What are these sharks doing? Is this a normal, annual shark movement, or is something else causing this congregation?
Many people have asked why "someone" didn't stop the shark cull. One of the "someone's" expected to do something was Sea Shepherd. Managing Director of Sea Shepherd Australia, Jeff Hansen, was kind enough to speak with Skyler Thomas, of White Shark Video, about the cull and Sea Shepherd's role in it. The clip below is an excerpt from that interview and addresses the previous question.
If I understand this image of a “co-existing” future of man and shark at the beach it goes like this: Vacationers, surfers, and divers heed the incoming alert that a tagged shark is in the area and cooperatively exit the water. Yeah, right. The scared people will get out and the others will continue business as usual. People who are scared of sharks will stop vacationing there (whether there was a bite or not) and the land-owners will start demanding that the politicians they put in office start culling the sharks. Just imagine if a significant number of sharks are tagged. Never-ending alerts. I don’t think that’s co-existence. It’s another work around in an attempt to not have to co-exist with sharks. But my problem isn’t with the attempt to make people safer or whether the technology will work properly. As mentioned before, I think we will be forced to come to terms with how we honestly feel about sharks.
The first thing we have to do is be honest about is our willingness to share water with them. A quick glimpse of mankind’s history of willfully sharing land with other predators doesn’t make me very hopeful for the sharks. Granted, there is a growing population of people who recognize that we are living on a dynamic ecosystem called planet earth and that sharks are a necessary part of it. However, even with a growing number of shark warriors, the bulk of the population still lies with those who exist safely outside the self-made boundary between man and this ecosystem...not wanting to participate in it or even be exposed to it. Amazingly, we've managed to dominate this earth so extensively that not only are we no longer required to participate in the ecosystem, but we don’t even need to experience it. No wonder it seems to come as an incredible shock anytime a human is injured by any living creature other than another human.
I suppose I can relate to Rodney’s quote since many audience members come up to me after my presentations and thank me for what they learned about sharks... but never-the-less remain convinced that I am crazy and they would never get in the water with sharks like I do.
That’s fine. There is no rule that says people must be willing to swim with sharks to prove that they like sharks, but we do need to recognize that supporting sharks that are far away is different than supporting sharks that are in your back yard, a frustration that many pre-cull surfers express when griping about “shark huggers” in far away countries.
But I digress. My rambling is an attempt to lay the foundation for the topic of whether or not we are willing to share with sharks, whether they are tagged or not.
Now let’s take that mentality a step further. Much of the world remains scared to death of sharks…even many “shark fans” would rather not get in the water with them. This is the reality we need to keep in mind when beach-front resort owners start hearing about “shark alerts” going off every other day. Vacationers, most of whom will be visiting from afar, are likely to be more concerned about getting value from their expensive and carefully planned stay at the beach than the fact that sharks are a sign of a healthy ocean.
But let’s drop my personal opinion of how I perceive our willingness to share and instead look at recent history. Western Australia listed tiger sharks as a target species during their highly controversial shark cull that ran roughly from Jan 26th (Australia Day) to April 30th of the same year. Over 170 tiger sharks were caught in just over three months time. Over 50 were confirmed to have been killed according to the government’s records while independent observation and documentation would leave one to suspect the death toll to be much higher. Wow! That’s a lot of sharks in a relatively small area in a relatively short period of time! This might leave one to wonder just how many sharks are out there and how many are next to surfers, swimmers, and divers at any given time. But what one should really be thinking about is how many people were bitten by tiger sharks with hundreds of the swimming around out there. The answer, during those three and a half months, is ZERO.
The number the year before that was also zero. And the year before that and the year before that… In fact in the previous 84 years not a single tiger shark was implicated in an attack on a human in those areas that the tiger sharks were culled. The only reason I stopped at 84 is because there was one alleged, but not confirmed tiger shark related fatality, otherwise the tiger shark’s record would have continued unblemished for several more years. This species, the tiger shark, is now the topic of beach safety thanks to a sensationalist American fishing company that made it’s way into Australia.
Perpetuating the idea that shark presence is a problem that needs to be solved is a step backward from real education, awareness, and learning how to co-exist. Only a year ago, the media-savvy, self-proclaimed shark-saviors, OCEARCH, tried to play upon the shark hysteria in Western Australia as a platform to get in and tag white sharks. They were rejected by WA at that time and on a higher level rejected by CSIRO, only to have OCEARCH go around CSIRO and find other ways into the country. Now here they are on Australia’s east coast using fear-mongering once again to get press, claiming they can increase beach safety with their tagging. If they are going to use shark fear to leverage press for themselves, it seems only fair that they should be held accountable when someone is bitten after their tracking tags have been bolted on. But, like everywhere else OCEARCH has gone, they will leave the locals with the mess and take the money and fame with them when they leave. Oh wait, sorry, I forgot about their amazing contribution to shark conservation. They provided an app that people can check from their couches once every month or so and see where the perpetually pregnant Lydia will show up next.
