The following is an interview with one of the scientists talked into working with Ocearch. As a beneficiary to Ocearch funding it only makes sense for the scientist to promote the research. Looking past the political answers one can see the limits of value Ocearch tagging is providing.
MG: What drew you to join the Ocearch as Chief Scientist in 2012?
RJ: Ocearch NGO approached me a couple of years prior to them arriving in South Africa. Chris Fischer then suggested his ideas and the research potential that his organization could offer the South Africa scientific community. Being a shark biologist from South Africa, I am mandated to produce knowledge to enable the informed management and conservation of sharks in our region. The most powerful tool currently available to produce this data is satellite telemetry work that enables the description of home ranges, critical habitats, and migratory patterns. This statement implies that SPOT tags (tags used by Ocearch) are the only means of obtaining this knowledge. In reality, scientists across the globe have been using the uninvasive satellite tags known as PAT tags to study shark movements and migrations for well over a decade. The groundbreaking information in 2004 of the white shark Nicole traveling from South Africa to Australia in 2004 was provided by PAT tags. Leading researchers from Stanford and Monterey have been successfully publishing papers regarding white shark migration using only PAT tags. This knowledge is essential to empower managers and conservationists to guide their action in an effective manner. Ocearch has not provided a plan to protect the sharks and according to press interviews does not plan to. On the contrary many shark advocates are concerned that real time tracking to the general public is allowing poachers to more easily find the sharks. Despite existing knowledge (prior to SPOT tags) of shark locations, actual protection of sharks in these waters has been nearly nonexistent. Action to stop existing threats is needed more than more migration data. As a developing country South Africa does not frequently have sufficient resources to dedicate the required logistics and finances to research that will answer these crucial questions. Ocearch producing these resources for the South African shark academic community to use and fulfill our research mandate was what attracted to the opportunity. In addition, on review, the practical skills of the Ocearch team made them a perfect partner to conduct this research with. In other words, this is all about money. Ocearch's methods are inhumane and damaging, but accepted anyway in exchange for badly needed resources.
MG: How many sharks have been tagged by the Ocearch?
RJ: During the South African Expedition, a total of 47 sharks were tagged with various combinations of transmitters consisting of one/some or all of (a) SPOT satellite tags, (b) acoustic transmitters and (c) PAT satellite tags. This included six ragged tooth sharks in addition to the white sharks. Over the years I am unsure of how many sharks in total Ocearch have tagged. Sharks are tagged every single day. There is no shortage of data, we are only short on real action to protect them. To imply that continued tagging is necessary to save the species is misleading sensationalist jargon used to sway the public.
MG: Tell us about why is it important to tag sharks?
RJ: Tracking the movements of sharks enable scientists to identify critical habitats, the home range, migratory pathways, reproduction related movements. This data already existed without SPOT tags. Ocearch likes to make it sound as though they are revealing this data, which is not true. However, stating it as such makes them sound like heroes in the press and on television. With this knowledge you can guide management and conservation plans, essentially you empower people to design plans that will enable the effective conservation of the population. Again, this knowledge already exists. Failure to protect sharks is the issue. We already know many congregation sites and migration patterns, but still struggle to protect the animals even in these areas. For instance, the Oceach program illustrated that the population range of white shark stock of South Africa extends extensively into the exclusive economic zone of Mozambique. Directly misleading quote. This scientist, as well as any other white shark biologist has known for over a decade that sharks travel well outside the EEZ. Again, failure to act upon this data is the shortcoming, not the data itself. As white sharks are not protected in Mozambique, our national conservation plan is ineffective in its objective to conserve the population. The knowledge produced provides concrete evidence for South Africa’s legislators to take to Mozambique and use as leverage to ensure that Mozambique’s management of white sharks does not compromise our shared resource. Money and politics. It will not be SPOT tag data that changes the mind of legislators, but pressure and outcry from the world against the slaughter of a badly needed species. As we speak, countries such as China, which hold strong influence over financially struggling countries, actively fight to stop shark conservation, remove sharks from CITES listings, etc. The enemy is before us! It is time to fight, not gather data, much less data that is obtained by damaging the very animal being studied.
MG: What have your learned so far from the data collected?
RJ: That white sharks residing in South Africa spend a large percentage of time outside of out EEZ and in waters where they can legally be fished. Thus giving a possible explanation as to why there has been no population level recovery despite 22 years of national protection. Again, intentionally misleading. SPOT tags are not necessary for this data. Even if SPOT tags could be proven to be, without debate, superior to PAT tags, hauling the shark out of the water has been proven to be unnecessary by Dr. Dormeier, who uses a sling. Dr. Dormeier, btw, has disassociated himself from OCEARCH.
