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Is scientist taking great white shark research too far?

November 17, 2009 |  9:55 am
Shark3
Were you able to watch the National Geographic special, "White Shark Expedition," on Monday night -- and if so, what do you think of the methods utilized by researcher Michael Domeier at remote Guadalupe Island off Baja California?

If you live in the Bay Area, you might also have viewed an ABC News program that was spawned by an incident involving Domeier's team using the same methods at the Farallon Islands off San Francisco. The program featured experts who were critical of the methods, which involve using a team of anglers and a large baited hook attached to a line with buoys.

(There's also a film crew, hence the National Geographic special and related episodes to air next summer.)

The hooked shark struggles until it's completely worn out. It's then lifted onto a platform, where a sophisticated tracking tag is bolted into its dorsal fin. A large hose is used to flush water through the shark's gills, so it can breathe throughout a process that can take 20 minutes.

The sharks usually are hooked in the corner of the mouth -- because of the 24-inch circle hook's design --but in at least one case at the Farallon Islands a shark had to be set free with part of the hook lodged deep in its throat.

The specialized tags have a life span of up to six years, providing real-time data and pinpointing precise locations of migrating sharks. They're important, Domeier says, for researchers seeking a clearer picture of these mysterious predators' life history.

I watched both programs and from a non-scientist's viewpoint (mine) the methods appear overly intrusive and harmful to a species of shark that is protected by federal law in the U.S. Given the extent of research already underway on white sharks by renowned scientists at the Farallones, I was surprised to learn that Domeier had even been granted access to the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

Said sanctuary superintendent Maria Brown on the ABC News program: "This research helps us protect white sharks. I equated it to ... it felt like what it's like when I go to the dentist; when you go in, you get a cavity filled. It's something that maybe you don't want to go do, but you do it, it's quick, it's over, it's done."

It's not that quick; it involves a giant hook and tiring the predators to the extent they can no longer struggle. Besides, experts from various universities have already learned where these sharks go when they leave the islands -- to a vast, featureless area in the mid-Pacific, and some venture beyond Hawaii. Why they go and what they do there, however, remains unclear.

Like ABC News, I talked to Peter Klimley, a UC Davis professor and one of the world's leading shark researchers. He's against Domeier's methods and called them unnecessary. He said lifting so large a creature from the water Is potentially harmful. He added that pregnant females might be especially vulnerable to the technique. Klimley also expressed concern about how other scientists might be perceived by viewers of the National Geographic special.

"For the most part we are compassionate and we do care about how we handle the animals we work with," he said. 

Domeier, president of the Marine Conservation Science Institute, defended his methods and said, via e-mail: "I can unequivocally say that we have tagged and released 17 white sharks in the past two years and every single one has survived. The decision to use these tags was not trivial; the data we obtain from them can be gathered no other way, and the resulting multi-year tracks are going to reveal life history characteristics that will rewrite white shark life history."

Domeier also defended using a team of fishermen headed by big-game angler Chris Fischer, who runs Fischer Productions, and an actor that accompanied the group to Guadalupe Island.

"The reality is this: Without the involvement of the media on this project there would be no project," Domeier said. "The research is hugely expensive and the only way to pay for it is to involve National Geographic and Fischer Productions."

-- Pete Thomas

Photo: Crew member Chad Kiesel, left, and angler Chris Fischer tag a 14-foot female great white shark at Guadalupe Island. The hydration hose in the shark's mouth is designed to keep the predator alive while the team measures and tags it and takes blood samples. Credit: Chris Ross / National Geographic Channel 

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