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Queensland Shark Spotters Seek AI Assistance

by Cameron Sinclair •
Free resource

The Queensland government will trial artificial intelligence (AI) to improve the detection of sharks in low-clarity water conditions as part of its existing drone surveillance program.

The state’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) has issued a tender seeking a suitably qualified and experienced supplier to “investigate and trial enhanced aerial shark detection technologies and provide a report recommending further trial options.”

Australian governments have invested millions of dollars into developing shark spotting technologies over the past decade and our researchers are world leaders in the innovative use of AI/ML to identify ocean fauna, including whales, turtles, and crocodiles (and terrestrial fauna, such as koalas).

AI technology is already employed to identify and distinguish shark species from drones, but it is ineffective in low-clarity water.



Drone surveillance has been trialled extensively for shark spotting in Australia over the past 5-7 years as an inexpensive alternative to helicopter surveillance, nets, and drumlines (baited hooks), often operated by lifeguards on patrol.

The world’s first drone surf rescue occurred when lifeguards dropped a flotation device for swimmers struggling in stormy seas off the coast of Lennox Head in January 2018.

Drones are also the community’s preferred mode of maritime surveillance, an important consideration for policymakers and politicians, as shark management is a sensitive and divisive topic.

However, there are limitations on their use: flights are usually restricted to within the pilot's line of sight, they require operator training, and are not possible in poor weather, particularly in strong winds.

A 2019 report into the Queensland government’s shark control program noted the variability along the state’s coastline, with “good water clarity” in the south resulting in highly effective aerial detection system trails, but “the prevailing poor water clarity in the north” limiting the detection of potentially dangerous sharks for a significant proportion of the year.

The technology is rapidly emerging to analyse the undersea 3D composite images produced by drone-mounted multi-spectral and hyperspectral cameras, but these are significantly more expensive (and require more pilot training) than existing surveillance drones.

An early 2022 report for the NSW government concluded that "while multi-spectral and hyper-spectral cameras on drones and AI can overcome some of the practical challenges of looking through seawater to detect the presence of a shark, they are unlikely to be practical for use” in the short term.

A journal article published by Queensland DAF scientist Jonathan Mitchell in October 2022 concluded that “opportunities to improve the effectiveness of drones for detecting sharks should also be explored, such as by incorporating AI, optimal wavelengths and beyond visual line of sight flights.”


Governments across Australia will continue to increase their investment in technology-enabled safety solutions to address community fear of shark attacks, and the reality that deaths can occur.

The Australian Shark-Incident Database (ASID) contains a comprehensive record of 1,208 shark bites that have occurred in Australia over 231 years, between 1791 and 2023, including 251 fatalities.




















Australian governments have been tagging sharks for decades and in 2012, CSIRO chief executive Megan Clark told Senate Estimates there was scope for the development of an app that could send an SMS alert when one of the tags was within 500m.

There are now at least a dozen shark sighting apps available on the Australian (Apple) App Store and Google Play, relying on a mix of crowd-sourced reports, tagging, and surveillance.

The WA and NSW governments have both developed ‘SharkSmart’ apps that provide live alerts to beachgoers, surfers, swimmers and fishermen.

A 2017 senate inquiry documented the tens of millions of dollars various state and federal governments have spent on shark management and attack mitigation.



Western Australia has found itself at the forefront of national shark management debate and the subsequent use of technologies.

Following a fatal attack near Margaret River in November 2013, thousands rallied at Perth's Cottesloe beach calling for an end to the state government's contentious ‘catch-and-kill’ shark policy ("Rights, rights, rights for great whites”).

A year later, the WA Department of Fisheries launched a Sharksmart website, mapping ‘crowd-sourced’ shark sightings from the public and Surf Life Savers, which publishes alerts via Twitter.

Moving shark data onto phone apps was one of the prize-winning ideas from the 2016 Perth GovHack. The state launched its Shark Smart WA app in October 2019, reaching the milestone of 100,000 downloads in November 2022.

The 2021-22 WA Budget included $12 million over three years to support Surf Life Saving WA’s shark monitoring and mitigation services.



Helicopters have been used for aerial shark surveillance of metropolitan NSW coastal waters since 2009, with further trials along more isolated stretches of coastline as part of the state’s Shark Management Strategy. However, helicopter surveillance is relatively expensive and requires good conditions to operate.

The NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) released its own Shark Smart app in January 2015 and the Baird government convened a ‘shark summit’ at Taronga Zoo later in the year to review shark management technologies, including underwater electromagnetic deterrent barriers, sonar detection buoys, and using satellite and acoustic technology for real-time tracking of tagged sharks.

The subsequent Shark Management Strategy included an investment of more than $16 million to introduce innovative trials and fund continual projects over five years (2015-20), with the government committed a further $85.6 million in 2022, to continue the program until June 2026.



The Queensland Department of Agriculture is responsible for implementing both the Queensland sustainable fisheries strategy, which includes the ongoing “drone surveillance and trials of alternative technologies”, and the Queensland shark management plan 2021-25.

The 2019-20 Budget included $17.1m over four years, with $4.4m ongoing, for a shark control program to research the use of shark-spotting drones. In July 2022, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced a further $6 million investment to extend the shark spotting drone trial at South East Queensland beaches.

The Queensland government’s search for aquatic AI expertise coincides with the CSIRO announcing an $83 million investment in AquaWatch, a world first ‘ground-to-space water quality monitoring system,’ combining observation satellites, sensors, ecosystem modelling, data science and AI.

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