Saturday, January 28, 2006

Huge great white shark visit other coastlines!

A "monster" white shark in the Manukau Harbour could be the same one that has terrorised people along the Taranaki coast - but experts say it is impossible to tell. The Department of Conservation has issued a warning to swimmers around New Plymouth after several sightings of a large great white shark. The last sighting was last Friday.

On Sunday three fishermen were forced to abandon a catch near the Manukau Heads in Auckland when they attracted the attentions of a "monster" which was longer than their 6m boat. DoC marine scientist Clinton Duffy said it was easily possible that it was the same shark. "With a cruising speed of four to seven km/h they move long distances pretty fast," Mr Clinton said. But he said it was "equally possible" that there was more than one giant great white in New Zealand waters.

"The average size we see here is about 3.5 metres and they are often much smaller, which implies it is one and the same, but there are sharks moving through and on the coast all the time." In Taranaki, people fishing from a charter boat got a fright when a great white swam directly under their boat. A few days earlier, two competitors in a yacht race off Port Taranaki watched in horror as the shark - its fin clearly out of the water - swam between their small craft. DoC programme manager Bryan Williams said: "This makes sense, because our fur seal population has just finishing pupping - and no doubt the great white has scoffed quite a few of them."

The department has postponed a two-week dive survey programme after the sightings. In Auckland, the three anglers had hooked a mako shark and were battling to bring it in when they realised a much bigger great white was circling. It began to nudge the boat, prompting the men to free the mako and make a swift exit. "We've seen and caught sharks before, but never experienced or seen anything like it," fisherman Mark Lane told the Howick and Pakuranga Times newspaper. "It was a monster."

Mr Duffy said the white would have been attracted by the struggling mako. But the rash of sightings was common during summer and not a sign of an influx of sharks, he said. "It's a combination of them moving in to breed and eat, and many more people being out enjoying the water in the summer and spotting them. "Every single year people say there are more sharks about, but it's complete rubbish," Mr Duffy said. "If anything there's less because of the numbers caught in fishing."

Swimmers warned of presence of great white shark

Fresh sightings of a monster great white shark close to North Taranaki's shoreline have prompted a warning to swimmers.

The Conservation Department warning comes after two more close encounters with the shark, estimated to be six metres long.

Fishermen on a charter boat got the fright of their lives when the great white swam directly under them last Friday. And two competitors in a yacht race off Port Taranaki watched in horror as the shark – its fin clearly out of the water – swam between their much smaller craft.

These sightings follow numerous incidents involving a very big shark earlier this summer.

DOC programme manager Bryan Williams said yesterday the latest sightings confirmed there was at least one very large great white patrolling off North Taranaki. "It's obviously on the move up and down the coast. This makes sense, because our fur seal population has just finishing pupping, and no doubt the great white has scoffed quite a few of them.

"We strongly recommend that swimmers at such places as Fitzroy Beach remain aware that there is a very large shark off the shore."

The presence of the shark has prompted DOC to postpone a two-week fish survey programme by divers.

Mr Williams said the operator of the fishing charter boat told DOC he was fishing in 30 metres of water less than a kilometre off the Bell Block coast when a giant shark swam directly under his boat.

"He had time to take a very good look at the shark. His boat is seven metres long, and he was able to use that to estimate the size of the shark as up to six metres. He estimated its width to be well over one metre, and its dorsal fin was at least 500 millimetres high."

The biggest great white on record measured seven metres and weighed 3200 kilograms.

Mr Williams appealed to locals not to try to catch the shark.

"It's obviously a massive fish, which is quite rare. Great whites are totally protected in Australia, and there are moves afoot to protect them in New Zealand. So we strongly recommend it be left alone."

Sighting of great white shark

There are fears fishermen might try to target a great white shark seen cruising the Taranaki coast.
The six metre white pointer has been spotted several times in the last few weeks.

Conservation Department officer Bryan Williams says boaties should not try to hassle, feed, or catch it. He says if reports of its size are correct, attempting to catch it could be dangerous.
Mr Williams says the shark has probably been feeding on seals at the Sugarloaf Islands.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Are great white sharks migration areas changing?

Despite a number of recent shark sightings in the Shire, locals and shark experts see no cause for alarm.

Local professional shark fisherman Jeff Cooke caught a 4.5m great white shark in his gill nets at 10am on Wednesday, January 18 in Augusta.

The shark was caught in 70m deep water, 40km off the coast.

