Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Code named "Oceania" this unique and remote dive site, featuring very large white sharks, resides in the southern hemisphere during a 3-6 month shark diving season.
Stay tuned and expect a very Happy New Year.
Video courtesy of Richard Theiss RTSea Productions.
A "few" within the commercial shark diving community have questioned Shark Divers quotes here, suggesting that the motives behind our involvement are to sell shark trips or ad hoc slams for some nefarious and undefined purpose.
To those "few" who sit idly by while sharks are hurt, damaged, or treated badly in the name of science, commercial shark diving or television, we say "get off your ass."
It is up to us as a shark diving community to enforce respect and safe keeping for sharks. If that means getting in front of unpopular issues it is called leadership - as long as it is in the service of the sharks. In this case Shark Diver saw no reason not to get involved and have our say on an issue that involved a research/reality television caught shark with "the worlds largest circle hook" left embedded in it's throat.
We were not alone.
There are two kinds of shark diving operators, underwater photographers, and shark conservation folks. Those who are involved and engaged in the service of the animals we make a living with and those who sit on the side lines and take mediocre shots at the rest.
Let's make 2010 the year we stopped "sitting on the sidelines," and if you are unsure when to act there's almost 1900 blog posts here at Underwater Thrills going back two full years of conservation action, leadership, and discussion for your review.
When the chips are down for sharks in our region, we do not just talk about it, we do something about it. That's been the case since 2002, and will continue to be the case:
In late 2007, when local shark researcher Michael Domeier teamed up with a television crew and National Geographic to tag great white sharks off Guadalupe Island, Patric Douglas took an interest. Douglas runs a cage-diving tourist operation out of San Diego. Each fall he takes his clients to the island, 250 miles southwest of Ensenada, 150 miles off the coast. He also works with movie and TV production companies that are filming sharks. Douglas has supported several shark-research projects, including Domeier’s.
But when Douglas learned that Fischer Productions — an outdoor adventure film company based in Park City, Utah — was funding the expedition, providing the vessel, and bringing Hollywood actor Paul Walker, star of The Fast and the Furious, on board, he lost faith in the project.
“Is this science, or is this a TV show with some science thrown in?” asks Douglas.
Domeier, founder and executive director of the Marine Conservation Science Institute in Fallbrook, has been studying great white sharks for almost a decade. From 2000 to 2007, he tagged the animals at Guadalupe Island using a handheld tagging pole — a common technique — but late in 2007 he began deploying advanced Spot (Smart Position or Temperature Transmitting) tags onto the fish. Spot-tagging involves catching the fish on a baited hook, lifting the shark onto a vessel, and bolting a transmitter to its dorsal fin. Every time the tagged shark surfaces, allowing the device to touch the air, the Spot tag sends a signal to a satellite. The satellite, in turn, instantly emails researchers, providing real-time information on individual shark movement. Spot tags may last years longer than other transmitters, making them valuable research tools. Scientists have deployed them onto smaller fish, including salmon sharks and hammerheads of several hundred pounds.
However, the stress imparted to an animal during tagging is a drawback, and the larger the animal, the greater the potential for stress-related injuries. It can take an hour or more to reel in a large white shark, which may weigh more than two tons. Then the shark may spend 20 minutes out of the water, a hose placed inside its mouth to hydrate its gills with fresh seawater. Douglas is concerned that Domeier’s research could injure or kill the fish, and he is suspicious of Domeier’s relationship with a camera crew.
“It’s not uncommon for a TV show to donate money to a researcher and then tag along and watch the scientist do his thing,” says Douglas. “But what’s morally suspect and ethically suspect about Domeier’s project is that Fischer Productions is running this show.”
On November 16, National Geographic aired the first of 11 television episodes featuring Domeier, Walker, and other crew members as they placed large circle hooks baited with mammal flesh into the waters of the Guadalupe Island Biosphere Reserve, caught several great white sharks, and bolted Spot tags into their dorsal fins. Chris Moore, line producer for Fischer Productions, says that the entire first season has been filmed, with ten episodes scheduled to air beginning in July 2010.
By fall of this year, Domeier had placed 15 Spot tags on Guadalupe Island white sharks. Then, in late October, the team traveled north to the Farallon Islands, off San Francisco, with permission from federal and state authorities to catch and tag as many as ten of the otherwise-protected sharks in the waters of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
But on October 29, the team botched its first catch when a 13-foot great white shark swallowed the bait and, after almost an hour on the line and roughly 20 minutes on board the boat, could only be released after the crew clipped the hook via bolt cutters inserted through one of the shark’s gill slits. The shark eventually swam away with a portion of a large circle hook lodged in its throat. Domeier landed and tagged a second shark three days later before agents with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration halted the project.
Douglas believes the health of the first shark has been compromised.