Sorry OCEARCH. Playing upon human ignorance and fear to further your self-glorified fishing campaign is sending the wrong message and just another chapter in your decade of hurting sharks much more than helping them. OCEARCH fans are checking their smart phones with one hand while reeling in protected species at the beach with the other. But this time while fighting the animal to near death they can not only call themselves conservationists, but can also say they were contributing to public safety.
Are sharks intelligent? Do they behave like individuals? Why do many shark experts compare sharks to dogs? If some sharks are shy and others are bold, does that mean they have personalities?
Don't take my word for it. See what some of the biggest names in the shark world have to say about this topic.
One pattern I've noticed in this past year of documentary making is the tendency for we humans to apply our own limited level of understanding of survival to the lives of wild animals when in fact the two do not coincide. Since our lives are quite secure and threat free, It is all too easy for us to forget that these animals are in a constant struggle to survive and as Andrew Fox states, "Predator prey relationships are finely tuned and our intrusion can disrupt that balance." Those who choose to engage in invasive research like to say things such as, "Well, sharks are tough, they live violent lives." That may be true, but that shouldn't be a green flag to go in and do everything just short of killing the animal in the pursuit of data. And just because they don't die in front of us doesn't mean we haven't altered the course of their lives. I immediately think of the injuries Junior sustained at the hands of OCEARCH and MCSI at the Farallon Islands.
While Junior did not die on the platform that day he was badly injured, including a jaw that appeared to be dislocated in photos that surfaced later. When he reappeared he was also covered in bite marks from other sharks and according to James Moskito of Shark Diving International had gone from a huge, dominant male to an emaciated shell of his former self. Is it really such as stretch to believe that Junior's ability to hunt and feed properly was affected by his jaw injury? Is it not possible that his decrease in health led to him being targeted by other sharks? Yes, sharks bite each other, but on this scale its usually males biting females during mating, not the targeting of a large male shark. It's hard to say what happened exactly, but the bottom line is that Junior was healthy prior to his tagging episode and spiraled toward death following.
Another pattern worth mentioning is the drastic difference between independent researchers (self-funded) and those pressured by the competitive world of "publish or perish", meaning those dependent upon grants and other forms of government funding. The independents tend to shy away from unnecessarily invasive methods that benefit the tagger far more than the "taggee".
Amidst the convoluted stories the taggers want you to believe there is another story...the harsh reality of the truth. James Moskito and Mick Menigoz have become familiar with sharks after their many years at the Farallones and give their own take on the scenario in these two videos.
I can't deny that I am becoming less of a fan of tagging every year, but that's not without good reason. What you should be aware of is that I once was a starry eyed participant as I held down a sand bar shark on the deck of a boat in 2006 in the Dry Tortugas as we punched holes in its dorsal fin to attach a plastic ID tag. In retrospect, not my proudest moment, but it was new to me back then and I thought I was participating in something great. What can I say except that we all have a learning curve. Next let me state that the last two years of my life have been 100% focused on researching some sobering realities of shark conservation. The link between actual conservation and tagging hasn't been particularly convincing. My personal findings are that social pressure upon governments as well as the ever-increasing realization that we can make more money from living sharks than dead sharks has led to some of the biggest conservation movements in the history of the saga between man and shark.
With over 500 species of shark playing various roles in different locations across the oceans, it would be unfair to claim that tagging sharks hasn't provided a benefits to any of them. Next let me state that scientists hold important positions and many do good work, and yes, tagging has contributed evidence to arguments for conservation measures to be taken. However, I feel that people should know that the word scientist does not mean conservationist, nor are scientists obligated to be conservation driven. Last, let's remember that being a scientist is a job, and just like everyone else, jobs are meant to provide paychecks.
Now that we have that out of the way we can focus on the specific topic of white sharks and the tagging thereof. Let’s use OCEARCH as our primary example since the uneducated masses seem to think they invented tagging and discovered white sharks. Keep in mind that you don't have to take my word for it. I've included links to papers as well as interviews with eye witnesses throughout this blog.
OCEARCH and SPOT tag history with white sharks in California
SPOT tags provided redundant data provided years earlier by far less-invasive tags (PSAT tags) regarding movements off the coast of California and Mexico, essentially tracing lines over the maps already published. What were the conservation benefits of this data? None. Don’t believe me? Please prove me wrong. Monterey Bay Aquarium in association with Stanford experimented with SPOT tags shortly after publishing their findings of the White Shark Cafe and I quote project leader Sal Jorgensen, “The cost to the animal outweighed the benefits of the information.
Shark researcher Michael Domeier was approached by Chris Fischer after Fischer sunk his money into a ship (and TV show idea) that could haul white sharks out of the water. Fischer’s invasive methods break every law regarding a protected species, so Fischer needed a scientific permit, which Domeier was happy to provide at the reported tune of nearly $90K per episode. It certainly made for good redneck television. Keep in mind this was after thorough mapping of white shark movements on the West Coast, including Guadalupe, The Farallones, and the White Shark Cafe were already published. Afterward, Domeier published "new research" in the wake of his Fischer provided SPOT tags. This data was once again redundant with the exception of the scientists receiving the data more quickly and with more detail of points along the migration paths already published via PSAT tags. Conservation changes as a result? None. In fact, scientists such as Domeier actually fought the effort to move white sharks from vulnerable status in California to endangered status. Why? Well, endangered animals come with more rules, rules that would prevent invasive research. If scientists fight movements to conserve sharks is there any question that the motive of there research is for themselves and not the conservation advancement of the sharks?
