Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Great white shark facts or fiction?

GAINESVILLE -- With his two golden retrievers resting their heads in his lap, George Burgess seems gentler than one might expect for a guy who catalogs shark carnage.

Shark file Q&A

Q. What is the International Shark Attack File?

A. It's both a literal, physical file of shark attack reports -- including autopsies and medical records -- and a computer database that breaks out statistics and trends from those reports. The file's official
(or just Google "Shark Attack File") receives some 30 million hits a year.

Q. How did the International Shark Attack File begin?

A. The U.S. Navy, concerned about the number of wartime shark attacks on its sailors, hired scientists to compile known attack accounts in 1958. It financed the research for a decade, after which the file really hopped around, under the care of various researchers. It was maintained at times by scientists at Cornell University; the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota; and the University of Rhode Island until finally, in 1987, it arrived at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

Q. Why would scientists want to keep files on a gruesome, sensationalist subject?

A. Partly to reduce the gruesome sensationalism, said Gregor Cailliet, a professor at California's Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. "Were not a credible organization keeping good records, many of which have to be seriously investigated to test their veracity, a lot of liberty could be taken with shark attacks and rumors associated with them." And partly to understand better how and when sharks attack, in order to keep bad human-shark interactions at a minimum. Data from the file has shown that wearing jewelry and bright colors can attract sharks and that sharks are more likely to attack under certain conditions than others.

Did you know?

Although "finning" - taking the fins for use in shark fin soup and discarding the rest of the shark - is widespread in open ocean shark hunting, the top five endangered species of shark have become scarce for other reasons.

· The top two endangered species, the whale shark and basking shark, are also the two largest. Found in tropical waters, they are hunted because they yield a lot of meat.

· River sharks, which swim into freshwater from the Indian Ocean, are vulnerable to human interaction and modification to their habitat.

· Sand sharks, called gray nurse and ragged tooth sharks in other parts of the world, are mistakenly caught during commercial fishing or are killed by divers.

· The great white shark, the largest predatory shark, is considered vulnerable because it is hunted in large numbers by humans. Although prized as a trophy, the white shark is also hunted for its meat, skin, liver oil and fins.

Florida Museum of Natural History Yet a laid-back, amiable nature helps Burgess, perhaps the nation's most visible shark scientist and frequently quoted expert on shark attacks, plead a strong case for the conservation of sharks, even as he's explaining why one swam off with a chunk of surfer leg.

And finally, 30 years after the movie "Jaws" sent shark-human relations into a tailspin, his message is starting to penetrate.

Burgess, 55, is director of the Florida Museum of Natural History's shark research program. He has figured out why deep-water lantern sharks blink in the dark (they're pointing the way to their sex organs). He is lately helping list every catfish species on Earth. He has described tiny sharks off Venezuela, a type of guppy in Haiti and a bass in the Apalachicola River; he's authored some 150 papers and advised governments and fisheries on shark harvests.

To the world, though, he's the shark attack guy. When sharks attack, Burgess soothes with statistics and facts -- for example, that sharks kill only 10 people a year, and none (so far) in Volusia County's surfline.

Burgess is curator of the International Shark Attack File, a collection of investigations of nearly 4,000 attacks since the 1950s -- some fatal, some not, all investigated and verified.
The file, closed to the press and the public, "is not exactly cutting-edge science," he said. It doesn't make any money, either.

It is nonetheless a subject of major public interest, without which Burgess would have few chances to proselytize for the endangered members of the elasmobranch order -- which includes sharks, skates, and rays.

"It's part of why I endure some 500 interviews a year," he said as he endured another in his living room recently. "How could I live as a scientist without taking that opportunity?"

Not everyone likes the philosophy. "Suggesting that the International Shark Attack File promotes shark conservation because the data show that sharks are not very dangerous is a bit like recommending tourists visit New York City because there were 15 percent fewer murders last year," said R. Aidan Martin, a shark researcher in Vancouver.

But many say the file's thorough, verified, clinical accounts have helped keep rumors and hysteria in check -- benefiting people and sharks alike.

Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, said he's a fan of Burgess' approach. When media start circling, "It's always admirable when he's able to not only answer those questions but redirect attention to the bigger story -- the ecological status of sharks."