“I don’t think you can leave 60 percent of the world’s largest circle hook in the gut of a shark and know that [the shark] is safe. The future of that animal is now in grave doubt.”
Dr. Ken Goldman, a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, has tagged sharks off Northern California. He also believes white sharks may be injured by Spot-tagging.
“There’s a chance of the animal being decked and suffering organ damage, and it could easily rupture its liver and you wouldn’t know,” he says.
Goldman once saw a white shark off the coast of South Australia, recently caught and released, in a near-death state of exhaustion. His foremost concern about Domeier’s research is that Spot-tagged sharks may swim away from the operation exhausted, unable to maintain basic vascular functions, and as a result experience a steep decline in body temperature, which averages a stable 74 degrees Fahrenheit in white sharks, according to Goldman.
“And if a white shark can’t maintain that core temperature, it dies,” he says.
Late last month, Domeier was back at Guadalupe Island with cameras rolling. Fischer Productions and Domeier are tagging more sharks and compiling new footage with the hope of producing a second season in 2011, says line producer Chris Moore.
Domeier maintains that Spot tags will add substantially to the work he and others have already conducted with simpler forms of devices. In late November, he explained via email that he suspects that the Guadalupe great whites may move through the Pacific on a two-year migratory cycle — a time period that only Spot tags can reliably record, he said.
“Effective international white shark conservation requires us to find out where these mature females are spending their time when they do not return to the adult aggregation sites,” he wrote. “We cannot understand the threats they face without knowing precisely where they are during this time. The Spot tagging methods I have developed will allow us to track individuals for up to 6 years.”
Domeier asserts that all white sharks he has Spot-tagged have been proven to be alive after the procedure, each animal generating the satellite pings indicative of a live, swimming shark.
“The level of temporary stress we subject these fish to is unfortunate, but the scientific advancements are well worth the effort,” he wrote by email. “Our tracking data has proven these sharks quickly resume their normal behavior.”
During Domeier’s earlier white shark research at Guadalupe Island, he tagged 75 animals using handheld tagging poles. The satellite tags released from the sharks between 15 and 246 days after deployment, and 9 devices were later recovered, providing data on white shark migratory behavior. At least five of the tagged animals had swum as far west as Hawaii before returning to the Mexican island, and when Domeier and coauthor Nicole Lucas published their findings in October 2008 in the Marine Ecology Progress Series, they added substantially to the amassing scientific knowledge of the life habits and movement patterns of white sharks.
Scientists have been tracking great white sharks for years. A group called Tagging of Pacific Predators, based in Northern California, put transmitters into 179 Northern California great white sharks between 2000 and 2008 and in November published findings on the migratory patterns of the fish. Sean Van Sommeran, founder of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, has inserted approximately 50 identification tags and transmitters into white sharks using handheld tagging poles as they swam past his boat.
“We’ve been tagging them by hand from a boat for 15 years,” says Van Sommeran. “It’s the best way. It’s less invasive, doesn’t stress the animal, and has produced an avalanche of data. We barely touch the sharks.”
Goldman, the fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, conducted transmitter research on white sharks in the 1990s at the Farallon Islands.
“I really wonder how much more information they can get off the Spot tags than from the other kinds of satellite tags already in use that don’t require lifting this heavy fish from the water,” he says.
Mike Lever is, like Douglas, a cage-diving guide, whose vessel, Nautilus Explorer, is based in Ensenada. In 2008, Lever donated $14,000 to Domeier’s work, hoping to assist in understanding the species upon which his livelihood depends. But Lever also has doubts about the safety of white sharks undergoing Spot-tagging.
“I believe in pricking a shark with a spear and receiving tracking data for years afterward, but do we need to be hauling sharks onto boats for the same goal?” says Lever. “The big question is, Are the sharks okay afterward?”
Domeier contends that his work has been criticized unfairly, as other researchers have Spot-tagged large animals. Researchers have placed Spot tags on 400-pound salmon sharks. University of California at Davis biologists have Spot-tagged eight-foot-long hammerheads at the Galapagos. And the Tag-A-Giant Foundation, based in New York, has deployed dozens of pop-off tags onto half-ton bluefin tuna, caught on rod and reel and lifted onto the deck of a vessel.
“These very same colleagues use the exact same methods as I on other species that have similar conservation status, but for some reason it is OK,” Domeier wrote by email.
Even before Domeier began his current research, Spot-tagging had a cloudy history at Guadalupe Island. In 2006, an independent researcher, Dr. Ramón Bonfil, pulled a white shark from the water and placed a Spot tag on the animal as part of another National Geographic film project. The shark, a 16-foot female well known to the Guadalupe Island cage-diving community and nicknamed “Clytie,” has not been seen since.