"I catch mainly small sharks-the great white was an incidental catch, they are a protected species and we have to let them go," Mr Cooke said.

He did not believe there was an increase in shark numbers in the area, saying they were just part of the ecosystem.

"I might see one or two (great whites) in a year," he said.

"Sometimes I might see none and I have been here for a fair while.

"When I caught the shark there were a few other sightings in that particular week, but there are not heaps around."

The migratory patterns of the great white suggest a redistribution, not an increase in population.
"Sharks move in and out and up and down the coast chasing food and there are more people in the water than there were 20 or 30 years ago so there are going to be more sightings," Mr Cooke said.

Margaret River Boardriders president Reg Massie said that as the Cape to Cape was the most south-western point of Western Australia, it was naturally an area great whites have to pass through.

"Recent marine biology studies have shown that sharks are constantly on the move over thousands of kilometres, naturally they might swim right past us," he said.

Mr Massie said the sightings were not really alarming and that they only had an increased significance because there were more people in the water, especially through the holiday season.
"With the shark plane located in Perth, they see more sharks because they are looking for them, the frequency of sightings would have to go up," he said.

The last fatal shark attack in Margaret River occurred in 2004 when surfer Brad Smith was killed by sharks just south of Cowaramup Bay near Lefthanders Beach.

The sharks were suspected to be a 5m great white and a 3m bronze whaler.

On Wednesday, January 11, local surfer Malcolm Mortimer was at Boranup Beach when a great white surfaced and circled him before the surfer caught a wave back into shore.

The shark came in from the north and headed south.

There was also an unconfirmed sighting of a great white at Jay's Beach near the Blackwood River entrance.
"With the events that happened with Brad Smith, people are a little more aware of what's in the water with them," Mr Massie said.

"Sharks are part of the natural beauty and uniqueness of the area.

"All the Club would advise is that people are a little more diligent while in the water and report any sightings to the WA Fisheries Department and don't panic."

WA Department of Fisheries Shark Research scientist Rory McAuley said there was evidence to suggest that the great white population had been depleted over the years.

"There is a perception that the number of great white sharks is increasing as a result of receiving protected species status," Mr McAuley said.

"While I wouldn't say this is not the case, biologically speaking they can take up to 20 years to reach reproductive age and they give birth to young infrequently maybe up to every two to three years.

"Consequently it would take a couple of generations up to 40 or 50 years to see an increase in overall population size."

It is likely that that the great whites' cyclical movements are keyed into prey abundance, similar to whales and the movements of fish.

"What I understand from some of the tagging results recorded over the years is that the great white is an extremely mobile species," Mr McAuley said.

"The sightings at the moment certainly don't suggest an increase in population."

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Beachgoers...on alert!

MARGARET River beachgoers are on high alert after three great white shark sightings.

The warning came in the same week that lifesavers spotted a 6m shark off Mullaloo Beach and electrician Bernie Williams was mauled by a 3.5m white pointer while diving for crayfish off City Beach.

Margaret River surfer Malcolm Mortimer said he was at Boranup Beach when a great white surfaced 10m away.

The 5m shark circled him once and then disappeared as Mr Mortimer made an adrenalin-charged paddle back to shore.

Dunsborough Outdoor Sports owner Damian Lane also reported a close encounter.

He was diving for crayfish just 70m from shore at Sugarloaf Rock, Cape Naturaliste, when a 3m white pointer began stalking him.

"It was a great white and a decent one," Mr Lane said.

"I'm not going to say any more. Sharks aren't exactly good publicity for my line of business."
And in Augusta, 40km from Margaret River, professional shark-boat skipper Jeff Cooke caught a 4.5m white pointer.

"It was a pretty awesome creature," said Mr Cooke, a shark fisherman for 26 years.
"You generally only see (great) whites when the whales come in April or May, but there definitely seems to be a lot around at the moment.

"I found this one in my nets the same day Mal had a run-in with a shark at Boranup. I don't know if it's the same one. It could be, but then there's a lot around so it could well be a different one."
Augusta police said there had been an unconfirmed fourth sighting – at Jay's Beach near the Blackwood River entrance.

Perth underwater cinematographer Hugh Edwards, researcher and author of Shark: The Shadow Below, said great white numbers were recovering after receiving protected-species status in 1997.

But Department of Fisheries shark-research scientist Rory McAuley said that was unlikely.
"I dare say individual fishermen around the place have noticed a bit of a blip, an increase in numbers," he said. "But all the evidence still suggests the population is depleted and has not increased."

