Saturday, October 09, 2010

He's baaaaaaaaack!!!

Guadalupe GW with permanent bling - click for detail.

Domeier wants to go and fish for more Great Whites – story here.

Before commenting, let me try and put things into perspective.
Generally speaking, we are very much in favor of research as we deem it essential for providing the data enabling us to devise effective conservation measures. Consequently, as you know, we have always always sponsored research on our Bull Sharks that are the principal attraction of the Fiji Shark Dive. But research is expensive as we devote a lot of resources to this undertaking and depending on what we do, it may also be disruptive to our business as some happens during our regular Shark dives with paying customers. We consequently don’t just blindly embark into new ventures, but have instead developed the following process whereby every project gets thoroughly screened before being implemented – and incidentally, we do something very similar when deciding about the countless film productions that get proposed to us.

The lead researcher is Dr. Juerg Brunnschweiler.
Juerg is one of, if not the foremost expert on this species and everything we do and every request by any other researcher is subject to his vetting and approval. We will also consult with Gary Adkison who brings to the table a lifetime of experience in diving with Sharks, and with Rusi whose understanding of the individual Sharks on Shark Reef is simply unparalleled, and define the framework for a research project. From the very beginning, we have had the understanding that all projects need to be checked against the following two prerequisites:

  • There must be a direct link between the project and Shark conservation. Like I’ve said many times before, funding for research (and conservation) is scarce and the inevitable consequence is that it must be prioritized. We believe that the most urgent biological challenges that need to be tackled are habitat degradation and species extinction, and that “nice to know”, let alone blatantly frivolous queries must wait, respectively have no place in our research.
  • The method we use must be the least invasive possible, this in order to conform to what we deem ethical (no lethal sampling, ever!), to safeguard the animals but also, to ensure that the Sharks we have worked so hard to attract and befriend are not being spooked by unnecessary rough handling.
With that in mind, here is what has happened lately.
After completing the satellite tagging project that was aimed at identifying the nursery areas but was fraught with technical challenges, we started a new project aimed at exploring the short-range movement patterns of the Sharks with the aim of better defining the area required to ensure their effective protection. For that, we positioned a multitude of receivers on the adjacent reefs and proceeded to equip the Sharks with acoustic transmitters. In line with our beliefs about having to use non-invasive methods, all tags were fed rather than attached, meaning that they would be expelled within only 3 to 7 days. Despite of this impediment, we were able to indentify the likely scope of their range and this has resulted in the establishment of a Shark protected Shark Corridor in 2006.

Our next query was to try and pinpoint the mating areas.
As the Bulls do not feed during the mating period, we had no choice but to attach the acoustic tags externally – and back came the old technical challenges. Our first choice of pole spears proved inadequate as most of the time, the anchors would not penetrate properly and the tags would detach in no time. Using a spear gun was more successful but resulted in veritable hunting expeditions where some of us got the impression that the Sharks quickly caught on to the activity and would split as soon as the hunter would ascend in the water column, to the point that after a few days of spearing, Shark numbers would be noticeably diminished and only recover after several weeks of normal diving.
Long story short – despite of obtaining several stellar results, we have realized that our protocols are sub-optimal and need urgent improvement.

As a consequence, we have not tagged a single Shark in 2010.
Instead, we have sent back all surplus tags that are now being deployed elsewhere and after the last tag had detached itself, we have retrieved all receivers and have instead concentrated on obtaining as many tissue samples as possible for Mahmood’s research on genetic fingerprinting. At the same time, we are scouting the rivers in order to set up a series of research projects there in 2011 where we will re-deploy the receivers.

And what about the tagging?
The current problem we are facing is threefold:
  • We know the range of the Bulls and have expanded the protected area accordingly, and we also know where the mating areas are (up to Juerg to explain that in an upcoming paper): thus, in order to invest more resources, we will need to come up with a new, conservation-oriented query. As I said, mere nice to know does not cut it.
  • Tagging the Bulls externally is invasive and changes their behavior, albeit only temporarily. On a personal note, it is also profoundly disturbing for both me and Rusi to witness somebody shooting animals to whom we have developed a personal attachment.
  • The gizmos are faulty and continuing with the present techniques is going to lead to more frustration.
With that in mind, we will resume tagging only once we have a new, worthwhile conservation-oriented project and above all, only once we have developed a new, secure and non invasive technique for deploying them.
But fear not: we have already agreed upon such a project and have also already successfully deployed a completely new prototype gizmo! Preliminary results look highly promising and we may soon be able to reveal it to the public – after securing it against moochers like the always industrious and formidable BB!

