I’m learning a lot in this crazy, fever-pitched world of sharks. Not the least of which is a lesson I should already know; it’s not smart to make assumptions. For example, “scientist” is not synonymous with “conservationist” and it was my mistake to assume they went hand in hand. While many scientists may be conservation minded, it is not a requirement. It is their job to gather the data, not to save the shark. Hopefully the data they gather can be used to help conserve the shark, but again, that isn’t their job. So who’s job is it? That’s the million-dollar question and we’ll get to that.
Something else I learned is that “researcher” is not the same as “scientist”. I recently paid off my graduate school loans and was burdened by the idea that I needed to go back to school again for a biology degree in order to back up any films or statements I might make. It was at that time that a biologist friend of mine told me not to bother. Marine biology degrees or other such credentials are not required to conduct research*1, in fact, a surprisingly large number of “shark experts” do not have educational credentials in the same field of their research. Look no further than Shark Week if you doubt this. Not only are the majority of their “experts” not biologists, sometimes you’re lucky if they aren’t paid actors (See Megalodon Lives).
I’m not insinuating that one needs a degree to know what they’re talking about, there are number of people who spend ¾ of the year observing sharks in their environment, but don’t have credentials, yet I would say their time in the field qualifies them to know what they’re talking about, perhaps more so than those with credentials in some cases. Nevertheless, it was a bit of a revelation to discover I could go out and “study” sharks as long as I could come up with the means to do it.*2
When I was growing up, watching shark specials from a living room thousands of miles from the closest ocean, the mysterious and almost surreal world of the white shark struck me as one that only the elite of the scientific realm were allowed to enter… a who’s who club where not everyone was allowed to play…that those dealing with the sharks were the most capable available and the sharks were in the best hands possible.*3
But I digress. The point I’m slowly working my way to is that I’ve begun seriously wondering about the data that is being collected. Yet another assumption of mine was that the data being collected on these sharks was being put to the best use possible. What is done with it? Is all of it used? Does some of it end up in a file that work conditions simply make it impossible to ever have a chance to analyze? Is the collection of this data always useful? If not, why else gather it? Why else indeed. Sadly, the more people I talk to the more I hear answers indicating the data is less about the shark and more about the person doing the collection…From hoarding information, fighting over naming sharks, sabotaging tags, to fabricating stories about the competition, there’s definitely a blemish on the face of white shark research. Let me say that by no means am I putting all researchers in this category. And even those who are career oriented I can’t judge too harshly, for if they don’t have a career with funding...well, that makes it hard to have a career. But that in turn opens the door to question the motivation behind the research. After all, as a researcher, if you’re not out collecting data you’re not going to get your next grant, sponsorship, TV contract, paycheck, name in Science Today, or whatever the specific case may be, so doesn’t it behoove a researcher to not only justify his research, but to perhaps withhold findings from the rest of the scientific community or make misleading statements as to the value of the study being conducted? One "researcher" in particular has become a millionaire by justifying his sensationalist approach of gathering data. (If you're a researcher and hate my guts right now take a deep breath.)
Here’s some background. My introduction to white sharks came in 2004 when I spent a month and half volunteering to work on a boat in South Africa. Even then I remember the locals debating the value of tagging, referring to ‘tag overkill’. Here it is seven years later and every one of those years has been filled with the tagging and attempted tagging of sharks globally. "To date more than 300 sharks have been tagged with acoustic pingers in South Africa", says Chris Fallows, of Simons Town. If we were approaching tag overkill back in 2004 then where are we now? Granted, past tagging has proven to be very informative. We learned that white sharks swim between South Africa and Australia, from California to Hawaii. We learned about the mysterious “Shark Café” in the Pacific Ocean. I even learned that white sharks sometimes come under the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay from time to time. But what about future tagging and data collection; How much do we need? What do we truly need to know? When does it end? Does it? When does its value reach a zenith? Have we already reached that zenith? Ichthyologist Jeff Reinhardt states, “As a shark biologist, I am against using extensive and lethal measures to find data that really doesn’t need to be known at the expense of a rare and protected species.”
Below I examine one organization that might be blurring the truth of data in order to ensure its own success.
There is currently a massive media sensation following an organization called OCEARCH, which is tagging sharks around the world. They happen to use methods of tagging that I disagree with (if you want to know why I disagree continue reading the fine print)*4. But who am I to disagree? Fair enough, ignore my opinion and let's put the tagging method aside; I am bothered by the fact that public interviews aired on television and published in papers include what I would consider misleading, if not altogether false statements. Why make such statements? To justify the research? To secure the ongoing career(s) and funding of the individual(s) involved? I’ll give you some examples of such quotes:
1. “We don’t know where they (the sharks) are, where they go, what they eat, why they are here”. This has ben repeated multiple times in news articles as well as video interviews. Well, I must offer disagreement with such statements. Other scientists published this data long ago with less invasive methods. Those scientists simply didn’t become TV celebs, and if you're not on TV, that means most of this country doesn't know who you are.
2. “This is the first research of its kind”, "pioneering new research that's never been done before", "the first of its kind in history". The number of times this is said in the course of just one interview and at least once in every interview shows that OCEARCH knows how important it is to mesmerize the public. And I have to disagree with these statements on multiple levels. Position tracking of white sharks has been taking place for a very long time. If OCEARCH is referring to this specific method of hauling the shark and attaching SPOT tags I also have to disagree since this method was taken from another scientist, whom, whether I agree with his methods or not, is the one who pioneered that method. OCEARCH took his method and ran. Financially it seems to have been a brilliant move. Ralph Collier, president of the Shark Research Committee had this to say “The record should be clear that any such study by Fischer and his group, is not the first study for this topic."