He said great whites did not reach reproductive age until 20 – and then only had young every two or three years.

It would take 40-50 years before numbers increased noticeably.

Tracking data showed that great white shark populations of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa were linked through migration routes, he said.

"The temporary increase in numbers indicates a greater percentage of the population might be in WA waters at the moment," he said.

"Fishermen are great at taking what they see in their little area and applying it to the whole state or the whole country, but that is generally not the case."

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Megalodon now in museum!

They’re among the most feared animals, but today’s shark is nothing compared to its predecessor. The Museum of Natural History is proving that with an impressive new display.The Great White shark can grow to be 12 to 15 feet, and are at the top of the food chain. Now imagine one three times the size – that’s what you’ll find at the San Diego Natural History Museum’s new Fossil Mysteries exhibit.“

This exhibit is specifically about our region – there’s nothing like it in the world right now,” Jessica Chatigny of the San Diego Natural History Museum said. “It’s the last 75 million years of San Diego… [Megalodon] lived here about 5 to 7 million years ago.” Megalodon is a full scale replica based off of fossilized teeth from sharks that swam off our coast 3 to 7 years ago.“We had a full set of casts made from a full set of fossil teeth from one individual Megalodon found in one location,” Jim Melli said.

Sharks have changed very little since Megalodon was around, which has made them very efficient eating machines. These ancient sharks ate the same prey as sharks of today, just their size is bigger.“They reach lengths as large as 40 feet or more,” Melli said “Our individual is about a 34-foot individual, and they were probably the top predator.”The exhibit opens in July. The Megalodon will be installed this week in the museum.

Diver explains how he freed himself of great white shark

Bernard Williams, 46, played hide and seek with the 11ft shark, sheltering in rock crevices and trying to evade his attacker while blinded by clouds of his own blood in the water.

The father of three was diving for crayfish about three miles off a beach near Perth when he was attacked on Sunday.

The great white attacked him from behind, biting his left arm. It was prevented from doing further damage when Mr Williams poked it in the nose with his spear gun - an experience he likened to "jabbing a lump of steel".

"I just felt like I'd been hit by a truck on the side. . . and there was a very large shark head hanging off my arm, trying to chew it.

"I was dragged along and shook up a little bit and that's when it punctured my arm. It was a lot longer than me and it would have been half a metre across the head with a lot of teeth."
When the shark released him and turned to take another bite, Mr Williams dived deep, hiding in a gap in the reef.

"I kept losing that much blood in the water that I kept losing sight of it. I had to keep moving from hole to hole to get a better view of it. It was the biggest shark I've seen in 20 years of diving."
Two fellow divers came to his aid and the shark disappeared, possibly deterred by the electronic repellent device worn by one of the men. The three divers were picked up by a fishing boat and Mr Williams was taken to hospital, where doctors treated deep gashes in his arm.

Mr Williams resolved to dive again but only after buying a shark repellent prod, which are increasingly popular among divers and surfers.

Ten days ago a
student, Sarah Whiley, 21, was killed in chest-high waters after being attacked by up to three bull sharks off North Stradbroke Island in Queensland.

She died of shock and heavy blood loss after the sharks ripped off both her arms.
She was the tenth person to be killed by sharks in Australia since 2000.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Sometimes, the victim is the shark...not humans!

Sean Van Sommeran was aboard a motorized aluminum skiff in Monterey Bay 16 years ago when he noticed something disturbing. A basking shark, a 30-foot-long plankton eater, was swimming by his boat with three arrows lodged deep in its back, with only the feathers at the end protruding.
"Only this much was sticking out," Van Sommeran recalled, creating a 5-inch gap between his fingers.

Basking sharks' dorsal fins makes them look like white sharks, and their presence in the bay frightened people. But after a Sentinel article clarified the species, people descended in droves to see them. Van Sommeran claims the sharks were being harassed: sightseers were bumping their boats into them, casting fishing hooks into them even though they were far too large to reel in, jumping Jet Skis over, and even off, them, and evidently practicing archery on them.

That experience inspired Van Sommeran to take action. After consulting with the environmental activism organization Earth Island Institute, he created the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, dedicated to the protection and study of sharks. PSRF's mission: Defend the creatures by removing some of the mystery surrounding them.

Now one of the most prominent shark advocacy organizations, PSRF has established a national reputation for its work tagging sharks to track populations and attaching transmitters to great whites to study their behaviors.

