Catching Sharks in Order to Save Them

Chris Fischer says his research is helping to save the ocean. His critics say he is needlessly killing great white sharks.

Ten years ago, a large research vessel motored up the California coast, bound for the Farallon Islands. The crew was armed with TV cameras, heavy-duty fishing gear, and a federal research permit that allowed them to catch and tag ten great white sharks. The procedure would involve bringing the big fish aboard the boat and bolting advanced tracking devices to their dorsal fins. Conservation advocates and other scientists worried that this rough method of handling the sharks might harm them. But the technique happened to be the centerpiece of expedition leader Chris Fischer’s grand plan to save the oceans.

Fischer has shared his vision of marine conservation in many interviews and lectures. He believes in gathering migration data on great white sharks to help identify key breeding, pupping, and feeding sites and drive policy changes to protect the species — and with them, the entire marine food web. Although great white sharks are feared by many humans, they pose us a statistically insignificant threat. Instead, by helping control populations of fish-eating seals and sea lions, these high-level predators are believed to play an important part in maintaining ecosystem health and the overall abundance of other species lower on the food chain.

“If we lose our sharks, we will lose our ocean,” Fischer said in a 2015 TEDx Talk. Or, as he flippantly put it in a March 2018 lecture, “I’m just trying to make sure that our grandchildren can eat fish sandwiches — it’s just that simple, and to do that, you gotta have data.”

To acquire that data, Fischer — the founder of the widely televised research organization Ocearch — lifts captured great whites out of the water on an elevating platform on his boat. As a hose jets water into their mouths, providing some oxygen flow through their gills, the crew applies a tag and takes various samples and measurements.

As Fischer neared the Farallones — one of the world’s hotspots for viewing and studying great whites, which gather here to hunt seals and sea lions — outcry erupted. Scientists and conservationists who value the great white shark warned that Fischer’s tagging method was liable to seriously hurt a shark. And it did.

On Oct. 29, 2009, a 14-foot male great white well known to local researchers and cage dive operators swallowed Fischer’s baited hook, about the size of a Kryptonite U-lock, and engorged the large red buoy used to float the bait. The shark, choking on hook, chain and bobber, was lifted onto the research vessel, where the crewmen, following their standard procedure, bolted a satellite position and temperature, or SPOT, tag onto his dorsal fin and took blood samples. Another crewman slipped giant bolt cutters through the fish’s gill slits to cut the hook, which was embedded in his throat. Video footage of the event shows the ordeal in close-up detail, including a shot of one crewman forcibly trying to pry open the shark’s mouth with a metal bar.

The shark — which was named Junior in a tag-and-track database — reappeared a year later, looking lean and unfed and with a festering wound on the right side of his jaw and a sagging dorsal fin. Fischer’s detractors believed, and still, do that the capture of Junior injured his jaw and caused the gory infection. Fischer’s defenders said Junior had been attacked by other sharks.

The Farallones debacles brought to public attention the risks of applying SPOT tags to such large fish as adult great whites, and it fueled an ethical dispute between researchers. Sharks matter for ecosystem health, everyone agreed, and learning more about them is important — but to what extent is it worth hurting them to gain more data, they asked?

The disagreement remains unresolved, and the spotlight on Junior hardly cost Fischer and his team public sympathy. Rather, they would become television stars on National Geographic and the History Channel, with their outings often featured in the media during the annual primetime television frenzy of the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” which begins this year on July 28. The late star Paul Walker of The Fast and the Furious joined an early expedition to provide some extra TV eye candy, and in the decade-plus since, Ocearch has collaborated with numerous researchers and produced volumes of migration data on numerous species, including turtles, marine mammals, and other sharks. Even accidentally killing a great white in South Africa in 2012 hardly dented its general audience appeal. Fischer, whose boat has been called the Ocearch since 2012, has become a cult-status TV star — an ocean-conservation icon who talks like a motivational speaker, has 23,000 Twitter followers, has compared himself to Jacques Cousteau, and says his work is supporting science that could save entire ocean ecosystems from collapse. To date, Ocearch has tagged nearly 150 great white sharks and more than 400 marine animals in total.

Fischer said his tracking data is more accurate than that of just about every other research outfit. Combined with the results of the blood tests and other sampling conducted on the restrained animals, Ocearch, he argues, is eclipsing the efforts of other scientists.

“We’ll learn more in five years what they’ve learned in the previous 30,” Fischer said.