Other researchers currently study great white sharks at the island. Dr. Mauricio Hoyos, an independently funded biologist from La Paz, is tracking the local movements of Guadalupe Island white sharks via acoustic tags, which are deployed with a simple stab at the dorsal muscles with a handheld lance and which emit a signal each time a tagged shark passes near a subsurface receiver. The data provided by such tags is limited — a presence or absence of the animal. Hoyos could not be reached for comment, but a field assistant, UC Davis biotelemetry grad student James Ketchum, acknowledged the great value of tracking animals across the ocean via Spot tags.
“But I don’t think they need to lift the shark out of the water,” says Ketchum, who believes Spot-tagging could cause internal injuries. “I think they could keep the shark in the water in a sling as they bolt in the tag, but what they’re doing is very sensationalist. It’s something that sells.”
The SFMI works with marinas, boaters and fishermen to develop policy designed to protect sharks as a vital component of the oceans health. The SFMI has a singular purpose, to reduce worldwide shark mortality. Working with marinas, fishermen and like minded non-profit groups, the Initiative forms community conscious policy and increase awareness of the need to encourage shark conservation.
Shark Free Marinas work with, not against, the recreational and commercial fishing community, in order to raise awareness of the importance of a healthy shark population for our oceans, and to contribute to their ongoing survival.
Matava, together with partners in Fiji, has helped many marinas and charter fishing boats become SFMI certified, and Fiji now has more certified Shark-Free Marinas than any other country in the world. Stuart Gow, Director of Matava, said that his team has been actively promoting the SFMI, and distributing information about the Initiative, with the long-term goal of making Fiji “the first country to be proud to announce itself as a ‘Shark-Free Marinas’ Country”.
See the map of current Shark-Free Marinas
The majority of shark species caught by recreational and sport anglers are currently listed by the IUCN as “Threatened” (or worse) and each year, half a million of these sharks are killed in the US alone. It is estimated that 70-100 million sharks are killed yearly worldwide.
See IUCN Red List of Threatened Shark Species
Matava is an eco adventure getaway in Fiji, offering a unique blend of cultural experiences and adventure activities in the pristine and remote island of Kadavu, Fiji. Matava is a PADI Dive Resort as well as a Project AWARE GoEco Operator, a title awarded to demonstrate a commitment to conservation and provide customers with experiences that enhance visitor awareness, appreciation and understanding of the environment. Matava is also one of the supporters of the Fiji Shark Conservation and Awareness Project, which aims to raise global awareness of their imminent extinction of sharks and the crises facing our oceans.
With more than 12 years experience in the Fiji Islands, Matava is recognized as a leading educational dive center. Matava is participating in TIES ecoDestinations project (currently featuring “beaches, marine and coastal ecotourism experience”) as one of the Summer Special 2009 sponsors.
Underwater Thrills:Swimming With Sharks: “No Caught Shark Allowed”: Matava leading the Shark Free Marina Initiative in Fiji
It's all in the DNA:
Millions of shark fins are sold at market each year to satisfy the demand for shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, but it has been impossible to pinpoint which sharks from which regions are most threatened by this trade.
Now, groundbreaking new DNA research has, for the first time, traced scalloped hammerhead shark fins from the burgeoning Hong Kong market all the way back to the sharks geographic origin. In some cases the fins were found to come from endangered populations thousands of miles away. These breakthrough findings provide strong evidence for enacting international trade protection for hammerhead sharks at the March 2010 CITES meeting in Qatar.
The programme was created in 2006 when four young, British university graduates set off to the 1192 island archipelago on a pilot study in search of the whale shark, after a tip off from the dive industry (already well established in the Maldives) that there were a substantial number of whale sharks throughout the country and that not one person was studying them or their behaviour. After a huge amount of research, reality struck – there was nothing known about this magnificent species anywhere in the world – anything these guys could learn would help to further protection efforts for an already ‘vulnerable species’.At that time, the guys did not know exactly what they were about to stumble across. But it would soon become apparent that the rich ecosystem of the Maldives played host to a year-round aggregation of the largest fish in the Ocean, a fact very few places in the world can claim – the majority of whale shark aggregation sites around the world, such as Ningaloo Reef, Australia, are only seasonal ‘hot spots’.
Why the sharks choose to inhabit Maldivian waters throughout the year is still not known, although the MWSRP does have its plausible hypothesis. What is known is that the Maldives is a globally significant whale shark aggregation site, possibly the best place in the world to see and study these animals.
In 2007, the guys again returned to the picture-perfect chain of islands to continue logging whale shark encounters. This time they secured sponsorship from Conrad Rangali Island - a resort with a great passion for protecting the environment. Conrad would and, to this day, continue to prove their commitment to the cause by providing logistical support to make the in-filed research possible.
The team also initiated a collaborative genetic analysis study with Dr Jennifer Schmidt in an attempt to determine how related the whale sharks in the Maldives are to others in the Indian Ocean. The team encountered over sixty whale sharks in the two-month expedition and managed to collect sixteen skin samples from different individuals.