PSRF marked it 15th anniversary over the summer and recently celebrated its 100th tagging of a great white. But it's often been rough sailing for Van Sommeran and his nonprofit shark advocacy group, a collection of volunteers and selected college and high school students.

A self-described "non-credentialed knuckle-dragger," Van Sommeran considers himself a blue-collar scientist. PSRF's work has been featured in such prominent media outlets as National Geographic and Discover magazines, and the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

But some academics — including some who have worked with Van Sommeran — believe he misrepresents himself and his group to the public.

Peter Klimley, a UC Davis marine biologist who has worked with Van Sommeran, described him as "a wonderful guy," but someone who is "getting to the point where he's becoming a bit of a monster.

"He will say anything to get your attention. I think these people can be very dangerous," Klimley said in a Sentinel interview last year. "He is a self promoter — he says he has a foundation which portrays itself as a research group, which is not, and in a sense is a charlatan who portrays himself as a researcher when he is not."

Then there are those prominent marine biologists, including Bernie LeBoeuf at UCSC and Greg Caillet at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, who've squared off with Van Sommeran and who refused to talk on the talk on the record about him.

The controversy seems to only fuel Van Sommeran's passion.

"I'm not doing this to make friends," Van Sommeran said in a series of interviews and e-mails. In defending sharks, "I'm criticizing the academics, I'm criticizing sport fishermen, I'm criticizing commercial fishermen."

Aquarium critic

Last winter Van Sommeran set his sights on the Monterey Bay Aquarium after it put a young white shark on display in its Outer Bay exhibit.

Although he never saw the shark himself, Van Sommeran lashed out against aquarium officials in newspaper articles and on the KQED program "Forum" for keeping a far-swimming fish confined in a tank. He said the confinement led to injuries incurred by the shark, arguing that the great white should have been studied in the wild rather than in captivity.

Van Sommeran's repeated calls for the shark's release were echoed by fellow activist Mark Palmer, assistant director of the International Marine Mammal Project at the Earth island Institute.
"The educational value of sharks in captivity is overrated," Palmer told Animal Planet News, pointing out the financial gains realized by aquariums that exhibit sharks.

Aquarium officials refuted Van Sommeran's accusations, insisting that the shark was being under close surveillance by veterinarians, that she was eating well and gaining weight. The wound harped on by Van Sommeran was the result of the earlier abrasion exacerbated by the shark learning her way around her new surroundings, banging against the tank.

The shark was released after 180 days in captivity, during which time the aquarium saw its attendance increase 30 percent.

Sea baby

Now 43, Van Sommeran always had close ties to the sea. The only child of second-generation fishermen, he was born and raised in Santa Cruz and started working as a "bat boy" on tuna boats when he was 12, smashing fish on the head with a baseball bat to stun them.

On busy days, the tuna would pile up on deck faster than they could be moved into the coolers in the hold, so the fishermen would just cover them with burlap bags. It was Van Sommeran's job to wash off the bags at night. He would watch as the dripping blood attracted schools of sharks, their red eyes illuminated by the boat's spotlights.

After high school, Van Sommeran looked for work that would keep him at sea — jobs like surveying rockfish and albacore populations for the California Department of Fish and Game and salmon for the National Marine Fisheries Service, tallying their length and gender to learn about their population size.

He hoped to join a shark-tagging program that was in development, but budget cuts killed any hope for the project, Van Sommeran said, and he returned to Santa Cruz Harbor, running the gas dock and working as a deckhand on charter boats.

Since he was on the water every day, he had tags sent to him and continued marking sharks in his spare time. It became a major part of PSRF's work.

PSRF was among the first to start ID tagging the nearly two dozen species of shark in the Monterey Bay, and has tagged more than 3,000 sharks over the years, Van Sommeran said.
Van Sommeran has also worked undercover with the Earth Island Institute, traveling to the Gulf of Mexico and Costa Rica to videotape evidence of shark finning and turtle poaching.

"He's done great work over the past years in public education and conservation for sharks," said Mark Berman, the institute's associate director for the marine mammal project. "We support his effort and he should continue. He is hard working, very knowledgeable about his issue and fisheries in general."

Operating on an annual budget regularly less than $20,000, according to Van Sommeran, PSRF relies on a combination of out-of-pocket contributions, grants and stipends to finance its work. Running PSRF has been a full-time, seven-days-a-week job, Van Sommeran said. And when he's done with that, he leads fishing charters or kayak trips to earn money to support himself.