Which brings me straight over to Domeier.
He wants to fish and then tag 13 more GWs, a highly endangered and strictly protected species, and that within a protected marine sanctuary. That fact alone requires a very much heightened level of vigilance and due diligence when determining whether he should be allowed to do so.
It may not surprise you that I believe he should not, and here is why.

I’ve read the draft proposal.
Quite frankly, it is a great piece – in fact, it is so exhaustive and compelling that being my usual skeptical self, I already harbor the suspicion that this is already a done deal and that the public consultation is merely a ploy aimed at preempting any subsequent critique once things will again go pear shaped.
But as I said, it is extremely well written and addresses many grievances head on and with plausible explanations – so good that in fact, I’m stumped that Domeier never deigned to use the same compelling arguments and deflect much of the criticism when the proverbial hit the fan!

What it however does not address are the two prerequisites we postulate here in Fiji.

Cui bono?
Is there really a need to tag more Pacific Great Whites?
I sure hope this is not again a fishing show for Nat Geo! And if not: thanks to TOPP and others, Pacific GWs are without a doubt the most researched and best documented local population of this species: we basically already know where they give birth, where the juveniles migrate, where the adults roam. Also, those GWs are already protected in the USA and in Mexico, however with the caveat that quite a few juveniles perish as they are caught accidentally by small Mexican fishermen when they migrate south to Baja.
What possible new data will Domeier’s project gather for better preserving the species?

And with that in mind, would those resources not be better invested elsewhere?
Just as some examples: could those funds not be better invested in trying to stop the accidental catches by the small Mexican fishermen? Could those tags not be deployed to study the little documented GW in the Mediterranean, or the newly found population in Vietnam?

But much more importantly, those SPOT tags suck!
First, there are notorious connectivity problems that need not be addressed here.
But secondly, the present attachment technique is just simply unacceptable. The tag is supposed to uplink to a satellite and transmit is position whenever the Shark comes to the surface and for that, in its present configuration, it needs to be rigidly attached to the first dorsal fin. This implies catching and immobilizing the Shark in order to drill some holes and attach the tag with bolts and nuts, a fact that condemns the Shark to henceforth carry around some ugly bling that will never ever fall off anymore. Check out the above picture from Lawrence’s blog, and I can only agree with his comment : WTF?

The whole procedure is highly invasive, if not outright cruel.
That alone should be grounds enough for not giving the permit.
In fact, the procedure is so bad that Domeier himself has recognized the problem and apparently (and unsuccessfully) tried to develop a clamp very much in line with what is already being deployed on Whale Sharks. Having failed, he now wants to resort to the old, “proven” (and granted, slightly improved) technique of catching the Sharks with rod and reel, subduing them by having them fight against some buoys and then hoisting them onto a vessel.
That’s just not good enough!

I say: wait til the gizmo is fixed!
Collecting those data is probably neither really necessary, nor urgent. Why not take the time to develop a better tag with a better attachment instead of having the Sharks pay the price for his incapacity to devise a better attachment.
Solutions? Surely, if one can produce a space-age satellite tag, one can also devise something equally sophisticated instead of continuing to resort to those jury-rigged implements? Maybe indeed a clamp that snaps shut and can be applied on the fly? Maybe re-design the tag so that it can be attached anywhere (and thus, on the fly) and equip it with a short line to just a small floating and self-righting antenna? And if everything fails: how about a cool contest among the students of some technical university!

So, there you have it.
It is once again about what’s ethical and whether the need for data warrants mistreating the animals. We believe it does not and consequently, we don’t do it in Fiji - and neither is it OK to do so anywhere else! Yes, improving faulty protocols may be tedious and even expensive - but it needs to be done.

Mind you, just my 2 ¢ - and as I said, I fear that in practical terms, nobody cares anyway.
As always, we shall watch how this venture unfolds.


Jupp said...

Maybe I'm naive but what does Domeier want? Another TV show? Didn't they already kill a shark with their "research"? Since we know where GWs give birth, where the juveniles migrate to and where the adults roam, what else is there to know? I was told by scientists that there are only approximately 3,500 GWs left in the world, 10% of them, 350 that is, are breeding-age females, why don't we just leave them alone?

DaShark said...

Ideed Jupp!

I sure pray & hope this is not again a Nat Geo fishing show!

The proposal states this
“Biological questions regarding the migratory cycle of female white sharks are important for the long-term conservation and management of this species in the eastern Pacific. The study is designed to determine the location of females during their years of absence from the Sanctuary, as well as identify the pupping and nursery regions for Sanctuary white sharks. Secondary goals include collection of genetic material for ongoing studies of population structure and analyses of blood hormone levels to better understand the reproductive biology of the white shark.”