On Tuesday, when Burgess gives a talk to University of Florida alumni in Daytona Beach, he expects an audience that's fairly "enlightened"; i.e., levelheaded about sharks. The talk, on "The International Shark Attack File: Lessons Learned & Future Research" at the University of Central Florida Auditorium, Building 150, Room 101, 1200 W. International Speedway Blvd., is open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Burgess will spend half his time speaking on the biology and natural history of sharks, and how their slow maturation and low reproductive rates leave them vulnerable to overfishing, with most shark populations now depressed by 40 to 80 percent.

He will then talk about the shark attack file, and what patterns have emerged over a half-century's worth of data -- what people were wearing and doing when attacked; how the sharks behaved; what conditions of waves, tides, and temperature converged.

Volusia County is shark bite central. Bites are more common here than in any other 50-mile stretch of beach on the planet. If anyone should be jaded about shark attacks, and ready to move on, it's Volusia and Flagler residents.

"But during the Q&A period I can guarantee you," Burgess said, "it will be heavily skewed toward shark attacks," not natural history or conservation.

The fear of being gnawed on by a large cartilaginous fish may just be something in our genes. He'd get the same reaction, he said, if he were speaking to fishermen in Brazil, or aboriginals in New Zealand. "Not everyone has seen 'Jaws.' "


That movie -- which came out in the summer of 1975, when Burgess was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina -- proved a double-edged sword for shark scientists.

"Jaws" increased interest and funding for shark science, in turn launching a generation of shark biologists. It also led to a surge in recreational shark fishing that had devastating outcomes.

On the east coast of the United States, "there was a collective testosterone rush in 1975," he said. "Shark fishing was basically blue-collar fishing," and sharks, unlike large billfish, could be caught without a boat. "Any schmuck with a reasonably sized reel and a cooler for beer could reel in a shark and get a jaw for the mantelpiece. It was an easy thing, and sharks couldn't take the pressure." Shark-fishing tournaments were shut down when catches went from hundreds to a handful.

And those were just the homegrown threats. Just as shark fishing lost its allure here, China -- which has traditionally savored sharkfin soup -- was growing richer and better able to afford the expensive fins. Asian fisherman finned sharks and dumped their otherwise-intact bodies overboard, killing them.

Longlining, a commercial fishing practice aimed at tuna and swordfish, but which snags sharks anyway, has in recent years done even more to depress their populations.

Recommending protective measures for sharks is a large part of what Burgess does as a vice chairman of the World Conservation Union's shark specialist group. In the early 1990s, U.S. fisheries adopted the first shark-protection rules. But they're not all enforced, and rulemaking is a frustrating process, he said, as scientists' counsel is balanced against fishing interests -- even when the balance is unsustainable.

"In college I worked as a commercial fisherman," he said. "It's hard work and it's underpaid. But the problem is that there's too many fishers and their equipment is so darned good."
A better bet than balancing what can't be balanced, he said, is setting hard limits and guiding fishermen out of unsustainable fisheries and into sustainable ones.


Yet sharks' public image has improved, even as their populations have crashed.
The term "man-eating" is no longer a required prefix in newspaper headlines. The latest shark-horror flick, the made-for-TV "Spring Break Shark Attack," hardly aroused the cultural response "Jaws" did.

The old argument that sharks eat desirable game fish -- and that reducing the shark population would increase the amount of grouper and tuna on the market -- is seldom heard nowadays as a justification for killing them willy-nilly.

It's true that they eat tasty game fish, Burgess said, but it's not the point -- each animal, even a top predator, has its place in the ecosystem. It's there because it's supposed to be.
Burgess and his staff work tirelessly, through education campaigns and public outreach, to promote the virtues of sharks, or at least their right to exist. Though even he admits there's no knowing what would happen if sharks blinked out entirely.

"Usually the loss of any one category could have ramifications through the ecosystem, but we don't know what would change. Losses are most severely felt the further down the food chain," he said. "If you lost the copepods" -- tiny marine crustaceans -- "all hell would break loose." The loss of a top predator might not have such an effect.

"But sharks are a piece of the jigsaw puzzle," he said. And in all their charisma and deadly fascination, they make splendid poster children for troubled oceans. "If sharks are in trouble, what's happening in the sea?"

Plus he'd rather be the shark guy, at any rate, than the copepod guy.


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