But there are other ways to tag and track sharks that don’t require hooking or catching them, and Fischer’s critics have suggested he favors SPOT tagging because it involves an action-packed process seemingly made for television.

It also has never been entirely clear how, exactly, Ocearch is helping great whites in the United States. The sharks are already highly protected in U.S. waters, as they are in most of the world. Though they still routinely die in nets and on baited hooks in some parts of the world, great whites’ numbers are believed to be stable or even increasing in North America.

“They’re doing quite well,” said Marin County shark researcher Scot Anderson, who has participated in white shark tagging projects. He said there may not be a great deal more to learn from tagging them today. “I’m not sure great whites need to be studied much more,” he said. “They’re one of the most studied sharks, period, because of their notoriety.”

Bay Area filmmaker Skyler Thomas, an animal rights activist and one of Ocearch’s most persistent critics, thinks Fischer’s efforts are doing more harm than good to sharks.

“How many sharks does he need to tag?” asked Thomas, whose new film The Shame of Point Reyes addresses land use controversies in the national seashore. “At this point we need to protect sharks from researchers, or fishermen posing as researchers.”

Thomas is just one of many people who believe the organization has killed multiple great whites in Mexico, South Africa, and on a recent East Coast expedition.

Robert Hueter, Ocearch’s chief scientist and a senior scientist at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, in Sarasota, Florida, said allegations that Ocearch is causing harm to great whites are unfounded.

“We’re a science-based organization, so I ask, ‘Where’s the evidence?'” he said. Though Thomas’s many anti-Ocearch videos are heavily woven with snarky language and a clear bias against animal research, they do seem to show evidence that Ocearch could have killed or badly injured more than just the one great white in South Africa. Many of his YouTube videos, pieced together with Ocearch’s own footage, show great whites thrashing in the water, dragging buoys in footage reminiscent of Jaws, leaking blood from hook wounds, and swinging their tails wildly on the research platform. A few clips show what appear to be sharks badly traumatized by their captors.

Heidi Dewar, a shark researcher with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, likens the process of being SPOT-tagged to “an alien abduction — they’re getting pulled out of the water onto a ship and getting probed.”


The Death of Maya

Fischer insists his work is for the greater good. He said just because great whites are thriving in some places doesn’t mean tracking them now couldn’t benefit the species in the future. New fisheries are proposed and opened from time to time, and he said he wants to be sure hooks, lines, and nets aren’t put in the water in critical aggregation zones.

He added that some of his loudest detractors — he specifically named Thomas — are motivated by emotional reactions to work they don’t fully understand.

“The path to abundance for white sharks and anything else is not an emotional journey,” he said. “It’s science and math, and if you don’t have the datasets, you can’t do the math.”

If Fischer’s word is taken as gospel, he, his crew, and their research strategies represent the silver bullet to saving sharks, and the ocean.

“There is much to be done,” Fischer said in 2013, “and if not us, then who?”

Fischer speaks in a unique manner, using active verbs that highlight his entrepreneurial self-confidence and his success. When discussing abstract concepts of information and science, he speaks of maximizing gains, exploding the data, leveraging policy, and disrupting standard approaches to research. He likes to say an inch is a cinch and a yard is hard, and that the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.

He can also pretty much talk down every criticism of his methods and results. When presented with allegations that he’s hurt sharks, he pushes back hard, accusing detractors of having their own underlying motives, and he more or less disregards much of academia, past and present. Many scientists, he said, are more concerned with their own research and the competitive race for funding than with the pure hunt for knowledge.

“It’s, ‘Me, me, me first — I don’t care if my kids get to eat fish sandwiches,'” he said.

Fischer’s goal, he said, is to “disrupt” this system by bringing scientists together on one boat and making the data they produce public. The working strategy is to collaborate with local researchers and provide a platform for scientists who may lack their own resources to venture out to sea and study sharks.

“Some of these scientists have no boat, no money,” he said. “We give them that.”

Scientists working aboard the Ocearch have produced a collection of papers published in a variety of reputable journals. Fischer claims his shark tagging work has helped lead to tighter restrictions on potentially harmful fishing. A marine reserve in southern Baja was expanded to encompass the nighttime forays of local tiger sharks, he said, (though Ocearch’s tagging database show no tigers tagged in the area). Near the Galapagos Islands, he said, an experimental longline fishery was shut down after a silky shark tagged by Ocearch in 2014 was caught and killed by local fisherman six months later. Local officials had been debating the ban for years.