Domeier and another California scientist who worked with OCEARCH have both publicly spoken against OCEARCH since that time. However, I struggle with the idea that people who study these animals for a living didn't realize what they were doing was wrong until after the money (Fischer) had moved on.
On a side note, I admittedly think the mapping of the White Shark Cafe in the Pacific is very cool. However, I’m not aware of any private or government sanctioned boats patrolling the area to keep white sharks safe nor any new laws helping white sharks that have been passed since that time.
Many people will voice concern about white sharks moving into Mexican waters, particularly the Sea of Cortez, which is a justified concern. However, Mexico is Mexico and many researchers claim that illegal fishing there is worse than ever, the only difference being that fishermen know not to report their catch, especially protected animals. A reluctant Mexican PhD who participated with OCEARCH stated to me on camera that he did not agree with OCEARCH's methods regarding white sharks, however they provided an opportunity and the funds to tag several other species of sharks by collaborating. In the brief span of the days I went public with this statement, this researcher had his funding threatened to be pulled, and thus for his sake I pulled the statement and am sitting on the interview. That should be a sobering thought for everyone.
"When sharks die as a direct result of the methods used to tag them and scientists simultaneously declare that these methods are not significantly harmful you are faced with the harsh reality of believing what they say because you want to believe it."
OCEARCH and SPOT tags in South Africa
South Africa used SPOT tags in the early 2000’s, well before Fischer ever SPOT tagged sharks, despite Fischer claiming to be the first (which he claimed again this week.) These tags in South Africa led to a study showing horrific damage to the fins of white sharks. Amazingly, not long after this study came out (2011), OCEARCH gained access to South Africa to continue using these invasive methods…and some of the scientists who authored the SPOT tag damage paper actually chose to be involved with this “expedition”. Confusing? Well, you can imagine how difficult it is to get research funding in a third world country whose government is allowing their big animals to rocket toward extinction. Chris Fallows helps explain this odd scenario in this video. Again, it’s a case of “Publish or Perish"; a benefit to the researchers, but not the researched.
Time for a little history regarding white shark conservation in South Africa. South Africa listed the white shark as a protected species in 1991 after a combined effort of ecotourism operators and researchers to pressure to conservation move. This was a social movement, not a research-based movement, meaning that tagging had little to do with this listing. Furthermore, it wasn’t until 2003 and the famous white shark Nicole’s trip from South Africa to Australia and back that white sharks gained listing in CITES Appendix 2. Nicole’s journey was documented with a PSAT tag and photographs, not a SPOT tag. Now let’s talk about CITES. Exactly what good do you think a piece of paper does in the middle of the ocean against long-liners, trawlers, and nets? Add to that the fact that Australia is currently looking to opt out of its CITES agreements and you have the ultimate slap in the face example that when it comes to economics verse the environment, economics wins every time. As for OCEARCH data and conservation in South Africa? Absolutely no change and no benefits to the sharks, but a few more papers might get published. Is also notable that Fischer and crew killed at least one white shark as a direct result of their methods. How can anyone (Greg Skomal) claim this method doesn’t significantly stress or harm these animals when some of them die from it? Watch the sharks being killed here.
On a side note, if you've been impressed with their self-proclaimed 15 minute process, you might want to consider who is running the stop watch.
Let’s go back to the USA for a moment since I’ve been picking on South Africa. The biggest benefit to white sharks according to Dr. Chris Lowe was the removal / moving further out to sea of gill nets along the southern coast of California, where juvenile white sharks are known to spend time. These gill nets were not removed because of the sharks. They were removed because the public was outraged by images of dead whales, seals, dolphins and turtles that made it into the press. The Marine Mammal Protection Act has done for to conserve white sharks than any single white shark research paper ever has. A great quote from Dr. Lowe, “If you ate shark in California in the 70’s, you likely ate white shark.
Some Harsh Realities of Science
Even when scientists have worked hard for conservation their findings don't hold much ground when it doesn't serve the interests of powerful stakeholders. A few recent examples.