"It's a real chore making ends meet every month," says Van Sommeran, who says he often couch surfs or house-sits for friends.

Science or not?

Van Sommeran insists what PSRF does is science, a claim challenged by his detractors and neutral observers.

"You're not going to learn the most tangible, applied processes in a book, or a classroom, or a lecture," Van Sommeran says. "It's not rocket science. All you need is good eyesight, a strong back, and good shipboard balance."

But it takes more than that, said David Goodstein, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who writes articles about scientific fraud.

"A degree says that you've put in your time, that you've devoted certain amounts of attention to the details of your profession," says Goodstein, who was unfamiliar with the ongoing conflict between Van Sommeran and academics. "As a professional, you pay attention to certain things: who you listen to, what you say, how strongly you say it.

"You can be both a scientist and an environmental advocate, but it doesn't help you with your credibility. Anyone who's an advocate of anything, any business, runs the risk of being not very objective, and that's not what a scientist is supposed to be."

To those who question his scientific legitimacy, Van Sommeran points to published research papers on which he is listed as a co-author.

But co-authorships don't necessarily make somebody a scientist, said Caltech's Goodstein, although it does help.

Van Sommeran works more as a field technician than a researcher, agrees Scot Lucas, a Department of Fish and Game biologist who is PSRF's director of research in his spare time the "Spock to my Kirk," Van Sommeran says.

"But that's kind of where I've stepped in. I'm trying to improve our ability to do more rigorous science." And, he said, "what Van Sommeran lacks in scientific learning, I think his field experience more than makes up for."

Disputes swirl around researchers

Sean Van Sommeran's battles with those he describes as "establishment cronies" in the scientific community escalated in 2002 during a contentious legal fight over rights to scientific data.

The Pelagic Shark Research Foundation had not been credited in a short paper in the journal Nature about satellite tagging of white sharks — research aided by Van Sommeran's help with the tagging and using satellite tags funded by donations given to PSRF.

Van Sommeran filed a suit against Scott Davis, a graduate student at UCSC and lead author of the paper, who had also been a PSRF member. The paper detailed research conducted by Bernie LeBoeuf at UCSC and Barbara Block of Stanford University, along with four other marine scientists, but with no acknowledgment of PSRF's role.

The matter was resolved in mediation in 2004 after Davis sent Van Sommeran a letter of apology.
"I think it's worth it," said Van Sommeran, who gets fiercely defensive whenever the case is mentioned. "These days, it's a war."

However, there is evidence some old wounds are healing.

Stanford's Block, chief scientist of the Tagging of the Pacific Pelagics program, said members of her team partnered with PSRF in 2005 to tag white sharks. She hopes researchers "can put our differences aside" and work toward a common goal.

"We all are in the Bay Area and Central Coast working together on behalf of white shark conservation," Block said.

Van Sommeran found himself on the losing end of a decision in 2003 when the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration fined PSRF $21,000 for violating conditions of its permit to lure white sharks.

Van Sommeran denied any wrongdoing and continues to contest the finding.

If You Go

WHAT: Shark lecture, covering the past 15 years of research at Ano Nuevo Island and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Who: Sean Van Sommeran of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation.

WHEN: Jan. 28, 2 p.m.

WHERE: Rancho Del Oso, south of Ano Nuevo Island State Park.

Diver fights of great white shark

A diver escaped with minor cuts after fending off a 3.5-metre (11ft) great white shark with a spear gun. Brian Williams, 52, was attacked off a Perth beach in Western Australia.

Police said the diver had become separated from the rest of his diving group when the shark attacked from behind, grabbing and biting his left arm. "He hit out at the shark with his spear gun and eventually the shark swam away," Inspector George Putland told ABC news.

The victim is now recovering from his wounds. Last week a woman was killed by sharks off an island near Australia's east coast.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Great white sharks need protection from poachers

The victims: 21 great white sharks.The evidence: A bag of dried fins confiscated in New York.
The investigator: A South Florida scientist who developed a technique for rapidly identifying shark species from their DNA.Mahmood Shivji, a conservation biologist at Nova Southeastern University, is helping federal fishing enforcement agents make their case against a New York seafood exporter accused of illegally possessing the fins of protected great white sharks.

Despite their sharp teeth and fierce reputation, sharks have sustained significant declines around the world, largely because of the market in East Asia for their fins. In China, Malaysia and other countries, shark fin soup is a delicacy that can command prices of $100 a bowl. With China's economic rise, demand for fins has soared, supporting fisheries in the United States and other countries.