Currently, Ocearch is focusing on the waters of the Eastern Seaboard. Here, they are aiming for a sample size of about 60 tagged great whites.

“We still have about 20 to go,” Hueter said.

The work, he said, is “hypothesis-driven” and involves 17 different projects studying migrations, aggregation sites, genetic variations between regional groups, contaminant concentrations in their blood and flesh, and more.

Not everyone is impressed by the work. Erich Ritter, a shark behaviorist with the University of West Florida, described much of the published work associated with the Ocearch’s research deck as “lame.”

“They’re just tagging the sharks — they say, ‘He went from A to B,'” he said. “Okay, great. We already know that sharks swim.”

To catch, sample, and tag their fish, the Ocearch crew floats a large piece of bait under a buoy. When a shark bites, the circle hook ideally rolls into the corner of the mouth and lodges there, and then the fight begins. Eventually, a smaller boat, called Contender, is deployed to secure the shark and bring it back to the mothership. The sharks — seen thrashing and roiling the surface in dramatic footage — wear themselves out as the crew holds onto the rope like men playing tug-of-war, although Ocearch has insisted the process doesn’t stress the fish.

“There’s a bit of a fight, but we’re not dragging these animals against their will to the ship,” Hueter said.

Fischer said the same thing.

“They walk along behind the Contender like a dog on a leash,” he said.

The shark is finally maneuvered over the submerged research platform. Water rushes out the slats of the deck as it elevates, and the shark — often still thrashing and swinging its tail — becomes locked in place by gravity.

In more than one video clip of great whites being brought aboard, crew members are heard yelling that the shark is “mad” or “pissed.”

A photo from 2007 shows a big female named Amy, just caught in Mexico, on Fischer’s research platform, where her belly spills outward behind her pectoral fin. The crew is posed behind her, looking like a rugby team — burly men celebrating, stoked on adrenaline, hands in the air and clenched in fists. The expedition’s lead researcher, Michael Domeier — who broke ties with Ocearch a few years later, supposedly over a dispute about data ownership — is displaying the shaka-hang loose sign while the late actor Walker is crouched behind the shark’s enormous glistening head, flexing his biceps in the classic bodybuilder pose.

It was this kind of imagery that drew Skyler Thomas’s attention at the time and prompted his video-based campaign against the organization.

“I was like, ‘There’s no way they’re going to allow this to happen in the U.S.,'” he said.

But Fischer’s team didn’t only come to California. They went hunting for data along the Eastern Seaboard and in Canada, Chile, Australia, South Africa, and other regions. Fischer left a few disgruntled collaborators behind him.

He has also left at least one dead shark. That was Maya. Caught in South Africa, she died immediately after her release from the boat. The mortality was featured on Shark Wranglers. Ocearch later named another South African white shark Maya — something that might suggest there was no dead shark. In fact, the dead Maya is entirely absent from Ocearch’s tracker database.

To the critics of Ocearch, Maya’s death confirmed what can happen to sharks caught and SPOT tagged. The question they now ponder is whether it has happened other times. Thomas said he thinks six or seven adult great whites have died as a result of Ocearch handling. This is speculation based in part on private conversations he had with people who claimed they worked on the Ocearch. Thomas said that one source who participated in a Mexican voyage 12 years ago witnessed up close a tagged great white sink from the research platform with blood pouring out its anus. He said it’s “asinine on behalf of all of us to assume only the one shark died.”

Chris Fallows, a wildlife photographer in South Africa, said in an email “at least two great white sharks, possibly three, were killed by them during their work.”

“I think the worst part of all is that absolutely no good came out of the project and the data, now 8 years on, is still to be published,” he added. “It was argued at the time that the stress and damage to the sharks would be worth it as the conservation gains would be huge. Nothing at all has happened and right now great whites in South Africa are in the worst state they have ever been in.” Fallows is referring to a mysterious population crash over the past four years. Once so abundant that tourists could reliably expect to see them leaping from the water while attacking seals and other pinnipeds, South Africa’s great whites have all but vanished. Some hypothesize that orcas have killed or chased away the great whites. Others blame local longline fishing fleets.

On YouTube there is a clip of chilling seafloor footage showing a large white shark that appears to be nearly dead. The female great white, filmed by an Ocearch ROV in clear but deep, dark water, has apparently been released from the boat. The shark’s underside is badly bruised with grill-like markings from the research deck, seen also on other sharks photographed onboard the boat. She lies upside down, gills fluttering weakly, and rolling back and forth with the ocean waves. Thomas provides speculative narration, in which he notes the shark “looks like a rotting corpse.” Then, she manages to lift off the bottom and swim into the gloom.