Side note, PAT tags are attached to the white shark's body (not dorsal fin) using a lance as it swims by. That's the end of the process. No damage, no trauma. This tag pops off after a designated time. Hooking, dragging, then hauling the shark out of the water (SPOT tagging) is done for marketing sensationalism and TV drama. Unfortunately, this works in building an audience. Preferably an audience would be built without traumatizing or damaging the shark.
MG: Any close calls with the sharks while performing the internal tagging surgery?
RJ: My only concern is to perform the surgery as quickly and professionally as possible and thereby minimize the stress on the shark. Naturally when sharks have become active on the platform during surgery you can get hit and knocked hard. But following this I need to get back to the surgery, regain my composure and complete it successfully. Afterwards you feel and rub the knocks. How about this close call; a white shark died during the OCEARCH tagging process, others that later died, and excessive damage to jaws and fins as a direct result of OCEARCH. The shark that died on the set of the television show was claimed to have died from anemia. Convenient. One minute it is swimming in the ocean, then it dies after hours of trauma due to being hooked, dragged, then hauled out of water. But, of course, anemia is what killed the shark.
MG: Can you tell us a little bit about Ocearch Global Shark Tracker – Powered by CAT?
RJ: The Ocearch Global Tracker is one of the most revolutionary communication tools ever used by the scientific community to include and inform the wider public about a research project and the results of the research. Essentially it gives everyone instant access to the movements of the sharks tagged and enables them to mine the data to gain a personal knowledge on the behaviour of great white sharks around the world. This level of communication and inclusion is a massive education tool for the public to see past the white shark as a one dimensional man eater. The SPOT tags don't teach the public that the white shark in not a one dimensional killer. Educating the public is what does that. OCEARCH and CAT have a powerful ally in money, they can market any message they want to, which they are doing to mislead the public into thinking that hooking, dragging, maiming, and killing a protected species is the way to do this. Fact is, these funds could simply put put toward educating and promoting the white shark without damaging them.
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1. Virtually every day in South Africa scientists either tag , biopsy sample or place cameras on great white sharks. To date more than 300 have been tagged with acoustic pingers and hundreds if not thousands of biopsy samples have been drawn. We also had a project that for 4 seasons at Seal Island placed cameras on the sharks to see what they were eating!
In 1991 The great white was protected in South Africa and that was the end of it. Thereafter there has been zero enforcement.
The Natal Sharks Board still kills 11-60 great whites per year and now even has drum lines to specifically target big sharks. They are still being long lined, they are fished for by sport fishermen from the beaches and from boats, and they are poached by abalone poachers. So other than furthering our knowledge and the careers of scientists, what has been done by any of this invasive research and "knowledge" to save these sharks?
2. From what has been told to me and what I have personally seen the SPOT tags cause massive damage to the sharks dorsal fins, sometimes even causing complete collapse. This project therefore cannot claim past projects ignorance and they are knowingly doing this to these animals with the aim of getting more "data" that once again begs the question of how it will help the sharks?
Is this the only or best way of doing this and will the radical movements of a traumatized animal accurately reflect the behavior of a normal animal?
Having witnessed and recorded over 7500 predatory events, between great whites and Cape fur seals, over the last 16 years I am well aware of the fine margins some of these predatory events are decided by. Besides being ethically wrong to knowingly disfigure an animal, by deforming a key stabilizer to a high speed ambush and pursuit predator, is akin to compromising a F1 race car by removing a aerofoil and still expecting it to compete.
3. Finally and most importantly, there clearly is no compliance in South Africa with regards to breaking the laws pertaining to killing or catching Great White Sharks. There is ample evidence to highlight the fact that we know where , when and by whom the sharks are being fished and poached. It is mostly right under our noses. Nothing is being done to stop this other than by those in conservation circles or by the presence of cage dive operators.
Is it a good idea to now tag these sharks with sattelite tags that pin point areas of regular activity , many of which will be out of the public eye. Surely this is a perfect road map for anyone who wishes to catch them, and with zero enforcement or a plan to change this, is this not just going to add more pressure on these animals?
My whole argument is not against Chris Fischer and the team of scientists involved, it is against the need and principles behind this research and the effects and implications it may have on the sharks going forward.
Whilst I would never want to see great whites being hooked, if it was truly for the benefit of the sharks and conservation as motivated by Dr Boyd, Fischer and co, with a sound plan in place for the sharks protection as well as the arrest and prosecution of anyone catching them, I would be far more supportive of such an effort.
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.