The great white case began in late 2003, when investigators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confiscated about a ton of dried shark fins from a New York seafood exporter, according to an account recently published in the journal Conservation Genetics. In one bag of fins labeled "porbeagle," a shark species that's legal to catch, they found a hidden label that said "blanco," Spanish for white.Possession of great whites is illegal in the United States, with violators facing maximum fines of $100,000 per count.

This case involves only possession of a protected species, not the illegal practice of finning, in which the fins are cut off a live shark, which is tossed back, said Mark Oswell, spokesman for NOAA law enforcement.Unable to determine the species of the fins, investigators turned to Shivji, director of Nova's Guy Harvey Research Institute, who had already helped make about a dozen shark-violation cases against fishermen.

Shivji, whose original training was in plant genetics, flew to New York and went to NOAA's office, where they pulled bags of fins out of a storage room. The bags contained 84 fins belonging to 21 sharks."Once the shark has been caught and cut up into small body parts, like fins or meat, it's very difficult to tell what species those body parts came from, unless you use some kind of genetic test," Shivji said. "And we had developed that kind of genetic test, to actually identify a white shark's body parts."Using separate, clean disposable razors, Shivji took fingernail-sized samples of each right pectoral fin.

He brought the samples to Nova's laboratories near the inlet to Port Everglades. Using a technique that replicates particular sections of DNA millions of times, he and his graduate students matched it to the great white's unique genetic code. And for the record, he ran the porbeagle's genetic code and found it didn't match."There are differences in the DNA sequence between a white shark, a shortfin mako, a porbeagle, a sandbar, a dusky shark etc." Shivji said. "It's just like there would be DNA sequence differences between a human and a chimpanzee and a baboon and an orangutan."

Paul Raymond, special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement, who co-authored the paper in Conservation Genetics, said he couldn't release the name of the exporter because the a formal notice of violation has not yet been filed. He described the exporter as a "major dealer."He said Shivji and his graduate students provide "great reports" that have not been challenged in court.Wildlife enforcement officers have used DNA analysis to convict people for poaching deer, selling the eggs of endangered sea turtles and smuggling caviar.

Shivji adapted the technique to sharks, and has figured out how to test for up to 14 species at once."It holds real promise for enforcing shark-protection regulations," said Sonja Fordham, international conservation manager for The Ocean Conservancy. "You have 19 species of sharks that are prohibited species. You have a big pile of fins, and it's not always possible to tell which species they are. I think it's really exciting technology that would really help conservation."

Great whites live all over the world, including off the Florida coast, although they're found in largest numbers off California, South Africa and Australia. The World Conservation Union, which administers an internationally recognized list of endangered species, classifies great whites as "vulnerable."The species matures late and produces few young, according to a World Conservation Union report.

In addition to being caught for meat, the great white pays a price for its notoriety as a predator, being targeted for its jaws and teeth.The case is particularly important because some people have questioned whether the fin trade was a threat to great whites.

During the 2004 debate over whether to add the great white to an international treaty on endangered species, some countries' representatives argued that the species was caught only to meet the small trophy demand for its jaws and teeth, not its fins.Fordham said the discovery of fins from 21 sharks was "surprising and alarming," given the law against catching them and the species' natural rarity."I don't think we knew it was going on at that level," she said.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Investigation CSI Style uncovered illegal trade!

Law enforcement agents are using a genetic test — similar to those used by investigators in popular television programs — to identify fins and other products from the highly protected Great White Shark, according to an article published in the journal Conservation Genetics.Resembling the story line of a prime time plot, in late 2003 agents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confiscated approximately 1 ton of dried shark fins intended for export to Asian markets from a U.S. East Coast seafood dealer.

One of the confiscated sacks was labeled “porbeagle,” a close cousin of the Great White Shark, but a label concealed inside read “blanco,” which is Spanish for “white.” With the help of the agents, scientists from the Guy Harvey Research Institute (GHRI) at Nova Southeastern University (NSU) in Florida, took small samples from each of the 21 sets of fins for DNA analysis using a novel, rapid method utilizing both nuclear and mitochondrial markers.“All 21 suspect fins yielded the unambiguous, white shark diagnostic pair of DNA amplicons, a type of DNA fingerprint confirming the origin of the species,” says Mahmood Shivji, Ph.D., principal study author and director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute.