Fischer, who posted on Facebook about the footage, said that shark was Edna — a great white that his crew tracked on a migration along the coast of South Africa between April and June of 2012. Why the SPOT tag quit sending out data after just six weeks may be anyone’s guess. Often, algae quickly grows over the tags and fouls their transmitting capacity — but a shark that dies generally sinks, which would also forever silence the SPOT tag. In the video, Thomas points out that there doesn’t appear to be a tag on the shark’s fin — a tendril of unsolved mystery.

There is also a cryptic piece of vague testimony regarding two or three dead sharks on Ocearch’s New York voyage. This allegation hides furtively on the Internet in an online brochure from the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival. The pamphlet describes a short documentary film called Shark Mate. The director is identified as Jeff Panella, the producer as Sam Redmond, and the film’s synopsis says the documentary “was produced in response to Ocearch’s ‘NY Expedition’ last summer… [D]uring the expedition, two juvenile White Sharks died amid the tagging and sampling process. We suspect a third juvenile died, but we lack the proof to firmly make that claim.”

At minute 1:50 of the film, uploaded to Vimeo in April, 2018 by Panella, a baby great white, about four feet long, is shown lying upside-down and motionless in about a foot of sloshing water on the deck of the Ocearch. The narrator claims to have seen “first-hand the inherent conflict that arises when humans remove sharks from their natural habitat to perform scientific research.”

Panella was contacted by this reporter and did not respond.

Presented with this written testimony, Fischer recalled a baby shark of the 19 they tagged that disappeared or died about a week later, miles away. He said a trawler might have scooped up the fish.

“We did not have any one of them, like, die on the deck,” he said.

He added, “We’ve handled 500 sharks and we’ve had, I don’t know — pick a number — three that died. That’s a mortality rate of less than a percent.”

The benefits to science and future generations, Fischer argued, outweigh such a sacrifice.

“Some people don’t put the rest of the world first,” he said.


A Better Kind of Tag?

Many scientists and activists have questioned the cost-to-benefit value of catching big fish and attaching SPOT tags to them. SPOT tags usually last five or six years, much longer than their alternative, so-called pop-off satellite tags that are applied by jabbing a hand-lance at the back of a free-swimming shark. Although the longer living SPOT tags often become fouled with algae within months, they also can capture multi-year migration cycles of great whites that pop-off tags cannot. Pop-off tags, because they are applied hastily with one quick jab, may fall out within hours or days.

Still, for all the virtues of SPOT tags, some argue that the post-release effects on shark behavior or simply the risk to the animals of applying the more advanced devices make the operation not worth it.

“I’d rather lose a transmitter early than risk losing a shark,” said Sean Van Sommeran, founder of the Pelagic Research Foundation in Santa Cruz.

Pop-off tags, which eventually break off the shark and float to the surf, produced groundbreaking migration data years before SPOT tags became trendy. In the early 2000s, Van Sommeran put pop-off satellite tags into four great whites that were eventually tracked on a migration from California to Hawaii, helping reveal to scientists the mid-ocean aggregation zone that is now referred to as the White Shark Café.

Van Sommeran and Dewar recently collaborated on a study of basking sharks using pop-off tags, which remain a relevant tool in science. They can even produce information that SPOT tags can’t. By recording light and pressure readings, pop-off tags can tell scientists the depth at which the shark was swimming at any given moment.

“With SPOT tags you don’t get those three-dimensional movements, those vertical movements through the water column,” said Gregory Skomal, a biologist and white shark expert with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries who worked with Fischer for two seasons.

In 2003, scientist Ramón Bonfil used a pop-off satellite tag to follow a shark he nicknamed Nicole 7,000 miles from South Africa to Australia. The same shark was later visually identified back in South Africa.

But Fischer says data from pop-offs are all but worthless. The locations they provide are calculated based on light levels and day length. Computer algorithms figure in local noon time versus the hour in Greenwich to produce longitude readings, and the results are approximate locations; Fischer said they can be off by more than 120 miles.

In fact, he said, he thinks little of Bonfil’s paper that showed the South Africa-Australia migration. “It was a sample size of one — you can’t do anything with that,” he said.

Of the dozens of great whites that Ocearch tagged in South Africa, Fischer said none of them traveled a route similar to that which Bonfil described. With pop-off tags, Fischer said, “you know where you put it on, and where it popped off, and that’s good, but you have no idea what the shark did in between.”

