Saturday, December 16, 2017
News Roundup

Before this 'Shark Wrangler' can tag a shark for science, he first has to catch it

MONTAUK, New York — After four hours at sea aboard a 126-foot vessel off the Long Island shore, the crew of two dozen mariners and scientists started to wonder as they scanned the ocean's small whitecaps amid a drizzling rain.

The unspoken thought: Where are the great white sharks they had come to catch, take samples of and then release?

Nowhere in sight, for now.

"It's fishing, not catching," said Austin Chavez, 21, a deck hand from San Diego, while cutting up mackerel to throw off the M/V Ocearch in hopes of attracting a great white shark.

As vacationers hit beaches up and down the East Coast this last month of summer, Chavez and the rest of the crew are on a 20-day, $400,000 expedition to catch and tag sharks with equipment that "pings" when a shark's dorsal fin breaks the surface of the ocean. The device allows scientists to track a shark's movement for up to five years and learn about its behavior and habitat.

Ricky Carioti | Washington Post

A nine-foot blue shark swims behind the Ocearch vessel near Montauk, New York, on Aug. 9, 2017.

 

The data is shared online, in real time, with several sharks this past summer being tracked to within a few miles of popular Atlantic beaches. Some sharks have been assigned their own Twitter accounts.

On a recent day off the Long Island coast, it is clear that finding sharks is not like it is in the fast-paced TV show Shark Wranglers, in which Chris Fischer — the owner of this expedition's boat and the founder of shark research company Ocearch — once starred.

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Trying to catch and pull aboard one of the largest predators of the sea takes deep pockets and lots of patience.

"We're trying to solve the life history puzzle of Jaws," said Fischer, a businessman who started the nonprofit 10 years ago. "We want to pour the ocean into people's lives on a level not seen since Jacques Cousteau."

Ricky Carioti | Washington Post

The M/V Ocearch research vessel lies at anchor off Montauk, New York.

 

A few of the tagged sharks have loyal followings online, sharing their whereabouts with thousands of followers on social media each time they come to the surface. Ocearch has at least three people aboard each expedition handling photos, video and social media.

One shark — a 16-foot, 3,500-pound great white named Mary Lee, after Fischer's 83-year-old mother — pinged her locations over the Memorial Day weekend off Chincoteague and Assateague islands in Maryland and Virginia. Experts said she came within two miles of Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, Delaware.

Another great white shark, weighing in at 960 pounds and named Yeti, after the specialty cooler maker, has been tracked off the coasts of Delaware and Virginia Beach.

And in July, a 12-foot great white named Hilton was detected off the shoreline of Ocean City, Maryland. The 1,326-pound, 12-foot shark was tagged this spring during one of Ocearch's expeditions off Hilton Head, S.C. — hence his name. Miss Costa, a 12-foot-6, 1,700-pound great white was tracked last fall off the coast near the Virginia-North Carolina line.

And Katharine the Shark has the Twitter handle @Shark_Katharine with a profile that reads "misunderstood but sassy girl just tryin' to get some fish."

A goal is to make the science easy to understand, said Fernanda Ubatuba, a former Brazilian TV reporter who is chief operating officer for Ocearch and oversees its public outreach efforts.

"If it is too complex, too complicated, then people lose interest," she said. "We want to keep it as simple as possible to reach as many people as possible. How can you get buy-in on conservation if people don't understand it?"

The sharks have reach, at least online, even though they can be elusive in water.

"What Ocearch is doing in terms of social media and connecting the public with sharks is unique," said Greg Skomal, a leading shark scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. "They've been masterful with that."

Some scientists in the shark world frown on using social media as a sign of success in studying sharks. Fischer acknowledged that he isn't a scientist and said he leaves the science to experts who publish papers using data collected from tagged sharks.

He has "blown up" the more traditional way scientists have worked in separately and competed for limited research money, Fischer said. Instead, he has "brought the shark to them" while capturing the attention of the public, particularly young people.

"You do something fundamental to mankind and the planet, and millennials care," he said. "They're all in."

On this day, halfway through a 10-hour stretch in the Atlantic, the crew had yet to catch a great white shark. At one point, a humpback whale splashed its huge tail near the boat.

"It's a good sign," said Tobey Curtis, a shark scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as some long-faced mariners and shark scientists snapped photos of the tail splash. "It means there's food here. It means there's life. We're not in a dead zone."

Deck hands cut up more mackerel and threw it overboard.

No sharks yet.

Ricky Carioti | Washington Post

Aboard the Motor Vessel Ocearch, deck hand D.J. Lettieri walks with a mackerel used for bait and as chum to attract sharks on Aug. 9, 2017, in Montauk, New York.

 

Great white sharks have made a comeback in recent decades as a result of conservation efforts, experts said, but it is just as safe to go into the water.

The chances of being bitten by a shark are slim, with about 80 people worldwide involved in unprovoked attacks each year. Last year, 56 of those incidents were in the United States, mostly in Hawaii, California and Florida, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack File.

At Ocearch, scientists and crew members said they are trying to promote the shark as nonthreatening and address beachgoers' fear of and fascination with great white sharks more than 40 years after "Jaws" was filmed at Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. Much of the Ocearch crew wore baseball caps and shirts that read .dontfearthefin.

