Monday, May 23, 2011

About those Tags!

Junior on the boat after capture - see any evidence whatsoever of a broken jaw?

Looks like Michael Domeier has run into a brick wall.
ABC News 7's Chief Investigative Reporter Dan Noyes has authored an atrocious piece where far from doing his job and investigating, he has instead decided to spearhead a witch hunt aimed at blocking the renewal of Domeier's research permit at the Farallones; and some dude has started a petition with the same aim.

No I'm not gonna post the links.
Noyes has seen it fit to provide a forum to the usual strident suspects all the way to the token Sesselfurzer who is once again invited to bloviate about Shark behavior about which he has no clue whatsoever. This is nothing but a prime example of the usual sensationalist one-sided mainstream rubbish, only this time about a Shark-centric subject.
The petition, although well intentioned, is marred by the ramblings of yet another self appointed expert who continues to harp on about the non existent tumor and the jaw that was broken during capture - the latter against unequivocal photographic evidence to the contrary, see on top.

BUT - whereas I totally despise the means, I do concur with the aim.
Domeier's research goals are highly interesting and would provide for vital data that PAT tags are simply not designed to collect. But as outlined in his draft application, the procedures (and the SPOT tags, see below) remain highly invasive and it is my belief that both the protocols and the hardware need to be reformed and re-engineered before being allowed to be deployed in a Marine Sanctuary featuring some of the planet's most restrictive Shark interaction protocols.
But more of that below.

As to Domeier. what can I say.
Did he bring this upon himself? Yes he did, nobody dragged him, kicking and screaming, in front of the cameras. Does he deserve what is happening to him now? Certainly not!
My prediction is that the continued shit storm will lead the GFNMS honchos to refuse the permit.
My advice to Domeier would be to take his losses, leave behind this unholy alliance of hostile media, back-stabbing researchers, inept authorities, moronic experts and screeching activists and look for new worthwhile projects elsewhere.
Some wars are just not worth fighting.

At the same time, however, other questions need to be asked.
Firstly, what has been Maria Brown's role in this fiasco, starting from her original approval of invasive and highly experimental research all the way to her obvious inability to properly deal with the situation once things started to turn for the worse, to her continued lack of leadership now. I say, she should take her hat and leave, or be asked to do so.
That's what accountability is all about.

Secondly, what about the "long term resident researchers".
I'm confident that they are positively gloating. I'm however equally convinced that their status needs to be re-examined, both in terms of their research which makes them equally interact with the animals but which is increasingly becoming irrelevant, outdated and redundant - but also, in terms of whether one should confer exclusive territorial rights to people who have displayed such an extraordinary lack of ethics.
Personally, I would tell them to own up and reform or get lost - but that's me; as a minimum, one should ask them to wait till the PAT tags have popped up and relayed all the data before allowing them to stick any further Sharks.

Anyway, check out this further piece by Noyes.
Yes it's the same rubbish, but it features an interesting picture, see below and the equally interesting statements by another researcher.

Would that by any chance be the same guy who publicly condemned Domeier's research protocols one year earlier?

“There is an emphasis on sensation,” he said. “I think of it like ‘King Kong,’ the movie — going out and getting Kong, getting the white shark, in bondage."

Would he now be doing the exact same thing, i.e. hauling large and I would say, terminally pregnant Tiger Sharks out of the water, for TV, maybe even onto the very same wooden platform, and this under the auspices of the very same Chris Fisher who turned Domeier's research project into a joke by boasting (and here!) that he had caught the largest ever Shark blahblahrahrah - and continues to do so now?

Don't remember Fischer?
Here he is, proudly posing with one of his gigantic made-for-TV prop barbed hooks!

Which begs the question, who, exactly is the avid billfish angler and TV outdoor fishing adventurer ( and next Jacque (sic) Cousteau no less!), a self-professed fishing expert, who completely stuffed it up and left the Shark with 3/4 of the prop lodged in his throat?
Yes, you probably guessed who!

But contrary to Domeier who has valiantly played the fall guy by assuming full responsibility, Fisher is of course a media pro, knows how to play the game and has come out of this fiasco completely unscathed. Does this disqualify all hybrid productions as Patric asserts? No, it does only disqualify Fisher - there are heaps of other examples of productions featuring the work of researchers that are simply stellar!
But I'm digressing as usual.

