Friday, October 9, 2009

Expedition Great White: reeling in white sharks for research

On November 16, the National Geographic Channel will premiere Expedition Great White, a special program that details satellite tagging research done on great white sharks at Isla Guadalupe. Using rod-and-reel techniques to pull white sharks on board to take blood samples and attach satellite tags, the researchers hope to learn more about the long-range migrations of these sharks. To promote the show, Nat Geo has released a promo video and pictures of the researchers in action. Click here to view a photo gallery from Here's the promo video:

There are differing views amongst shark advocates as to whether the method used to catch these sharks is appropriate or humane.

"While I don’t doubt the good intentions of the researchers, based on the pictures, it clearly doesn’t appear as if the sharks were "unstressed" throughout the experience. Being hooked, landed, and tied down seems like it would be a fairly stressful situation, although I’m not a 'shark expert,' so don’t quote me on that. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the knowledge gained from the research could potentially benefit the species as a whole, but I have to wonder if this approach is really the ideal technique for gathering information about the white sharks at Guadalupe." - The Dorsal Fin

"As a commercial shark diving operator I am o.k with credible science done by professionals. This is real science. The fact that National Geographic is there to document does not diminish the effort. There's also a very fine line between 'credible science' and the ad hoc 'experiments' you often see on Discovery Channel Shark Week that have no basis in science, and are often played out so film crews can do questionable and increasingly invasive things with sharks." - Shark Divers

The rod-and-reel approach appears to have come out of the need to attach the satellite tag using a bolt-on method, which requires immobilizing the shark for an extended period of time. While the need to acquire a reliable and viable stream of data over an extended period of time is critical to the success of this type of long-range migration research, one wonders whether the rod-and-reel technique is the best and most humane approach that today’s technology has to offer. Perhaps it is, based on the size and weight of the tag. Perhaps that means we need to re-think the tag itself.

If one considers the trauma placed on the animal, considering both the stress of being hooked and reeled in and the physical stress of an animal this size being removed from the water, it begs the question: could microelectronics devise a smaller, lighter tag that could be attached using methods similar to those used for regional telemetry tags – a simple hooked barb and wire leader attached via a pole spear? Looking at the photos in the Outdoor Life photo gallery and watching the Nat Geo promo video, I get a sense that a very elaborate and expensive mousetrap was devised to catch and hold these sharks out of the water. Could that effort and expense been spent on devising a better mousetrap?

Or would that not have provided exciting enough television programming?

There’s a lot here we don’t know. Was every shark that was hooked, successfully reeled in? Was every shark that was reeled in then successfully brought on board? Was every shark successfully revived? Was there follow up as to the health and behavior of every shark that was caught and released? Were there negative outcomes and would we ever hear about it? If there was any bad news, I question whether we would see it on television, as I would expect there would be some negative reaction from CONAP, the Mexican agency that is charged with maintaining the health of Isla Guadalupe’s flora and fauna.

In June, at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival, I listened to Greg Marshal, the man behind the Crittter Cam, talk about the evolution of his invention. It was clear that the effort was being made to utilize advances in miniaturization to reduce the size of the Critter Cam to improve performance, simplify attachment, and lower the impact on the animal.

It’s an age old argument: what price do we – or the sharks – pay for the sake of scientific research and data? The debate continues.

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