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.
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.