Back to Fisher's new sidekick, did I hear animal care protocol?
Really? As in this stuff that is addressing the well being of lab rats and the like? Gotta see it to believe it! And on top of spouting this obvious baloney, was there really a need for him to mention that Domeier did not have any such protocols and thus infer that Domeier did not care about the health of the Sharks?
Talk about a shining example of gravitas and collegiate solidarity! Which begs the question, did the 187k (yes this is again about pecunia non olet!) come with the requirement to play attack dog for his master?

But back to that protocol.
The fact is that nowadays, everybody, his dog and the dog of his dog is tagging Tiger Sharks without hauling them out of the water, and I spare you the dozens upon dozens of links.
Using a sling to hoist the sharks and a live well on the ship, in which to place them is once again made-for-TV showbiz bullshit which has nothing whatsoever to do with caring for the Shark!
And the purpose of this exercise in animal welfare, or whatever? May it be, to reel in and subdue a (pregnant) Shark in order to drill and bolt some SPOT tag to its dorsal fin?
Honi soit qui mal y pense
- but we shall all see, shall we not!
Totally underhanded and hypocritical? You betcha!

But this is not about those researchers, or Fisher.
It is about those satellite tags (please read this paper!) and about the protocols that are required in order to deploy them.
In essence, the researchers have to face several challenges.
  • Developing a tag (a transmitter) that collects (and sometimes stores) data and then relays those data to a receiver from where the researchers can download them.
  • Attaching the tags to the Sharks.
  • Approaching/attracting/catching and/or possibly immobilizing the Sharks in order to attach the tags.
and the short- and long term implications this has on the animals' well being.

The tags

Those satellite tags are essentially produced by only a few companies, among which Wildlife Computers and Microwave Telemetry. Whereas the overall technology for the acoustic tags is well developed and highly reliable, this is not yet the case for the sat tags.
PAT tags try to calculate the position of the animal by using mathematical models that however feature a margin of error that can be very large indeed. Also, to-date, the requirement that the tag be small coupled with the need to archive the collected data means that the life span of PAT tags is limited to little over one year, something that will conceivably change with the advent of longer lasting power sources etc. Finally, the PAT tags merely reveal a picture of the past as the data are only accessible once the tag pops up and uploads them to the satellite.
The manufacturers have tried to address these issues by developing SPOT tags that last multiples longer and that are able to provide for accurate real-time positions. Whereas in theory this is clearly the way forward for some species of surface-oriented Sharks, there still remain notorious connectivity issues whereby the tags are not able to adequately uplink to the satellite during the short time frames when the antenna breaches the surface, etc. Plus, there are many Sharks that are not surface oriented and where deploying those SPOT tags will never make any sense at all.

Tag attachmentThe above companies are essentially operated by electronic engineers whose principal concern is to develop electronic components that are able to communicate with receivers.
Consequently, both the shape of the tag and the way it is being attached to the Sharks appears very much to be little more than an afterthought. From my observation, the tags are produced in some shape with some attachment and the researchers are then being asked to somehow deploy (= experimentally field test) them and to come back with suggestions for improvement. In essence, electronic engineers are asking biologists for input about a mechanical engineering issue.
Sound like the best way to proceed to you?

All attachments are invasive, albeit to a different degree.
We have once tried to circumnavigate this issue by feeding acoustic tags to the bulls but were penalized by only being able to collect short data sets. The attachments I know of (there may be more) are positioning of the (so far: acoustic) tags inside the body via small incisions that get sewn shut, a procedure that apparently does not unduly cause long term damage to the animal; tag attachment via a ring around the caudal peduncle, so far for acoustic tags only, again something that appears to be non-debilitating as long as those rings don't chafe and are attached for rather short periods of time.

Tethers and anchors for acoustic and PAT tags?
Now, this is more problematic. Depending on the situation but also, the species, there are different anchors that are inserted (i.e. sewn, punched, slammed or shot) into the Sharks' muscle tissue. Bull Shark skin is particularly tough and covered with large dense denticles and we had to deploy the probably most invasive model that consists in a razor-blade-like implement that needs to be slammed in with force. That anchor will remain lodged in the animal forever and even if it does not cause infections, it will continue to be an irritant that will cut into the muscle at every contraction. Other anchors appear less problematic.
Case in point, our Bull Shark Hook - click for detail.

The depicted tether was fouled and finally fell off after two years - but to this day, the Shark still features a discoloration where the anchor continues to irritate the surrounding tissue.
Needless to say that we've stopped all tagging pending the development of a better attachment.