As long as we are back in California, let’s stop at the Farallon Islands. The Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary has such strict rules about protecting white sharks that ecotourism operators are not allowed to use bait, chum, tow decoys, nor are they allowed to approach a white shark. Despite this concern for not interfering with the sharks' daily routines, somehow OCEARCH and Domeier along with their TV show managed to get a permit to come into the sanctuary and do all the things that are listed as illegal to do to a protected species. Things that make you say “Hmmmmmm.” But, what was gained? Poor Junior was killed and Frodo lost a section of fin and may also have perished. It did, however, make for some great television drama and may have been the final thorn that separated Domeier and Fischer. Did we get any data before the sharks ultimately died of their wounds? Yes. They followed the same route as all the other sharks previously tagged by PSAT tags. Oh, and some papers were published. Speaking of Domeier’s company’s publishings, they provided some data to the sanctuary’s environmental assessment last year regarding whether SPOT tagging should be again allowed in the sanctuary. Their report included a recent “ping” from a shark whose tag is, well, not on the shark. I’d call that inaccurate data. So where’s the tag? On the bottom of the ocean where the chunk of fin it was attached to is decaying away with the tag.
Let’s shoot over to the east coast where another TV whore scientist, Greg Skomal, allowed OCEARCH to come in and chum next to public beaches in Cape Cod. You see, there is no island of seals to focus tagging efforts around in Cape Cod, instead the seals hang out on beaches, thus OCEARCH was directly competing (with chum) to attract sharks while just off-shore. OCEARCH refused to directly answer whether they were chumming at the time, probably because the public hadn’t been warned, but I photographed their mile long chum slick from the air and interviewed eye witnesses who had been on the boat who stated that "a hydraulic press was pumping out chum all day long." I’m sure you’ve all heard about the two sharks they caught and tagged since OCEARCH’s PR team has spent an incredible amount of money to keep you thinking about them and wondering if the two sharks are pregnant (Lydia alone has been pregnant about 18 different times in a year and a half). Here’s what you probably don’t know. The resident tagging team was pressured out of the water to make room for OCEARCH, a tagging team that had successfully tagged 27 white sharks there in recent years without chumming, baiting, hooking, or hauling the white sharks, all at a fraction of the cost of what OCEARCH’s two sharks cost. Amazing how Dr. Skomal never mentioned his already published papers showing white shark movements along the eastern coast, including all the way into Florida, yet in TV interviews, Skomal was “amazed” to learn about these two sharks' movements. A summary of white shark movements, including findings of them being in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico published as early as 1971, can be found here. Before moving on from the east coast disaster that was self-proclaimed as a success, we should mention that Fischer’s crew was ferried from the boat to the most expensive hotel in town every night. The cost of ONE of OCEARCH’s rooms for the duration of that summer could have funded the tags Queensland will be receiving in this latest “expedition”.
Fischer’s definition of an expedition, by the way, means showing up to a well-established shark hot spot that other researchers are already at while claiming that he has exceeded what Jaques Cousteau has done. I’m serious. He said this. Just check out his Charlie Rose interview. And according to Dr. Domeier some of Fischer's expeditions don't even exist!
Atlantic White Shark Conservancy founder Cynthia Wigren was adamantly opposed to OCEARCH entering Massachusetts waters, writing some of the most fiery statements about them I’ve ever seen as well as forming her own petition against them (which she has now removed, but there is still an article confirming its existence. All that changed after a private meeting with Chris Fischer. Suddenly AWSC had funding and press coverage and Cynthia’s opposition disappeared. But I’m sure there’s nothing to read into there. Similarly, in South Africa OCEARCH claimed to have the support of the entire scientific community. This is not true, as I can personally attest having interviewed multiple research organizations in South Africa. In reality, only one research organization was allowed on-board OCEARCH in each of the three locations Fischer drove his boat into. Reportedly, the researcher in False Bay and the researcher in Mossel Bay built new houses shortly after their work with OCEARCH and Marine Dynamics in Gansbaai built a new facility. Coincidence... I’m sure.
Cynthia rejected my offer for her to tell her side of the story while I was in Cape Cod. I was also rejected by Alison Kock, Marine Dynamics, and Ryan Johnson in South Africa.
Are there worse things for sharks out there than OCEARCH? Of course. There are even worse things out there than Colin Barnett. Should the existence of something worse be a green light for lesser evils? No. And at this pace we will soon see Barnett and Fischer shaking hands on a podium.
So, do I have my doubts about the benefits to sharks by having OCEARCH in Australia? Absolutely. Even if OCEARCH was full of ocean saviors as they portray themselves to be, you’re still talking about a government that currently seems hell-bent on killing everything, including sharks. Which brings us back to the sobering reality of shark tagging. It isn't saving sharks. Let me put is as simply as possible The way we stop sharks from dying is by ceasing to kill them, not by attaching tags then having the data rejected. Does anyone honestly believe we are data deficient when it comes to whether or not sharks populations are in trouble? If you answered yes, which fishing company do you work for and how much will your profits drop if you are required to make changes to your current fishing techniques?
So, perhaps OCEARCH should be spending its money hiring lobbyists to counter the lobbyists hired by the fishing industry to blockade conservation efforts. Or OCEARCH take their boat to New South Wales and monitor the illegal fishing of an animal that is actually in risk of going extinct in the wild as the local government impotently watches it happen. I’m talking about the grey nurse shark. Oh, but that would mean they’d have to stop being fishermen posing next to their prizes. Fishermen hiding behind scientific permits, permits provided by the financially distraught scientists who need OCEARCH's funding...That’s OCEARCH in a nutshell. But they certainly have their audience! Now rednecks around the world can call themselves conservationists as they continue to catch and maim sharks.
