The recent white shark population study from South Africa and the rebuttal from other South African researchers brings to the surface a question that constantly swims in the back of my head.
When does data collection begin and conservation begin?
Accurate data, is of course desired, and the efforts of many researchers should be commended, but historically speaking there will always be debates regarding population studies (this isn’t the first study to come out of South Africa indicating low numbers for white sharks by the way, in fact one of the same names involved in that study are debating the new study). Science doesn’t always agree with science. Furthermore, as long as lobbyists exist scientists will continuously be sent back to the field to get “better and more convincing data" until they are finally tasked with proving to politicians that a population of two isn’t enough to sustain a species.
Are we on a hamster wheel of studying animals as they disappear from the earth?
As studies rage on a seemingly insurmountable number of survival obstacles continue to stack up against sharks; Climate change, decimated food resources, habitat destruction, long lining, seine nets, super trawlers, the tuna industry, the finning industry, culling, poaching, legal fishing, and the one we all seem to forget…natural mortality (just because a shark is born and not killed by a human doesn’t mean it survives).
Not so long ago a different study was released based on California’s white shark population indicating that the North Pacific’s numbers were low. This study also gained international attention…and scrutiny.
What that study accomplished was to temporarily increase protection for white sharks (moving their classification from vulnerable to endangered). Guess who was the most upset about this protection? Researchers. And who is making the biggest fuss in South Africa? Researchers.
In California it is was Marine CSI making the most noise. In South Africa the members of the “White Shark Research Group” are the ones complaining. If the goal of research is to find a way to protect the species one might naturally wonder why researchers would be so upset about the animals receiving increased protection.
My opinion on the matter has admittedly been influenced by interviews with researchers who previously were involved in white shark tagging programs and chose to walk away from tagging completely. Why? The realization that continuing to tag (and potentially harm) the animals was not yielding conservation results. As Chris Fallows puts it, “Who’s benefitting, the researchers or the sharks?”
Now let’s take another look at Marine CSI and the South Africa Research Group. Marine CSI made their mark when they got on TV with Chris Fischer and OCEARCH, allowing the fishing team to use their research permit to hook and haul great white sharks onto the deck of boats to drill SPOT tags into the dorsal fins. Now look at the names on the list of the “White Shark Research Group”, several of which off the top of my head also worked with OCEARCH when they took their TV show to South Africa to continue more of the same invasive research. Theory being that these researchers don’t like the idea that they might not get to continue their invasive research.
So is it about the sharks or about research-based careers?
In 1991 the white shark was protected in South Africa as a result of a social movement. They’ve been studied ever since and received no further protection despite what has or hasn’t been learned. And all you OCEARCH fans out there - none of you have been able to produce evidence of conservation being achieved through any organization that has collaborated with them other than the generic statement of saying “it creates awareness”. Great. That’s as meaningless a statement as Trump saying “Let’s make America great again."
There may be more white sharks than any of us ever guessed and there may be fewer. But do we have to wait until everyone agrees they are critically endangered to make a move? Would it be so terrible to have a species other than our own flourish? As is stands there are more humans in the skyscraper I’m typing this blog in than there are white sharks on the planet, and that is sad.