And what about the current SPOT Tags?
In the present configuration: absolutely shocking!
The tag needs to be bolted on, requiring that one catches and immobilizes the Shark, see below. Once secured with multiple bolts, that tag will interfere with the Sharks' growth and lead to permanently warped first dorsal fins.
Plus, the bolts are supposed to somehow corrode and fall off after a period of 4-6 years. Chances that anybody has tested that assertion? My gut feeling: those bolts will completely foul and never fall off at all!
But assuming that the bolts will corrode: chances that multiple bolts will corrode and fall off simultaneously? Yes, that would be a big fat Zero, and if so we'll end up with one last bolt holding a flapping tag, with the consequence that the bolt will likely completely shred or even amputate the dorsal fin.
What's Neil gonna say when his Hammerheads will turn up with their spectacular dorsal fin warped, shredded and/or possibly amputated.

One of Neil's Hammerheads carrying a SPOT tag with four bolts - article here.

What is Jimmy gonna tell his clients when Tiger Beach will start to feature maimed Tiger Sharks.
And before anybody starts screeching and launching yet another petition or the like: this is not about individual people and projects - the list obviously goes on and on and on and on!

And then, there is the issue of fouling, one of the major problems plaguing vessel owners around the globe. It's a big issue that is costing billions in incremental expenses for fuel etc - and anybody developing a remedy would likely make billions as a result!
We operate vessels and lemme tell 'ya, anti-fouling that lasts for 4-6 years does not exist - let alone a concoction that would not poison and kill the surrounding living tissue! Chances that after a few years, those tags and the antenna will not be completely overgrown with barnacles and algae, totally interfering with the transmission in the process?

Approaching and immobilizing the Sharks

Acoustic and PAT tags can be applied on the fly and thus, one can use bows or pole spears when approaching some surface oriented species like Whale Sharks, and other Sharks like GWs that can be lured to the boats.
But this does not work with the vast majority of species that never come to the surface. Some species can be tagged underwater by using pole spears and spear guns, like we have done with our Bulls. But this is difficult to impossible with shy, fast swimming or deep water species, and it does not work at all with the present generation of SPOT tags that require bolting on.

In all of those cases, the Sharks need to be caught and/or immobilized.
Capture involves setting nets and long lines that however carry the risk of the Sharks asphyxiating if they are not regularly inspected; and using rod and reel, or hand lines like e.g. Guy has chosen to do.
Check out this picture of our Mrs. Jaws.

The Ocean is full of baited hooks and this is but one particularly brutal example of many, many Sharks we encounter that have contracted permanent disfigurement when escaping death by fishermen. Here are two more such examples and yes, Junior who obviously takes baited hooks may have experienced the same fate - but clearly not when he was hooked by Fisher's men!
Where I'm going with this is that hooking Sharks inherently carries the risk of permanent injury.

And what about immobilizing the Shark?
It appears that small species can indeed be hauled aboard without any permanent injury. Bigger animals cannot and/or should not, and the widely adapted procedure is to secure them alongside preferably a small skiff with catch poles, ropes, slings or cradles, and to then perform whatever needs performing whilst the Sharks are partially submerged and whilst the skiff is motoring ahead very gently in order to aerate their gills.
Apparently, this has also been done with GWs.

Of countless examples - Mahmood SPOT-tagging a Tiger, article here.

But although this is certainly much less invasive than trying to haul them aboard, trying to restrain large and immensely powerful struggling Sharks remains dangerous both for the animals but also for the researchers.

Still think that these issues are confined to Domeier alone?
Well, if so, think again - those tags are currently being deployed by everybody everywhere!
Hypocritical animal care protocol anybody, see above?

Long story short?
SPOT tagging is brutally invasive and needs to be halted pending the development of better attachments and procedures.
PAT tags are much less invasive but plagued by technical limitations restricting the scope of their deployment.


Let's look at the ideal specs for a data collecting implement.
  • The tags should be as small as possible; collect a maximum of data (position, temperature, depth, possibly data about neighboring equally tagged animals, etc), ideally at short time intervals; have a maximum operating longevity; be able to reliably transmit (ideally, in real time) the data to a receiver; possibly feature a data storage capacity for periods when the connection is being interrupted. Clearly, this is an issue for the electronics engineers and the solutions will improve with improvements in communications technology, battery longevity, miniaturization of components, etc.