All certainly interesting – but the question is, is tagging more Sharks really necessary and above all, WHAT specific better conservation and management measures will it trigger?
That specific population is already fully protected federally and in Washington, Oregon and California (and also Hawaii where they sometimes turn up), and in Mexican territorial waters – so why not devote the resources to enforcing the existing laws - or, as I said, to collecting data about other poorly documented populations?
But granted, these questions are always debatable and policymakers are always asking for more data as an excuse for not having to take decisions.

My principal grievance is with the hardware and the procedures that are just simply not good enough – at least, not if you really care about the animals.

But to be fair, so far, they haven’t killed any Shark.
Last year, they left half a hook in the gut of an animal but it appears that “based on the tag’s signal, the esophagus-hooked shark caught in the GFNMS in 2009 survived and resumed its normal seasonal migration pattern”, which is a relief.

Übrigens: schön zu sehn, dass wir uns auch mal über was einig sein können! 

Anonymous said...

I agree that no science should be done frivolously and think that sensationalizing research via the media is counterproductive, but I disagree with your opinion of SPOT tagging large sharks like the white sharks near California.
I am deeply involved in WS research in California (and do not work for MD or BB). I posit 3 simple facts:
1) Many (if not most) female white sharks do not return to California every year. We really have NO IDEA where they go during that year away. It could be Hawaii, it could be Japan, it could be both. These are reproductively active female sharks. This is an OPEN question that PAT tagging cannot answer.
Despite your "feelings" there actually are many other OPEN and CRITICAL questions of white shark life history and conservation for which SPOTs are the best tool available. The book on white sharks in California is NOT yet written.
2) after the recognized tagging trauma, SPOT tags are no more invasive than PAT and acoustic tags, of which nearly 500 have been deployed on WS in Ca, and indeed may be less so (as PAT or acoustic tag leaders get fouled and create lots of drag and stay on very long term, whereas SPOT tags eventually fall off).
3) Lamnids and other large sharks are quite hardy. They can take the handling and the tag (as evidenced by TOPPs salmon shark SPOT tagging). Other research, including, but not limited to, MD's 15 or so successful SPOT tags, shows the same.

I caution you against becoming personally attached to any wild animal. Furthermore, you (and we) should never let our emotions cloud our scientific judgment. The question should be "what is best for the population" we are studying. Not, how can I feel better about myself (and above others (?)) and still function as a scientist (or, much worse, keep other scientists from doing their research).

Sad to say, many shark scientists are more dangerous than the sharks themselves, and so I must post this anonymously...

Dr.No said...

Dr.D and Chris Fisher have enjoyed a well deserved "falling out" and rarely speak.

Chris Fisher is on to another shark tagging program without Dr.D and Dr.D is recycling his program at the Farallones for reasons that escape everyone except Maria Brown the Sanctuary Manager.

That's the update.

DaShark said...

Dear Anonymous

Great comment, thank you – including the reference to the legendary intra-specific aggression of your peers!

In case it was not clear, I’m no scientist, I’m a Shark conservationist.
Should you care about where I come from (and I even mention tagging Pacific GWs!): .

We are a Shark diving operator sponsoring research and as such, by diving with always the same Sharks, we have developed a personal attachment to them, the more as they are all individually different! Don’t worry, nothing metaphysical, we just care about those animals and of course we do know that our feelings are not being reciprocated, that they are wild and potentially lethal predators and that we must thus respect them etc etc!

There’s no question that most aspects of Shark (and Teleost) behavior and life history are still unknown and that we could spend many generations trying to find out more fascinating stuff about them.
But right now, I believe, we all need to prioritize all our resources in favor of conservation – and by that, I mean tangible, direct measures on the ground, not vague statements like “better management” (I wish…) and the like.
It is a zero sum game, meaning that resources invested into “nice to know” here come at the expense of “need to know” and especially, “need to DO” elsewhere.

So, to take your example, are you going to spearhead GW conservation in Japan if that’s the result of your tagging? :)

But back to the hardware/procedures which is what got me to write the post.
We got space age technology gizmos – but comparatively, deployment is incredibly unsophisticated and often invasive. Where I’m coming from and granted, I do care, is that nobody is doing that to, say, Cetaceans, let alone terrestrial animals. Instead, everybody seems to go to great lengths to avoid them any discomfort as that has become the universally accepted ethical imperative.
I believe that Shark researchers should equally care for Sharks and also, that it is necessary and very much possible to devise better ways for deploying those tags – if some of the brain power and the funds were invested for that purpose.

That’s all really – fix the gizmo, fix the procedures & carry on!