Using the forensic assay they developed earlier, Professor Shivji and his graduate students have found white shark species-specific primers that generate a distinctive pair of amplicons, which are unique to white sharks, in their small lab at the mouth of busy Port Everglades just south of Fort Lauderdale.“Dr. Shivji and his graduate students have been very helpful to us in more than a dozen cases,” says Paul Raymond, special agent with the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement. “Shark species identification is one of the hardest things to deal with in terms of fins and shark meat.”Agent Raymond is not able to provide further details on the pending case, as it has not yet gone to trial.

The penalty for possessing or selling prohibited shark species includes fines up to $100,000.The Great White Shark, a long-time protected species in the United States, was listed last year in the Appendix II of the Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), helping to ensure that international trade does not compromise or harm wild populations.“The existence of this DNA test is one of the key reasons that the Great White Shark received international protection under CITES,” says Ellen Pikitch, Ph.D., executive director of the University of Miami’s Pew Institute for Ocean Science (PIOS) and a co-author of the study.

“The discovery of multiple fin sets from this high-profile, species found through application of the DNA test demonstrates that surreptitious exploitation of protected sharks is occurring in the U.S. Atlantic - a region with among the most extensive shark fishing regulations in the world.”As apex predators, Great White Sharks are naturally rare. And because they are slow to mature and produce few young, sharks are exceptionally vulnerable to overfishing and slow to recover from depletion.

The female Great White Shark matures at age 12 and produces an average of 5 young at a time. Highly prized shark parts are traded internationally — a set of jaws may sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Shark fins are a delicacy among certain Asian populations, as a bowl of its clear broth may fetch $150.“The discovery of so many smaller shark fins from a highly protected species in the possession of a single trader indicates that there may be a specialized market for white shark fins not only as trophies but also as food, putting additional pressure on the species,” says Professor Shivji.

“By applying DNA techniques to track the species of origin of shark fins in the market, we can put ‘teeth’ into enforcement of fishing regulations and finally begin to assess the impacts that trade poses to the health of shark populations. In turn, this knowledge will help in conservation planning and fisheries management for white sharks and other declining shark species.”About the Guy Harvey Research InstituteThe Guy Harvey Research Institute is a scientific research organization based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, at the Oceanographic Center of Nova Southeastern University, minutes from coral reefs and popular fishing grounds.

GHRI was established in 1999 as a collaboration between the renowned marine artist Dr. Guy Harvey and NSU’s Oceanographic Center to assume a leadership role in providing the scientific information necessary to understand and save the world’s fish resources and biodiversity from drastic, ongoing declines. GHRI is one of only a handful of private organizations dedicated exclusively to expanding the scientific knowledge base needed for effective conservation of fish populations and maintenance of fish biodiversity.

About the Pew Charitable TrustsIn 2003, the Pew Charitable Trusts partnered with the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science to provide a generous, multi-year grant and founded the Pew Institute for Ocean Science - which undertakes, sponsors and promotes world-class scientific activity aimed at protecting the world's oceans and the species that inhabit them. The scientific role of the institute is to increase public understanding of the causes and the consequences of problems affecting the marine environment. The conservation role is to promote solutions to these problems.

DNA can protect the great white shark specie!

Shark fin soup might sound strange to some but is a delicacy to many, and that desire for the soup is driving some to target the endangered great white shark, leaving one South Florida scientist to develop a new test to save the marine animal.

Conservation Geneticist Dr. Mahmood Shivji is conducting DNA research at Nova Southeastern University on the subject.Shivji has developed a way of finding out if the fins used to prepare your soup were acquired from the heavily protected great white shark, which marine biologists say is crucial to maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem around the world.

Many unscrupulous fishers are just cutting off the fins of live great whites to feed the heavy demand for shark fins in kitchens around the world. Most of these animals are thrown back in the water left to bleed to death.Though there are tough laws to protect these sharks, there was little that could be done to trace the origins of fins that have already been cut off by fishers. Now, with by cutting a small sliver of a fin, Shivji has developed a way of matching DNA and figuring out if your meal was fished illegally.

Can chumming be responsible for dangerous changes in sharks behaviors?

In May 2005, the Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council held a meeting to discuss the effect North Shore shark tour operators have on shark behavior. They wanted to know what people had to say about possible danger to swimmers and surfers and about impact on fishing grounds.
Those possible dangers and effects are being discussed again after one of the tour operators captured video of a great white shark off Haleiwa last week.