  • They should be constructed of ideal materials (e.g. to minimize fouling through novel surface coatings and shapes; to withstand crushing when at depth, etc) and be ideally shaped (e.g. to minimize drag, to best conform to the shape of the animal, etc). This is a mechanical engineering issue.

  • The attachments should be non invasive and the tags should detach without any residue. Could the bulk of the tag (and thus, the bulk of the fouling) be detached from the animal and held by a tether, like in the case of the PAT tags? Could the tether be attached by a completely non invasive method like a dab of fast setting adhesive that would degrade within a determined period of time? Or what about a non chafing (!), elastic sleeve around the caudal peduncle? A small clamp around the posterior edge of the first dorsal fin that is secured by small barbs but also adhesive? Once again, this is an issue for mechanical engineers, and a matter of developing the adequate materials that would degrade and detach in time.
Or, how about a radical re-think?
What if the receiver would be following the transmitter? As in a autonomous self-propelling robot that would stay at the surface (or at times, even operate underwater) and pick up the transmissions of what would essentially be an improved acoustic tag, and relay them to a satellite? With the advantage that the tag could even be positioned inside the Shark and that the bulk of the electronics would be on the ROV that could also be located, serviced, even re-deployed from a vessel, including the possibility of downloading large data sets that would exceed the bandwidth of satellite transmissions?
Am I completely out of my mind? Maybe not so much, check out this article about research on Penguins! Yes the hardware looks shocking (let's start a petition!) - but could it be improved and adapted to Sharks?

Prohibitively expensive? How about pooling the resources (yes I know I know...)?

But of course those are just a few suggestions by a non-engineer.
How about spending some real time and money on R&D. How about a contest among, say, MIT students with a grand prize of 10,000 bucks - think that you would not be literally inundated with possible solutions?
I've said it before: I simply refuse to believe that given the necessary attention including adequate funding but also adequate testing (!), the technical issues cannot be addressed - but until then, tagging needs to be halted, especially when it comes to those SPOT tags!

Leaves the issue of approaching the Shark.
Some Sharks can be tagged on the fly either from the surface or by divers and free divers, and the hardware should reflect that application.
Others however will always require some form of catching and immobilizing and no, I don't have a completely satisfactory answer to the issue that any such procedure will carry the inherent risk of injury. My gut is that I would not do it myself but instead rely on experienced fishermen whilst always striving to develop better and less invasive protocols.
But from what I know, that's precisely what all respectable researchers do already - including Domeier who however had the misfortune of stumbling across Fisher and his inept crew.

Ethical considerations?

Remains the issue of why the fuss.
Does it really matter whether we brutally manhandle, maim and even kill a couple of Sharks whilst engaging in research aimed at collecting data about their life history that could lead to better management and conservation measures?
After all, we would only be affecting a few individual animals that are irrelevant to the survival of the whole of the population and of the species, both of which are in continuous flux anyway - the more as the real damage to stocks is being perpetrated by the fishermen and indirectly, by the many other issues affecting the well being of oceanic habitats!

This is not about conservation - this is about who we are.
Do I really need to elaborate on the point that we who strive to protect Sharks must always respect the animals and always be on the lookout for the best possible alternatives - and this inclusive of any researcher who wants to maintain his credibility?

Does that mean that I'm anti-science and anti progress?
No, far from it, how could I. Just two months ago, I have personally lethally sampled a small Filefish because it is probably a new species. So far, Taxonomy requires the collecting (= killing and pickling) of at least one holotype (and ideally, several more paratypes) and lacking any alternatives, that's what I've decided to do.
Equally, I do not all all suggest that Sharks are special and that they should be treated differently than any other Fishes or animals in general, whether they be higher or lower as pointed out somewhere in this fascinating thread. Ethically speaking, a life is a life.
Invasive research is being conducted everywhere on a multitude of animals - but Sharks is what I'm interested in, and that's why I'm addressing Shark research in particular.

Let there be no doubt that tagging has been one of the major recent positive developments in Shark research.
The results are simply stellar (with the caveat that I remain concerned about publishing tracks that could lead the fishermen to the hot spots) and have given us fascinating and highly important insights into the life history of Sharks that other techniques could simply not have provided. Let there also be no doubt that I am intimately convinced that the vast majority of Shark researchers (yes including Domeier!) care deeply about the animals and are always trying to improve on their protocols in order to minimize any negative side effects.

