Dorien

Lecture: Ryan Johnson on whether science can save sharks

Tony and I attended a talk by television presenter and shark scientist Ryan Johnson at the Save Our Seas Shark Centre in Kalk Bay one evening in mid-July, as part of their series of marine-related talks. We were very interested to hear this talk because Johnson worked on the recent Ocearch project in South Africa, which tagged 42 great white sharks in South African waters earlier this year and caused intense controversy for a variety of reasons. The sharks were removed from the water for up to 15 minutes, and biological samples (blood, parasites, muscle biopsies) were taken for 12 reasearch projects as well as fitting a satellite tag to the shark’s fin.

The topic Johnson chose to speak about was “can shark science save sharks?” By his account, the three month long Ocearch expedition, and the criticisms levelled at the project, caused him to question some very fundamental aspects of what he was doing as a scientist. If scientists cannot help sharks, then of what use is their work? Johnson listed some of the criticisms that were levelled at the Ocearch project, and responded to them one by one.

  • Why must Americans come and do this work? Why can’t South Africans do it themselves? There were 30 South African and 12 international scientists on the project, showing that we do certainly have the scientific capacity to do research on this scale. Funding, however, was never going to be found from local sources.
  • The scientists weren’t using the best methods. Alternative tagging methods for large marine creatures include the pop-up archival tags (PAT) tags used by the Breede River bull shark project, and acoustic tags, which have been used in False Bay and involve placing transponders on the ocean floor which record a signal when a tagged shark swims past. PAT tags have a life of only three months in Southern African waters because of the rate of algae growth, so no multi-year data would be obtained. They also are only accurate to within 300 kilometres, so no fine scale data would be available either. Acoustic tags require a network of transponders to be placed at locations past which the shark is likely to swim (and at this stage we don’t know what those locations are, for white sharks), and provide no detailed directional information unless the transponders are very close together. Satellite tags (SPOT tags) are by far the best option as they have a life of about five years, and work all over the world.
  • White sharks are already protected in South Africa, so what’s the point of doing research on them? This is true, but as Johnson later pointed out, they are not protected in any neighbouring countries other than Namibia, and certainly not on the high seas.
  • It was all done for television sensationalism. I can’t actually remember what Johnson said about this one (I wrote nothing down, so he may have pooh-poohed it briefly and moved on), but I can say that while the visuals of a white shark being wrestled by a fisherman and hoisted onto a platform may be arresting, there was no other way to get the biological samples and apply the satellite tags on an animal this size. Johnson acknowledged that this aspect of the research was not pretty, but that the alternative – no more sharks – is far worse. In response to a question he also acknowledged that deformity of the tagged sharks’ dorsal fins will take place, but that improvements in the positioning of the tags (higher up) and the anti fouling substance used to prevent algae growth will hopefully reduce the deformities from the levels observed during similar research in 2003-2004. The tags will fall off after about five years.Again, it is a trade off between being able to better protect sharks with the knowledge gained from harming a minority of them, or simply not being able to protect any sharks at all. I haven’t seen the show yet, so I’m not sure how much “ocean posturing” went on (it was probably too cold to get the speedos and bikinis out), but there’s no escaping the fact that a lot of science was taking place at the same time. Perhaps we must overlook the human frailty that causes some of us to seek the limelight, and focus on the very exciting research that is taking place now, long after the cameras have stopped rolling.
  • The idea of a “caring fisherman” is an oxymoron. According to Johnson, the professional fishermen working with Chris Fischer to hook the sharks and bring them on board the Ocearch boat have for years been adherents of the “only keep what you’re going to eat” viewpoint. (I’m not sure you should even take it out the water if you’re not going to eat or tag it, though, but we’ll let that one go.)
  • There was no public participation or information provided. Shark cage diving operators in Mossel Bay were only informed two hours before the Ocearch crew started work in the area that they were going to be operating nearby, and we are all familiar with the complete PR debacle that took place when the project came to Cape Town. Johnson admitted several times that they “dropped the ball significantly” on this, and said that while public participation is not necessary (I agree – it’s a ridiculous idea to ask a generally uninformed public whether they think science should be done), keeping the public informed absolutely is both courteous and necessary.
  • The participants took part in the research for financial gain. According to Johnson, none of the scientists got paid a cent, and Chris Fischer himself is not very financially flush either. There is no way for me to know anything about this, and I have no opinion on it.
  • The government has no ability to enforce whatever recommendations the scientists make based on the research, so why do it? This is a poor argument – the mandate of science is to provide research regardless of whether the will or means to act on it exists. At some future time the government may remove its head from the sand on these issues, and at that time scientists will be ready with data and analysis.
  • The project had no academic credibility. There were 30 local shark scientists involved (the majority of the community), and during the course of several workshops and discussions the project was discussed with academics in order to determine whether everyone would be involved. The consensus was a fairly resounding yes, by all accounts.

Johnson acknowledged that several of the criticisms of the project, especially regarding the complete absence of communication on what was planned and what the scientists were doing, were valid, but reiterated that the opportunity to do research like this, with funding provided by the History Channel (over $5 million), is simply a once in a lifetime event. It seems that everyone has learned something about bridging the apparent disconnect between scientists and the general public in South Africa. Hopefully these lessons are taken to heart!

