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
Debra Canabal of Epic Diving in the WSV hoodie. Get yours!
About the Author
Skyler Thomas is the primary blog contributor, cinematographer, and lead editor at White Shark Video.