They would also begin to realise the very real threats that the sharks and the ecosystem faced, especially in South Ari Atoll.
With that in mind the guys vowed to return the following year.2008 became a real turning point for the MWSRP. The data collected over the previous two years enabled the MWSRP to bring the issues to the government’s attention and together with the tour and dive industries they developed ‘Whale Shark Encounter Guidelines’ in an attempt to make the explosion of whale shark tourism sustainable. The Maldivian government also pledged their support for the programme and invited the MWSRP to develop a Marine Protected Area proposal for South Ari’s whale shark ‘hotspot’.
The guys had also been busy working with the community and it was beginning to have tangible results - they were realising the ecological importance of the whale shark. Until quite recently, Maldivians used to hunt the whale shark for their liver oil. The older generation can vividly remember when a whale shark was caught, “It was a real community event. The whole island would come to the beach to help drag the shark over the reef and onto the beach where it would be cut open”.
The MWSRP guys realised that they needed to re-establish a connection between Maldivians and the whale shark to be able to achieve their goals. They also began to understand the issues the local people faced – a lack of employment and educational opportunities, no real way of providing power to their islands sustainably, no waste management systems and no direct benefits from the tourism exploiting their natural resources. One particular conversation, with a fifteen year old student, was the programme’s educational focus. When asked which career path he would take his reply was, “I want to be a doctor but I cannot because there are very few higher education opportunities in Maldives. I will end up working in a resort”.
A second collaboration was also instigated in 2008, this time with Dr Brent Stewart (Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, CA) to begin the first whale shark tagging project in the Maldives, a project that would be instrumental in the development of South Ari Atoll’s Marine Protected Area (MPA). Dr Stewart would also become a trusted friend and integral part of the MWSRP team and advisory committee.
The tag tracks showed that the sharks were highly mobile but the tagged animals always returned to the South Ari Atoll, highlighting the Maldives as a preferential habitat for the whale shark. This data, combined with the MWSRP’s three years of photo identification work, collectively heightened the MWSRP’s excitement that the sharks utilising Maldivian waters may be a resident population.
Even with all of the programme’s success, the year proved to be a one of transition. It was clear that to make a real difference the MWSRP would need to commit one hundred percent, but with no resources and a lack of funding it would be a real gamble.
The draw of doing “what you love doing for a great cause” was too much for two MWSRP members - Richard Rees and Adam Harman. So they decided to give up their careers, sell their possessions and pool their resources enabling the programme to exist for another year, when hopefully some long term funding would already be secured.
Richard and Adam returned to the archipelago for December 2008. The goal for the trip: recover the remaining archival tags, attempt to secure some long term funding and to develop the MPA. They also piloted a volunteer scheme which enables the MWSRP to utilise a wide range of expertise while providing each volunteer with research experience or that once in a lifetime opportunity.
The partnership proved to be a great success. Over one hundred whale shark encounters were recorded and the groundwork for the MPA was laid.2009 has been the MWSRP’s biggest year with the successful development of South Ari Atoll’s Marine Protected Area (MPA). The MPA dream: to be the first collaboratively managed, regulated, revenue generating MPA in the Maldives, ensuring the local community benefits from their natural resources whilst making tourism sustainable. Resorts are already committing to sponsoring the initiative following consultations with the MWSRP.
The year also brought the MWSRP recognition from the scientific world, the completion of a follow-up whale shark tag and release project and a vast amount of media attention – ultimately helping to raise awareness of the plight of the shark.
The guys have been present in the Maldives for six months and recorded nearly three hundred whale shark encounters this year alone. The team has grown to four, with two voluntary part time staff (Ben Fothergill and Rachel Bott) and a host of dedicated specialist volunteers and companies providing pro bono support (including Hogan and Hartson, an International Law Firm).2010 promises to be very busy - The whole team hopes to be able to build on the MWSRP’s achievements in the coming year. 2010 goals: The development of a one hundred percent self sufficient eco-facility, to enable a year-round presence for visiting researchers, scientists, students, teachers and volunteers is being planned in partnership with Sheppard Robson (leaders in sustainable design) and the Maldives’ Ministry of Tourism, two foreign student exchange schemes are in motion (one in the UK, the other in Qatar), the MPA development will continue with baseline coral reef and species specific studies and a MPA management specific NGO is being initiated. An American based ‘Friends Of’ organisation is also in the process of registration and the whale shark research will continue to provide the scientific basis behind the programme’s broader conservation goals.
The only missing aspect – funding.
To become involved with the MWSRP or for more information please visit www.mwsrp.org
Sport fishing and habitat destruction has left these animals with few chances for survival.
Last year another shark was discovered with a gaff jammed in its throat and was successfully caught, saved and released.
Kudos to divers helping sharks.