As pointed out earlier, the criticism that bothered Johnson the most was that the research was purely academic and couldn’t contribute to the conservation of the animal. This prompted him to ask several questions, which he shared with us.

White sharks have been protected in South Africa since 1991 on the basis of a “precautionary principle”. What can this research add apart from simply satisfying academic curiosity? Will it have tangible benefits to the conservation status of white sharks in South Africa?

White shark capture rates in the KZN “bather protection” nets between 1978 and 2008 suggest that the population is stable. The average size of captured sharks, however, is dropping significantly, indicating that the breeding stock is being depleted. Female white sharks take 15 years to reach sexual maturity (the age at which they will start to breed), and a rapid, sudden population decline is possible if these mature females have mostly been fished out (by whatever means).

Dorien
Dorien

Moreover, while white sharks are protected here and in neighbouring Namibia, protection simply on a national scale is not effective. Dorien and Lyla Grace are examples of tagged sharks that have ventured far out of South Africa’s EEZ (territorial waters) and are thus exposed to uncontrolled fishing, longlining and finning by foreign vessels. Perseverance, another of the Ocearch sharks, has ventured to the edge of the continental shelf into waters patrolled by longliners.

Luis Antonio
Luis Antonio

Regarding the question of whether white sharks are targeted in South Africa, Johnson observed that the KZN nets take about 30 white sharks per year. (Stop and think about that number. It’s enormous.) Three tagged sharks have already extensively utilised this coast: Edna, Nico, and Luis Antonio, who spent almost three months chilling just off Richard’s Bay in what might be an as yet unidentified aggregation area. Very large white sharks have been caught in the shark nets there (over 4 metres in length), and this has potential consequences for the entire white shark population.

The role of the recreational fishing community was raised in the question of whether white sharks are captured incidentally in South Africa, but I think also ought to be examined in terms of whether it targets white sharks deliberately. Fisherman Leon Bekker of George, who was photographed (by Ryan Johnson, in fact) hauling a white shark out of the water by the gills and posing for photos with it for 15 minutes claimed he had caught the fish by accident and it was washed ashore, but much evidence indicates that a minority of recreational anglers deliberately seek out white sharks, using heavy tackle and special hooks, in order to feel more manly by subjugating another living creature, one presumes. Classy guys.

Johnson did point out (and Meaghen McCord has echoed this point in talks I’ve heard her give) that the majority of recreational anglers are keen to be legal and to operate on the side of the law and of conservation data. I hope this is true and that the local fishermen who use the internet and post in angling forums are a minority. That’s all I’m saying.

Regarding incidental capture of white sharks, in the last 10 years there have been about five white sharks voluntarily surrendered to authorities after accidental capture by fishermen. No one is under any illusion that these are the only sharks that have been captured by accident in the past decade – fishermen are generally afraid to hand over a protected species if it’s caught by accident and most will toss it overboard, or the fins and jaws are valuable enough to tempt many people to hang onto their catch. We have no idea of the impact of long lining, purse seine fishing and trawling, and accidental entanglement. The white shark killed by whelk farming gear (warning – horrible photo) earlier this year is a case in point.

Johnson also questioned whether our Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are effective. He showed a map of the De Hoop MPA, with a large white shark aggregation area stradding the boundary as these creatures took advantage of the massive fish stocks in the area. Clearly the MPAs are of benefit to fish that don’t range very far (as Colin Attwood pointed out), but white sharks have enormous migratory paths and may spend very little time in protected waters.

Towards the end of his talk, Johnson touched on something that has bothered me about shark conservation in South Africa, but also internationally. There seems to be a disproportionate amount of rivalry, posturing, jockeying for media coverage, and misguided competition between individuals who SUPPOSEDLY have only sharks’ best interests at heart. Johnson observed sadly that this type of infighting “makes shark killers smile”.

In response to questions Johnson shared a bit of insight around the tension that existed between cage diving operators (some of whom bizarrely objected to television coverage of the very “product” they are selling – at high prices – to visitors from around the globe, and have failed to recognise what a boon the real-time tracks of the tagged sharks are to their presentations to guests prior to embarking on a trip), the conditions attached to the permit granted by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), the presence of very professional government observers and vets on board the Ocearch vessel, and the ridiculous controversy over the “five tons of chum“, which was drummed up by an uninformed (or deliberately obstructive) local cage diving operator.

We found this interesting, as it provided much colour and understanding about the events of the torrid couple of weeks when the DEA revoked and then reinstated the Ocearch permit, but at the same time I must observe how saddening and disappointing it is to find such a complete lack of co-operation and open communication between all parties concerned: the DEA, Ocearch, conservationists, scientists, and eco-tourism operators. What is it about sharks that seems to bring out the worst, most self-interested aspects of the personalities involved?

Having depressed myself thinking about this topic again, I’ll close with a quote from an Ocearch press release in which the names of the scientists working on the project were released for the first time (only after a fire storm of controversy erupted when a bodyboarder was bitten by a white shark in False Bay):

Knowledge generated in this way can capacitate resource managers to effectively mitigate threats to this species by developing effective conservation and management measures. Such knowledge may, for example, include identification of areas where white sharks are vulnerable to exploitation, identification of habitats that are critical for mating, birthing, and feeding, and insight as to whether our white shark stock can adequately be conserved locally or whether regional or international cooperation will be necessary.

Let’s obtain that knowledge, analyse it, and act on it. Please, thank you.

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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