3. “We can’t put policy in place to protect these sharks if we don’t have this data.” Well, I would like to clarify some things. Policies are in place. They just aren’t enforced well. When existing data is ignored by the powers that be (those who set fishing restrictions, etc.), what assurance is there that more data will change that? Furthermore, this particular organization has been conducting its work for the better part of a decade. In their defense I’d like someone to please list policy changes that have been made as a result of their work thus far. Please list any bills or proposals this organization has started or authored in an attempt to further the conservation of these sharks. The irony that really bothers me is that marine sanctuaries such as the Gulf of the Farralones National Marine Sanctuary has policies in place that prohibit people from even approaching these sharks up to a certain distance for "the good of the shark"...yet this policy was thrown out the window when the OCEARCH guys came into town. These sharks that were so strictly protected that you couldn't approach them were suddenly allowed to be "wrangled". OCEARCH has been collecting data for 7 years. Which year are they going to approach the politicians mentioned in this interview?
4. “Risking their lives to save the sharks”. The only lives in danger here are those of the sharks. These guys are operating on a boat the size of a battleship. Even the revenge seeking shark from JAWS 4 couldn't get to these guys.
5. "Scientists are really surprised by these discoveries" (referring to the tagged sharks moving on the Atlantic coast). What scientists are surprised by this? Insect scientists? If you're a white shark scientist and you're surprised that these sharks move up and down a coast, especially after more than a decade of migration tracking studies, you're a bad scientist.
6. Here's a quote justifying the killing of sharks they study. "If you have to catch 100 sharks to solve a 450-million-year-old puzzle and you know you’re going to kill three of them to save the rest is it worth it?" Well, that's a glittering generality statement made to dazzle people that don't know any better. Rather than be dazzled, stop and ask:
I just returned from a trip to Cape Cod where this organization is currently conducting its work. I interviewed many locals who attended their publicity events. The leader of the campaign referred to himself as the next Jaques Cousteau. He implied that they were the pioneers of tagging the Atlantic white shark…right in front of the tagging team that, ironically, is currently grounded due to OCEARCH’s presence in town. It's worth noting that the existing team in Cape Cod successfully tagged 30 white sharks since the sharks began making their return to the area in recent years. These guys and their work were not mentioned at all. In their present campaign, costing a reported $750,000 dollars for the month of August alone, OCEARCH has not tagged a single shark to date. I think I could come up with other ways to use that money on shark conservation.*5
If you don’t already disagree with me, pretend that you do now. Let’s say someone films a white shark giving birth for the first time. What’s going to change? So my question regarding data is, "How much is the right amount before conservative action is taken?" What is the grand goal we are striving for? After we film white sharks mating and know what their body temperature is at all hours of the day, what comes next? A brief headline then business as usual? Or will one of these events be the magic event that brings salvation to the species? What does the best data amount to when the powers that be ignore the advice based on that data anyway? What’s going to change? Despite what Fischer says, we know where they spend most of the year. We know which direction most of them head to when they leave and what their destination is. And we know they are still being caught on long lines, drowning in gill nets, being “accidentally” caught by fishermen (who smile and pose for pictures with their “accidental” trophies), and white sharks continue to be blatantly, outright hunted by poachers. Hey, I may have just solved Mr. Fischer's 450 million year puzzle; do away with what I just listed above and I'll bet money the white sharks will be just fine.
I’m afraid I made this sound like an attack on researchers. It’s not, it’s more of an invitation for us to all look at ourselves and question what motivates each of us. Remember I said that it is not the job of researchers to save the sharks? Remember the million dollar question at the beginning, “Who’s job is it to protect the shark?” I believe the answer is that it is the job of all of us. We are stewards of the earth and we need to start doing things because it’s the right thing to do and not because of financial or personal gain.
So the next time you hear about senators suddenly vetoing a shark protection bill they originally helped write, or hear about juvenile white sharks dying in fishing nets (in the same place, year after year), or watch a video of a shark that looks like its being mistreated, even if its in the name of science, question what you are seeing and hearing and make your voice heard.
Questions I leave you with to discuss openly here:
Is tagging the same as research? Why or why not?
What percent of research is conducted for personal interest rather than for the shark?
What is an example of past / existing data that aided the formation of a new and helpful conservation policy (they exist, I’m not saying they don’t).
Do you have an example from your geographic location (Australia, South Africa, Southern California, etc.) of advice provided by researchers that was ignored by those who establish and control policy?
Opinion to debate: Nature knows what it's doing. The best thing we can do is leave it alone.
The fine print that I promised:
*1 "There are scientists that have honed their skills within a multi-disciplinary course of study however; these people include those who study the science and policy management integration. This is the leading edge of pure science and management capabilities that combine a strategy for effective decisive action". - Jeff Reinhart, marine biologist.
*2 While a permit or research credential are not always required to initially conduct your work, once you have brought enough attention to yourself regulations may often follow.
*3 Instead, big game fishermen with a history of fishing shows get to team up with scientists badly in need of funding to experiment with controversial methods on a protected species while getting rich. According to "policy", anyone else doing this would be breaking the law.
*4 Why I disagree.
*5 Things to do with the money.
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.