And if they happen to kill a few sharks in the process? That’s OK. OCEARCH does it too.
Great White Sharks; awe inspiring, majestic, and magnificent and conversely they are deeply feared
and misunderstood. I live in Perth, Western Australia and work for the conservation of this
vulnerable animal, but it is a difficult job. We aren’t talking about a cute and snuggly bear cub that
people relate to, we anthropomorphise cute animals with big brown eyes. You can’t do that with
sharks, saving them is a tough sell, especially in Australia.
Here in Australia we have numerous species of sharks including the big 3; Bull, Tiger and of course
White Sharks. I have lived in Perth for about 25 years and every year or two there is a shark related
fatality. It is brandished in the media, and the government always does the same thing, going out on
a ‘Rogue Shark Hunt’ making a sacrificial killing to appease the public that it is safe to go back into
the water, then people forget about it.
It is important to the powers-that-be that people feel safe at the beach, Perth and the South West of
the State rely heavily on the continued flood of tourists attracted to our white sandy beaches.
Nothing could have prepared WA for the tragedy that took place in WA over a 10 month period in
2011-2012 with 5 people dying from Shark Attacks. The attacks were seemingly random and
unpredictable; 1 person died while diving at Rottnest Island, another died while surfing at Cottesloe
Beach and 3 of the deaths occurred in WA’s South West on relatively remote beaches. The attacks
covered the entire south west area of the state and Perth.
That is how Western Australia earned the infamous title of ‘Shark Attack Capital of the World’ and
everybody had an opinion. Following the attacks, the media ensured that the danger of sharks in the
water was emblazoned on our minds, a shark swimming past a beach was headlining news, it
seemed as if you couldn’t pick up the newspaper, go online or flick the TV on without seeing sharks.
According to Sentia Media, West Australian media outlets had produced almost 15,000 stories
on sharks in the year ending 2012.
Australia has a history of shark attacks from Aboriginal times through to the first attempts at
European settlement, especially in southern waters. Research into Great White Sharks has been
headed up by Barry Bruce from the CSIRO for more than a decade. His research stipulates that Great
Whites have 2 nursery areas in the Eastern States, 1 at Cove Inlet Victoria and another at Port
Stephens in NSW. When they reach about 4 metres in length they generally head for the cool
Southern Waters of Australia and a reasonable concentration of them are found off Port Lincoln
South Australia where they have moved to dine on seals.
Once the White Shark has reached that size and is in the southern waters, naturally it doesn’t
respect state lines and it can roam around South Australia and come up the Western Australian
coast. Only around 300 individuals have been tagged, while our coastline does boast an array of
acoustic monitors, those are only picking up movements of the small number of tagged White
Following the fatalities that occurred, the WA Government was allocated a total of $13.65 million to
reduce the risk of attacks along our coastline and ensure tourists that this past summer would be
nothing like the one before it.
$2 million was allocated to kill sharks that could be considered dangerous, basically they are guilty
until proven innocent; something that doesn’t work in nature. The legislation became what is known
as the Imminent Threat Policy. Fisheries Minister Norman Moore told reporters in November 2012:
“Previously, the orders were used in response to an attack, but now proactive action will be taken if a
large white shark presents imminent threat to people.”
Premier Colin Barnett and Minister of Fisheries Norman Moore were in charge of choosing the
methods which would kill sharks, particularly White Sharks which have been protected since 1997.
Barnett turned to existing shark control programs that have been in place in the eastern states for a
In Sydney, New South Wales Shark nets were put in place in the 1930's and fear keeps them in place
today. No politician will risk pulling these nets and then being blamed for an attack. Shark nets do
not provide a consistent barrier to protect bathers, rather it minimises the amount of large sharks
that could reach the coast. Between 40 and 50 percent of sharks have been found on the Beach-Side
of the nets and in 2008 there were 2 shark attacks that occurred on netted beaches.
The other problem with establishing shark nets on coast lines is the high rate of by-catch. In NSW
between 1950 and 2008, 15,135 marine animals that weren’t sharks were caught and killed in nets,
including turtles, whales, dolphins, rays, dugongs and also killed 377 of the now critically endangered
and harmless grey nurse sharks.
Queensland also runs a shark control program and they use a mix of shark nets and hooked, baited
drum lines so is their model worth adopting? Between 1975 and 2001, 11,899 great white sharks,
tiger sharks and bull sharks were killed in nets and drum lines. Over the same period 53,098 other
marine animals were killed. 505 sharks were caught between January and 20th November 2009. Less
than half of those sharks caught were considered the dangerous or target species. Also killed were
16 dolphins, 6 whales, 1 dugong and 30 turtles.