“We’ve defined the full range of the South African white shark — we know where they go,” he said.

Fischer also pointed out that his work involves so much more than tagging, too. Removing them from the water is essential, he said.

Researchers have speculated for years that large sharks, immobilized on a boat deck for tagging and sampling, could injure their own internal organs or unborn pups. Fischer called such speculation “total Facebook social media fantasy.” He said blood sampling conducted while the shark is onboard suggest show little indication that the fish are stressed out.

Still, scientist Enrico Gennari, director of the Oceans Research Institute in Mossel Bay, South Africa, thinks Ocearch’s scientists should bear a greater burden of proof.

“The absence of evidence on the impact of lifting the sharks out of the water doesn’t mean there is not such an impact,” said Gennari, who worked with Ocearch in 2012 and helped catch and tag 16 great whites. “Similarly, the fact we don’t have proof of where white sharks mate doesn’t mean white sharks don’t mate.”

Ralph Collier, a shark expert with the Shark Research Committee, speaking to Thomas in a video on YouTube, said he has seen a number of sharks captured for aquarium displays die of internal bleeding caused by handling.

Fischer said the key reason they lift the sharks from the water is to calm them and reduce their stress levels. He said sharks SPOT tagged while restrained at the boat side, still in the water, continue to struggle “because they still think they can get away.” Still, some scientists — including Domeier, the researcher who worked with Fischer in the early years — now apply SPOT tags this way.

Van Sommeran suspects that producing marketable TV footage has played a role in influencing Fischer’s methods.

“It just made for better television to have the shark hooked and thrashing, and then there’s the pursuit and they drag it back, and then the guy with the Levis and no shirt jumps in and grabs the line,” Van Sommeran said. “It was all so much cooler than just jabbing it with a lance.”

SPOT tag data arrives in real time, “pinging” each time the shark’s dorsal fin breaks the surface.

“But you have to be careful with those locations,” Skomal said, “because they can be wrong.”

He cited a widely publicized event in May when Ocearch received a signal from a great white that was apparently in Long Island Sound — an unusual, if not unprecedented, occurrence.

“No white shark has ever been reported from Long Island Sound, and this went right up on social media and out to all their press people, and it became a huge media splash,” Skomal said.

But he says he studied the data and that the historic Long Island ping, covered by The New York Times, USA Today, ABC, NBC and more outlets, was an error.

“The next location they got from that fish was on the outside of Long Island, as was the one prior to the Long Island Sound one,” he said. “The bottom line is, it was physically impossible for the shark to go into Long Island Sound and then come back out again in that time. Any well-balanced objective scientists would have drawn that conclusion and not run to the press — you wait for more signals, but if your intent is to get a data point onto social media, well it worked.”


A Lifeless Abyss of Ocean

Ocearch has been SPOT tagging great whites for 12 years now.

Thomas thinks the time has come for the outfit to dock its boat and focus on assembling its data into legislative proposals to protect great whites where they remain threatened. For instance, the sharks are still routinely caught and killed by the Kwazulu-Natal Sharks Board, which strings nets along swimming beaches in South Africa to protect swimmers — an issue that he says Ocearch has largely ignored. Australia also has launched a great white culling program. Curiously, the nation denied Ocearch permission to tag great whites there, and Fischer focused on tiger sharks when Down Under.

Gennari said he believes Ocearch’s work could be potentially beneficial to shark conservation, and he said he feels Ocearch now has an informed opportunity to drive policy changes for the betterment of sharks. Gennari pointed out that two of the nearly 40 great whites that Ocearch tagged in South Africa are known to have been caught and killed in neighboring Mozambique.

“Maybe the social media following that Ocearch has could be used more to leverage the governments [of South Africa and Mozambique] to take action,” Gennari said.

In terms of helping great whites in the United States, Skomal said it would be hard to tighten protections any more than they are.

“White sharks have been afforded by the National Marine Fisheries Service the highest level of protection, so the data that we’re collecting now, on both coasts, is really not going to create further levels of protection for white sharks,” Skomal said.

Fischer has long cited critical data gaps as his calling to the sea, and he still does. He said he is working “in an era of data deficits.”

Without apex predators, Fischer has said many times, the oceans would collapse. He has warned that losing sharks would produce “a lifeless abyss of ocean,” and the countless pings being generated by Ocearch’s tagged animals will ostensibly help this avert grim future.

“We lack data,” he said, “we are running out of time.”

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