"Sharks have been there all along, among us" said Bob Hueter, a senior scientist and director at the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota. "They're not changing their behavior.

"We're not on the menu," he added. Mature white sharks prefer fatty seals.

Ricky Carioti | Washington Post

Chris Fischer, founder and expedition leader of the OCEARCH research boat, sits on the bow of the M/V Ocearch research vessel in the Atlantic off Montauk, New York, on Aug. 7, 2017.

 

Fischer, who has three children and runs his business from Utah, said he spends more than 100 days on the road each year meeting corporate sponsors, making speeches and leading expeditions.

After working with his entrepreneur father, he landed TV deals to host fishing and shark-catching shows with National Geographic and the History Channel. Fischer describes himself as a "serial entrepreneur with a service bent."

Ocearch's process for shark-catching gives up-close access for scientists to a large, hard-to-reach animal. The crew lures each animal with bait, then carefully guides it using a 75,000-pound hydraulic platform on the converted crabbing vessel to bring it onto the deck.

Like a NASCAR pit crew, scientists then have 15 minutes to gather blood and tissue samples, install tracking equipment on the shark's dorsal fin, and weigh and measure the animal — all while a hose pumps seawater into the shark's mouth and over its gills to maintain its supply of oxygen. A wet towel over the shark's eyes helps keep it calm. In all, they try to gather enough samples for at least a dozen studies.

By midafternoon, several researchers strolled by the deck hands.

Any bites?

None.

"This is very typical," Hueter said. "You do a lot of waiting for the fish to show up."

Ricky Carioti | Washington Post

Harley Newton, left, a veterinarian and head of aquatic health at the Wildlife Conservation Society at the New York Aquarium, and Lisa Hoopes, a nutritionist at the Georgia Aquarium, work on blood samples from a shortfin mako on Aug. 7, 2017, aboard the Ocearch shark research vessel near Montauk, New York.

 

Ocearch picked this part of the Atlantic because scientists last year discovered that it was a nursery area for young great whites. The organization has also tagged hundreds of sharks in the waters off Australia, Mexico, South Africa, and the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

But its methods are not without controversy.

Some in the science community don't like what they say is Fischer's sometimes brash personality and perceived push for self-promotion. They say he has at times stomped into areas in the ocean where others were already doing work. He has disagreed.

Few other research outfits remove sharks from the water, a practice that has drawn the ire of some scientists. Massachusetts scientist Skomal, who has worked with Ocearch on expeditions, said he prefers tagging sharks while they remain in the water because pulling them from the water could alter their behavior and thus the quality of the data.

Other scientists say holding a shark out of water can stress the animal. Fischer and his supporters argue that there is no change in a shark's behavior after it is taken out of the water and released.

Still, supporters and critics agree that Fischer has done what few others in the tightly circled industry have: brought shark research into the mainstream. Hueter said that years ago, a prestigious science funding outfit such as the federal government's National Science Foundation probably would have ignored an operation such as Ocearch and its unconventional way of doing — and funding — shark research.

But that's starting to change. Hueter said he recently made contact with a scientist who said she would look at an idea to get a more permanent lab space built on the boat.

"Years ago, it would have been, 'You said they're called what?' " Hueter said. "Now she said she knew of them because her 12-year-old son followed their sharks on Twitter."

Ocearch has received millions of dollars in sponsorships over the years from such companies as Caterpillar, sunglass maker Costa, and hospitality and restaurant company Landry's to fund its three annual expeditions.

In exchange, the companies' logos are prominently displayed in Ocearch materials, including in the background of the huge platform used to lift sharks out of the water. Ocearch also has helped develop and market a beer logo with its name and a line of bourbon billed as "aged at sea," since four barrels are stored in the belly of the boat.

Even with its marketing pitches, Ocearch said, it's still about the sharks.

Scientists who have worked with the group said they have made new findings about great whites. For one, they figured out that great white sharks go farther north in the winter, into the upper reaches of Canada, than previously thought.

"It caused us to throw out our theories," said Hueter, of Florida's Mote Marine Laboratory, who has done nine expeditions in six years with Ocearch.

Meanwhile, on the boat deck, someone yells, "There's a catch!" It's not a great white shark but a small shortfin mako that researchers caught on a smaller boat nearby — one of five sharks eventually caught in the first week.

"It has to be just the right conditions to catch" a great white, Hueter said. "It has to be just the right spot and with just the right tide."

By early evening, most of the deck hands and crew members had finished their work for the day — at least mentally. Some opened cold beers and munched on pastrami, pickled cucumber and smoked blue fish dip on crackers.

"You can't control catching sharks and you can't control the weather," said Fischer as he snacked with crew members in the boat's galley. "But you can have good beds, three square meals a day and a snack."

At the end of the day, the rain came down harder. The sea got choppier, and the small boat used to ferry visitors headed back to shore.

On the seventh day, they caught the expedition's first great white — a 2-month-old, five-foot shark they named Gurney. As the expedition neared its halfway point, three juvenile great whites and six other sharks had been caught and released.

Eddy Palanzo and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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