So the evidence is in, the studies completed. Shark nets are indiscriminate and do not provide a
proper barrier and drum lines have the same problem, on top of the fact that baiting drum lines
attracts sharks, it doesn’t repel them. The studies done for The Department of Fisheries all made the
same clear statement; Western Australia’s coastline should not be netted or subject to drum lining
in order to protect the marine eco-system. Premier Barnett and Mr Moore made their decision, in
the face of all the evidence, they chose Drum Lining as their solution.
It didn’t take long for them to test out their drum lining solution, when it was alleged that a white
shark was ‘behaving menacingly’ (whatever that means) in WA’s south west near Dunsborough, The
Department of Fisheries issued a kill order and contracted a local vessel called ‘The North Islander’
to set up drum lines and kill the shark… which didn’t happen, 2 tiger sharks were caught and
released but the ‘menacing’ great white never showed up.
The public were outraged at this fiasco which took place in this tourist hot-spot. Citizens were
demanding to know how much the useless effort cost and surfers complained that the drum liners
had endangered the beach for days.
There were many positives that came out of the plan; over the summer period the surf life savers
were able to patrol multiple beaches daily, helicopters were in the air to spot sharks and research is
being done into shark repellents at the University of Western Australia.
A minimum of $2 million was put towards research and tagging through the Imminent Threat Policy,
shark conservationists like myself sat back in anger as we waited for The Department of Fisheries
and Forestry’s (DAFF) to get in the water and start tagging sharks, it didn’t happen all year until last
week, finally a tagging expedition into WA’s sharks which was motivated by the new Minister of
Fisheries Troy Buswell directly following an attempt by the Ocearch to come in and tag sharks in WA
waters. Mr Buswell was agreeable to it but permits are issued by the Federal government and they
don’t approve of Ocearch’s methods. Both ways it is a positive for the sharks and the people of WA,
tagging and research will finally be done.
Apart from the Ocearch issue, the onset of winter silenced the shark debate… until October 9th.
On October 9th, Greg Pickering was attacked by a suspected white shark whilst free diving for
abalone in Southern WA Waters. He survived the attack and was airlifted to hospital but what is
particularly amazing about his case is that he was attacked once before, in 2004 whilst spear fishing,
in a totally different location. Nobody saw the shark that attacked him and therefore the species
couldn’t be confirmed. He was diving in waters where white sharks are known to aggregate and
wasn’t using the protective cage that most abalone divers use. A kill order was issued for the shark
The fact that a kill order was issued on an unknown shark really highlights the ridiculousness of the
WA Imminent Threat Policy. The Department of Fisheries admitted they wouldn’t know which shark
was guilty until they had the dead body and did DNA sampling… talk about going on a fishing
expedition! After a few days, they saw the error of their ways and rescinded the kill order.
Kill orders, Shark Nets, Drum Lines… isn’t there a better system we could use to protect people and
sharks? Michael Brown of Surfwatch Australia says yes.
Michael and his team have developed something called 'Shark Guard' he says:
"The primary reason we developed Shark guard is because we are aware that unless we come up
with a viable alternative that there is no way the government will remove the nets."
Shark Guard works by dropping the buoys into the water about 300 metres apart with a hook with a
fake fish. The buoy is large and bright yellow. When the bait is seized with a bite force that can only
come from a large shark, the guard is triggered. Once the shark does bite the unit, it will then detach
from the main mooring and then the shark will start to tow the unit and as soon as it does, it
activates a GPS transmitter and a video camera.
Shark Guard buoys set up in place of nets and drum lines means that the shark will be easily seen by
swimmers or surfers as it is dragging the large yellow buoy and the Control Centre can watch the
animal remotely and inform the authorities. Once the shark is out of the danger area, near a public
beach for example, then the unit can be released from the shark remotely from the control centre,
or by boat. The potential for this technology can save lives of humans and sharks alike.
Another idea being researched is magnetic repellents. The principal is that they over-stimulate the
shark's electro sensory system and induce a repellent response. These have been tested successfully
with other shark species such as Bull, Tiger and Hammerheads. It is showing promise in White Shark
research, but not really ready for sole use under the guise that it will definitely stave off white
sharks. There is of course also the eco-friendly shark exclusion barriers being tested which work like
a wall so no marine life gets caught in it, unlike shark nets.
So what about the poor Great White Sharks; persecuted by fear, captured in fishing nets, finned for
black market sale, poisoned by our waste and killed by our shark control programs... what can we do
for them, they are vulnerable to extinction? We can educate ourselves and the future generation
and understand that, when we go into the water we are entering the domain of the sharks, once you
step into the ocean for any reason you are accepting a risk.
As a shark conservationist I put a lot of hope in technology like Sharkguard, it has an amazing
potential to keep beach goers safe and sharks alive. This is the sort of research that money should be
funnelled into. For the sake of my coast line I hope for a day when I don’t have to worry about drum
lines being dropped into the water and I hope for a time when NSW and Qld pull their shark nets and
lines out of the water, god knows we as humans damage the ocean enough already, it’s time to
really start minimising harm.