But having said this, I equally advocate a temporary halt.
The technology has obvious flaws that can, and should be fixed before proceeding further.
Also and contrary to Heupel and Simpfendorfer who seem to advocate that research should remain in the ivory tower and disregard public opinion, there is an urgent need for outreach. The good news is that Shark research and conservation are thankfully becoming increasingly popular, with the positive result that this has certainly led to better pro-Shark policies and to a wider base for funding. But, this has also led to the necessity of open (and robust!) public debate, especially in view of the ever increasing number of strident, and often totally ignorant Shark activists - see the onslaught that has befallen Domeier.
One cannot profit from the benefits of the former without addressing the inconvenience of the latter!

Anyway, just my two cents - as always highly subjective!
Sorry for the lengthy rant - but as so often, the post has taken on a life of its own, and I just had to get it off my chest!

Comments policy.
Please, do not attempt to post comments that further defame Michael Domeier and his research. This has already been done ad nauseam (meaning that I am totally nauseated) on other posts on this blog and on this and this post on SFS, and anything even remotely parroting those allegations will be deleted.


Shark Diver said...

well said, but this is one of those rare times I do not totally agree with you mike (mark the calendar, and no, this does not portend the end times). the abc news piece is instructive and brings the focus back to the animal. the folks used to make the point? b-listers and one with a clear agenda, but that's all who would talk on camera the rest are terrified by maria browns gang at the farallones main office. instead of doubling down on this brand of research all parties should stop for one moment and consider the implications.

this is more of an argument about where you sit with research lead damage to animals vs non invasive techniques. dr.d,maria, and quite a few others don't seem to think it's an issue, clearly.

as long as that mindset is trying to wedge its way back into a site with one research damaged animal i will support those who oppose this effort.

is it neat and tidy? hell no

is this full of side show crap? yes

until someone can guarantee that no animals will end up like junior and are willing to take a financial hit or serious legal ramifications to back it up i say "no more at the farallones"

as for maria brown?

lets just say that animal has a voice, and that voice is at noaas front door demanding her ouster, time will tell if there's anyone home to get the message.

DaShark said...

The date is duly noted! :)

The problem of course is that most research is invasive in some way or another, and that accidents can always happen despite of the best of intentions and preparation.

In the end, one will have to weigh the pros against the cons.

E.g. if I remember correctly, you once bemoaned the continued loss of adult GWs from Lupe.
Would it not be important to know whether they were killed or whether they are merely engaging in some regular multi-year migration?

In essence I say, fix the gizmos and the procedures and carry on - very much including the Farallones!

The more one knows about where those Sharks go & what they do when they migrate offshore and possibly, across the Pacific, the more one can then try to protect them in critical habitats like their mating areas and nurseries.

Or not?

Shark Diver said...

I bemoaned the continued non-replenishment of whites at 'Lupe.

It does not seem like we're adding any younger animals after ten years of looking.

Greg said...

SD. You spend time down there and you're saying there's no new young animals adding to the pop at Lupe? I can't say that up here because I don't have the same access or information for this area and wish I did but it seems to me that's a real reason to find out where they go and why. Sooner the better too. Gotta agree with Mike on this, fix the gizmos, come up with new tech and find out where these animals are going.

As to Dan's follow on story, well I was there too for the SAC meeting and I didn't really see too much non bias in the information gathering by whom he decided to speak with. This story has 3 or 4 sides to it and Noyes seemed to only speak to those that work his current angle. While there he was pretty buddy buddy with SVS and SVS's partner there as well as the GWA crew.

No one will ever be able to guarantee that animals won't wind up like Junior. Also no one can say that Junior wound up like this because of the tagging either.

I'm a B-lister too I suppose but I don't have an agenda. I put myself out there and so far nothing bad has happened. Of course my permit is up for review here shortly...


Dan Noyes said...

Interesting article -- you blast me, and then go on to make many of the same points as my report. You refuse to give a link to my work, yet you rip off two photographs from my blog with no credit. Unethical. The story was fair; I pursued all the main players in the story -- some commented, some did not.

DaShark said...


check again.

There's a link to your blog and there's a mention that the Tiger shark picture is from there.
I got the head shot of Junior from other sources and have already published it on April 1st, see

Regarding your story, I take note that that's what you consider unbiased research.
Not impressed.