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.”