SOS – Save Our Sharks
I think I may have found a new way to approach this incredible fear of sharks phenomenon. Bare with me because this admittedly sounds absurd at first, but I actually gave this considerable thought. What if the RARITY of sharks bites is the problem rather than the frequency? Yes, I’m suggesting that if more people were bitten and killed annually it might actually calm this whole thing down. No, I didn’t just hit the crack pipe, so please read on.
Some of you are familiar with actual shark statistics, others are not and likely have opinions based on news reports. A few short minutes of research on the web will provide ample evidence that the media LOVES to talk about sharks, usually with some sort of fear-factor involved even if no one was injured or even threatened. But if someone was injured or killed it’s a gold mine, exceeding any other story option they may have been prepared to run that day. Chew on this for a minute; how many times have you heard about a person bitten by a shark on the other side of the world while you simultaneously don’t hear about the four people that died in car accidents only few towns away? Why do I need to know that a fishermen in Brazil was bitten by a shark when he decided to jump in the water after the shark when it broke his fishing line any more than I need to know that a hunter in North Dakota was fatally kicked in the head by a deer? Because it sells!
The take away from that example is the regularity at which things such as car accidents, poisonings, and even murders take place makes them less interesting. This regularity raises our level of callous toward such events therefore making them less and less newsworthy. Lack of interest equals lack of sales thus such stories get pushed to the back page (if they make it to print at all). Forget the fact that cape buffalo killed 200 people last year or that 20 people in the U.S. alone were killed by cows. Who the heck wants to read about buffaloes and cows, especially that frequently?! With that in mind, sharks are doing the press a favor by killing people infrequently enough that it is still worthy of headlines when it does happen.
But how many shark-related deaths would it take for it to stop selling?
Consider acts of war in which large numbers of people are killed. Death on a large scale while being worse in terms of actual numbers of lives lost is in some twisted way easier to deal with because we can't relate to a faceless number the way we can the personal suffering of an individual who experienced something we've all seen in the movies. Here’s another way to think of it. Imagine you’re a journalist that wants to reach an audience on an emotional level and your two story choices for the day are of 50 soldiers who died in a bombing in Afghanistan or printing words that cause people to relive in their minds the opening sequence from JAWS.
The strange twist I’m getting at is that our fear of sharks is in part fueled by the fact that they remain mysterious due to entering our lives with great infrequency. How many people reading this have ever even seen a shark for themselves? Human fatalities related to a shark encounter are among the rarest of causes of death on the entire planet. Yet in our minds sharks and humans are constantly encountering each other in a death struggle because of the media's desire to tell us about anything shark related, even if that means the story is nothing more than a shark that swam by a beach at the same time that someone on a hotel balcony happened to be looking out into the water and snapping a photo of that shark on their phone. A natural occurrence suddenly becomes a headline stating that "vacationers had a brush with a deadly predator stalking a beach".
Now what if sharks killed people on a monthly basis rather then a couple of times a year? What if they did it on a weekly basis? Would the allure of a shark headline begin to diminish if our callous regarding such situations began to thicken? Would such horrific “tragedies” slowly stop being listed as tragedies?
There are clear selling points of a story about a creature with razor sharp teeth that lives in a mysterious world below the surface and out of sight when compared to a story of a dog or bee killing someone…for that matter it’s even more stirring than the idea of a lion or bear biting us. But nevertheless, if it was happening somewhat regularly, let’s say at the rate that elephants kill people, wouldn’t the intrigue die down a bit? It might even change our entire perspective on the matter.
When a shark bite fatality only happens a handful of times a year across the entire planet it gives the impression that its an issue we can actually bring down to zero. I mean the gap between five and zero is pretty small! Whereas if 500 shark-related fatalities were happening per year it might instead force us to rethink the way we use the ocean. Largely we approach the ocean as thought it’s a giant swimming pool rather than the dynamic ecosystem that it is, and the rarity with which marine animals harm us only strengthens that frame of mind.
Shark bites is not a solvable problem. Period. We should get that idea out of our minds. With 70% of the planet covered in water that makes for a f-load of coastline and with 7 billion people that makes for a ton of potential human activity along coasts as well as out at sea. We’re upset that 5 people a year die from sharks? Across the entire globe? Really? I mean that sounds almost impossibly low. Instead of wondering why sharks bite us we should be grateful and bewildered by the fact that they don’t. We’re talking about a statistic so low that trying to lower it even further is almost mathematically impossible... unless of course, we kill every single shark out there, which would be a very bad idea for our oceans, us, and the entire planet.
Pretend for a moment that we don’t live in this present reality where our thought processes have already been shaped by everything we’ve seen and heard our entire lives. Now pretend you grew up in a world where 1,000 people a year were killed by sharks and this had happened every year you’d been alive as well as the generations before you. This would be a world very aware that sharks live in the ocean and aware that it might be a good self-preservation act to avoid certain areas rather than assuming we can use any section of the ocean our self-entitled asses happen to be next to at that particular moment. By the way, even at that fake rate, shark-related fatalities would still be coming in nearly 2,000 people fewer than hippos.
