Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Severely injured great white shark found, are scientists responsible?

Southern Fried Science: Severely injured great white shark found, are scientists responsible?

Last summer, I reviewed National Geographic’s “Expedition Great White” and interviewed the lead scientist. Several researchers and conservationists were concerned about the methods that Dr. Michael Domeier uses to study great white sharks, particularly after one shark was “foul hooked” through the gills. These methods (removing captured great white sharks from the water to study them using a forklift-like structure) make for excellent television, but may be harmful to the sharks. As I reported last year:

“While I regularly take sharks out of the water for my research, I don’t ever mess with anything larger than 5 or 6 feet. In addition to the human safety factor, animals larger than that may be too heavy for their cartilaginous skeletons to support their weight without water’s buoyancy. The white sharks Dr. Domeier removed from the water were 14-18 feet long”
This debate recently resurfaced when a severely injured great white shark was discovered. Some conservationists wondered if this shark was “Junior”, the shark that was foul hooked by Dr. Domeier’s research team.

Is this injured shark "Junior", the shark that was foul-hooked by Dr. Domeier's team? Image taken from

Dr. Domeier’s team at the Marine Conservation Science Institute declined to comment for this post, but directed me to a statement they made last week on their website:

“The images clearly show a rather nasty wound on the corner of Junior’s mouth, but what is not explained is that when the entire video is viewed it can be determined that this injury was clearly inflicted by another white shark; it is not a result of the capture and release during tagging. White sharks annually aggregate at both Guadalupe Island and central California, and during these aggregations the sharks are very aggressive towards each other. When they attack one another they typically bite the region from the pectoral fins to the head, often damaging the gill area and head. We have many photos of sharks from Guadalupe Island with similar aggression related injuries; this is natural shark behavior.” (emphasis mine)

A great white shark with a clear bite mark over the gills. Is this what happened to Junior? Photo from ED - This is an example of an injury caused by a shark bite, it is not Junior.
Marine CSI’s claims are possible. Little is known about great white social behavior, but many social interactions between sharks (particularly mating behavior) involve biting. It may be nothing more than a coincidence that the exact shark that was injured near the gills two years ago had an injury near the gills a year later. The above photo, which shows an injury near where Junior’s injury was seen, supports that claim. However, Patric Douglas isn’t buying this explanation:

“Why did Marine CSI researchers who have been sitting on these images since 2010 only come forward now to ultimately defend their work and put forward an ad hoc series of unlikely reasons for Juniors current mangled condition?”
Patric and Mike paint a picture of a researcher whose methods accidentally resulted in serious injury to a shark and is now trying to cover up a mistake. Dr. Domeier’s statement suggests that his team did nothing wrong, the shark’s 2010 state is unrelated to a 2009 incident, and that they are the victims of a smear campaign led by rival researchers. Personally, I’m waiting for more information before I make up my mind.

I stand by what I originally said about Dr. Domeier’s research. There is no way to gather certain types of information about great white sharks without removing them from the water, and that information is extremely important for the conservation and management of these animals. Many other sharks were captured and tagged by Dr. Domeier’s team without incident, and the information this project is generating will be used to help protect this species. I support science and scientists, but there are so few great white sharks left that we need to stand up for the animals first. If this research project seriously injured a great white shark and then attempted to cover it up (as Mike and Patric claim), that is unacceptable.

I have contacted the Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary staff to request the full video that Dr. Domeier claims exonerates his team. If we are permitted to post the video, it may clear up what happened.

A representative from the other great white shark research team declined to comment for this post.

I will keep looking into this incident, and I’ll keep everyone posted as developments arise.

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