact that the western capital is located on a stretch of coastline that has recently experienced the highest incidence of fatal shark attacks in the world, with six deaths in the period between August 2010 and July 2012, and has become a global focal point for research and innovation in the field of shark science.
Clever Buoy was trialled by Sydney’s Waverley Council at Bondi Beach between February and April, as part of the New South Wales government’s $16 million shark management strategy. Although the exact amount of shark activity detected was not made public, the state government was given a report.
Following the successful pre-commercial trial at Bondi, the Australian Professional Ocean Lifeguard Association (APOLA) described Clever Buoy as: “the only commercially available detection system capable of deployment in high surf zones to provide real-time information for lifeguards.” At the annual ocean lifeguard industry forum held at Coffs Harbour, NSW, in April, APOLA formally endorsed Clever Buoy as a viable shark detection and alert solution for Australian beaches: APOLA stated that it “supports the rollout of Clever Buoy systems at patrolled beaches around the country.”
Then, in July, Clever Buoy was deployed at the J-Bay Open in South Africa, the surfing event where Australia’s Mick Fanning was attacked by a shark last year. The contract with surfing’s governing body, World Surf League, was the first international deployment for Clever Buoy.
Last month, Clever Buoy completed a four-week trial ocean trial of Clever Buoy at Hawks Nest, near Port Stephens in New South Wales, which involved the state Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Head of fisheries research at DPI, Natalie Moltschaniwskyj, said she was “very happy” with the results in the field, with white sharks captured on the Clever Buoy sensors.
DPI will analyse the data further to see whether the system is effective enough to warrant widespread use in NSW, alongside the other systems in uses, such as “smart” drumlines, GPS tagging and drones. In the meantime, Sydney’s Sea Life Aquarium is testing Clever Buoy in its controlled environment to assess the system’s ability to detect different types of sharks, including the grey nurse.
Also in November, SMS announced that the Western Australian state Government had agreed to install the Clever Buoy system at City Beach in Perth this summer. The company says Clever Buoy will be installed between the groynes at City Beach, and will operate for a trial period up to 31st March 2017. The deployment will provide the various state agencies with an opportunity to assess the system’s effectiveness in local conditions, its ability to be integrated into existing operations, and potential suitability for use at other sites along the Western Australian coastline.
Following the Bondi trial, SMS says a number of local councils around the country have directly approached it for proposals, with these bodies awaiting state government support for funding.
The French Indian Ocean island of Reunion – which has been plagued by shark encounters in recent years – will shortly open a tender process for formal proposals to protect some of its busiest tourist beaches. SMS has been working closely with the Reunion authorities for almost a year, and will submit a tender.
The company has also been busy with the SAMS visual technology. In November SMS announced the outcome of a successful trial of SAMS at Mossel Bay in South Africa, by the University of Western Australia Oceans Institute, which was completed in June. Mossel Bay has a known active population of white sharks, and the trial generated a significant number of observed encounters, providing a statistically valid data set for scientific evaluation.
SMS says the study results have presented scientifically valid confirmation of the effectiveness of one of the SAMS visual technologies as an effective deterrent in respect of mitigating the risk of shark attack. In replicated trials of the SAMS disruptive colouration technology in more than 111 great white shark encounters, the sharks took an average of 90 seconds to engage with the un-baited black ‘control’ neoprene, versus between five to six minutes for the un-baited neoprene containing the SAMS disruptive colouration patterning.
Based on these findings, the UWA testing confirmed that without the direct influence of bait, the disruptive colouration significantly delayed great white sharks (carcharodon carcharias) from interacting when compared with black neoprene. The SAMS colouration pattern delayed the time taken for a shark to engage by up to 400 per cent, on average, in comparison to black neoprene. The results indicate that under a typical-use scenario, the SAMS disruptive colour technology can have beneficial effects in reducing the likelihood of a negative encounter with a shark, by allowing a diver, surfer or swimmer more time to leave the area in the event of a shark encounter.
In September – before the Mossel Bay results were completed – SMS met the major global surf wetsuit brands at Surf Expo Florida, considered the world’s pre-eminent surf Expo event, with more than 27,000 attendees. Also prior to the Mossel Bay results, the company says, a “world-leading provider of technology services to the oil and gas industry” requested a trail of the SAMS visual technology in the industry’s sub-sea activities.
The technology could potentially extend to many marine applications, including skins and stickers for diving air tanks, diving fins, surfboards, kayaks, skis, watercraft, undersea cabling and marine equipment. While the SAMS technology has been mainly focused to date on companies that serve the recreational consumer market, SMS says the Mossel Bay research results will have significant implications for occupational health & safety (OH&S) in commercial applications.
Shark Mitigation Systems listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) in May 2016, after raising $3.5 million through the issue of 17.5 million shares at 20 cents a share. The stock made a successful debut, opening at 24 cents, and reaching as high as 27 cents, but it has slipped back to 17 cents. The stock has developed a pattern of large surges on news of deployments and trials: for example, SM8 jumped 15 per cent on the news of the J-Bay deal, 19.3 per cent on news of the Mossel Bay trial completion, and 10 per cent on the announcement of the City Beach installation. But in between, it tends to give up these gains.
The fact that Shark Mitigation Systems is back below its issue price should be seen as cheap entry – but the positive news flow has to continue. The products work, and the company has hardly put a foot wrong so far on the road to commercialisation.
Revenue for FY 2016 more than doubled, to $384,365, and the net loss for the year was $724,129. Shark Mitigation Systems had a working capital surplus of $2.9 million at year-end, and net cash inflows of $2.7 million. At 17 cents, Shark Mitigation Systems is capitalised at a tiny $9 million, but appears to be poised for bigger and better things. One day, checking for the presence of a Clever Buoy might be an essential part of an Australian summer beach day.