Can this idea of sharks being a problem get any more ridiculous? Well, yes, actually. When you add in the fact that we aren't forced to be doing the things we’re doing when these fatal bites take place. Let me repeat that. We are opting to engage in recreational activity in areas known to have sharks. Surfing is amazing, it might be one of the coolest things ever, so I’d never tell someone not to surf. But if that person doesn’t want to surf with the risk of a shark encounter he/she might want to choose very specific locations where shark risk is extremely low. But that would be inconvenient. So rather than suffering an inconvenience we choose to surf in waters known to have sharks, in shark hunting grounds, and even in waters with a history of shark bites. It’s the equivalent of someone wanting all lions in Africa to be killed because he wants to be able to go jogging on a game trail without any risk.
A mean person might say such a choice results in natural selection; also known as winning the Darwin award.
A nice person might say it wasn’t a great moment of wisdom.
But a fool would call for the murder of sharks.
There are ongoing debates whether the cage dive industry significantly affects the natural lifecycle of white sharks as well as debates of whether that same industry is teaching sharks to bite humans. Let’s set those debates aside for a moment and look at whether the cage dive industry does anything good for white sharks. Do white sharks benefit from this industry as a whole, or is it just another money-driven industry exploiting an threatened species?
That answer might depend upon where in the world you are asking the question. According to Michael Rutzen, of Shark Diving Unlimited, based in Gansbaai, South Africa, the cage dive industry is directly responsible for the current health of the population of white sharks along their southern coast. Keeping in mind that South Africa is a third world country (or some awkward place between first world and third world) let’s compare that location to the Farralon Islands in the United States.
The Farallones lie 27 miles from any beach that humans use for recreation. Additionally, the use of chum and bait are strictly forbidden. Combine those factors and it would be difficult for anyone to win the argument that cage diving is changing the sharks’ behavior, particularly in regard to “learning to eat humans” in that part of the world.
And let’s not forget that the California coast isn’t exactly facing any economic hardships. Why does that matter? Well, again, in contrast to South Africa, we’re comparing populations of people that might be more susceptible to breaking the law in order to ease their financial woes in one place than the other. Translation: If a fisherman in South Africa is faced with a challenging time of feeding himself and his family and can earn enough money from ONE set of shark jaws to significantly change his financial status, it shouldn’t come as a shock that this person might consider doing some poaching…especially if there is no one around to stop him.
"No one around to stop him"? But South Africa declared the white shark a protected species in 1991, in fact they were the first country to do so. Aren’t white sharks protected there? Well, yes and no. First of all, that same government kills a shocking number of sharks, including white sharks, in the shark nets that lie upon their migration route off the Kwazu Natal coast. Furthermore, it is the opinion of many I’ve interviewed in South Africa, including people who worked for the Marine Coastal Management, that coastal management is all but non-existent; Meaning there are no government resources actively preventing the sport-fishing or poaching of white sharks. In fact, when word got out in 1997 that people like Michael Flatly were willing to pay $30,000 for a single set of white shark jaws, it reportedly spawned a surge in illegal targeting of white sharks. Who is there to stop them?
Cage dive operation owners may be motivated by money or they may be motivated by their love of the animal or they may be motivated by both. But as long as long as they have a vested interest in keeping the white sharks alive we at least have someone fighting for the sharks, regardless of their motivation. In South Africa the cage-diving boats go out almost all year round, multiple trips per day. If the sharks are gone their business is gone.
This is a country that considered opening white sharks back up to commercial fishing in 1998. What stopped that from happening? The cage dive industry and the researchers who work on those cage dive industry boats.
But what about a location such as Guadalupe Island? Mexico isn’t exactly a country known for resisting bribes when it comes to upholding the law. But Guadalupe Island is 180 miles out at sea, roughly 24 hours to reach from Ensenada. The poachers would have to be exceptionally well funded and equipped to make a venture out there worthwhile, especially with cage-dive operators around 24/7 (during the peak white shark season) ready to report suspicious behavior.
Tangible arguments exist in defense of the cage-dive industry possibly acting as watch dogs against poaching, not to mention providing a group of people ready to oppose efforts to open white sharks up for legal fishing. But, what about intangible arguments?
I can say that after ten years of watching tourists getting on and off cage dive boats that NOTHING changes one’s perception of the white shark like seeing it in person. You can tell someone what a white shark is really like until you are blue in the face, but until they can visually replace JAWS with their own personal experience, it just doesn’t seem to sink in. It’s true that in the end we’ll only save what we love, so helping people to give a crap about the well-being of these animals has merit. Are all these tourists going to turn around and become advocates for sharks and our oceans? No. Are some of them? Yes.
But back to the tangible. As long as we live in a world where money talks and governments don’t enforce conservation laws, our best bet for shark protection may be in those who have figured out how to make money from living sharks as they fight against those who want to make money off dead sharks.
Debra Canabal of Epic Diving in the WSV hoodie. Get yours!
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About the Author
Skyler Thomas is the primary blog contributor, cinematographer, and lead editor at White Shark Video.
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