Hawaii Shark Encounters is one of two Oahu companies that put bait in the ocean to attract sharks. Once sharks arrive, customers can slip into a submerged cage for an up-close look at the sharks.

"We attract sharks. We attract sand bar sharks and Galapagos sharks, never been known to bit anyone in Hawaii," Jimmy Hall told KGMB9 Tuesday. Hall is co-owner of Hawaii Shark Encounters. He left the cage last week to swim with the great white.

"The excitement on the boat was just phenomenal, even from the customers," said Julian Oliphant, a Hawaii Shark Encounter employee who was on the boat when the great white made its surprise visit. "I don't even know if they were really appreciating it as much as me and Jimmy were, but it was just amazing all the way around. So big; I mean it was the biggest fish I've ever seen."

The first ever video of a great white in Hawaiian waters has scientific value. It also has some wondering why tour operators are allowed to chum the water to attract sharks.

"If there was this much of a chance I was endangering anybody in the slightest way, I would never ever do this," Hall said holding two of his fingers about a centimeter apart. "And let me tell you this. There is no shark expert nor is there anyone that has come out with us that thinks what we're doing is wrong."

The operators are not allowed in state waters, so they say they always go at least three miles from shore, beyond state limits.

The federal government hasn't taken a position on the chumming, but wants to know what effect the tour companies are having on shark behavior, so the Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council supports a study to track shark movement.

One of the things the agency wants to know is whether the sharks following tour boats back to land.
"The great concern [is] oh, you are attracting the sharks to the beach. I don't think we're doing that much of anything, but if anything we're bringing them away from the beach, three miles out there," Hall said pointing to the open ocean off Haleiwa.

Hall is sure his business is not putting anyone in danger. But he says the sharks he attracts could affect the catch of fishermen nearby.

He says he is working with fishermen to address the issue.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Swimming with a great white shark!

When Jimmy Hall realized he was within mere feet of a great white shark, he did not swim away. Instead, he left the safety of a shark cage off Hale'iwa and swam with the beast.

He even reached out and touched it.

"It's been a dream of mine for many, many years to swim with a white shark and I got to do it. And I got to do it with one of the biggest ones that I've ever seen, even in photographs," Hall said.

Hall is a captain with Hawai'i Shark Encounters, a tour company based in Hale'iwa. The company takes customers three miles off Hale'iwa, where they spend a couple of hours in a cage, hoping to see sharks.

On Wednesday, Hall accompanied seven customers who had been in the water for about an hour when there was a commotion in the cage.

"People in the cage started yelling about the enormous shark that they saw," Hall said. "As soon as they started yelling, we saw this incredible shape coming up. I thought it was a small humpback whale, that's how big it was. It was so big that I didn't even think that it could be a shark."

Hall quickly realized he was staring at an 18- to 20-foot female great white shark, one of the most feared creatures of the sea. He said it was the first time since he's been involved in the shark diving business that a great white has appeared.

Hall didn't want to miss his opportunity, so he jumped in with his customers. But after a few minutes he decided get out of the aluminum cage to be closer to the shark.

Hall said he got close enough to touch the shark "many times."

"I was scared, not petrified, and a lot of it was a thrill, just in realizing how special this was," he said. "But you're not going to face something that big and not be scared."

John Naughton, a biologist and shark expert with the National Marine Fisheries Service, has seen the video of the encounter with the shark and said it "was a very magnificent animal." Naughton estimated the shark to be at least 17 feet long. He said the largest great white recorded was 21 feet.

Hall said the shark was very calm — and described the experience as incredible. In the 45 minutes that the shark was there, it rubbed against the boat and cage several times.

"It sounds silly to say, but she looked really friendly, rubbing against the boat, never really aggressive," Hall said.

The shark's presence excited the tour group, but Hall said they quickly settled down.

"They understood what they were seeing, that it was something really, really special," Hall said.
One of the passengers was Richard Parry, a Wai'alae Nui resident, who took the tour with his 23-year-old son Robert. Richard Parry said he was on the boat when the shark appeared.

"We were just expecting to see some of the local sharks, maybe a hammerhead or a tiger if we got lucky, and then suddenly all these sharks disappeared, and this girl who was in the cage yelled out, 'Oh, my God, there's the biggest shark I've ever seen,' " Parry said. "We thought she was exaggerating and the tour guide sort of said, 'I think it's a baby humpback.' And then he looked and said, 'Oh, God, it's a great white.' "

The Parrys quickly jumped into the cage. Richard Parry said he never was afraid of being in the water.
"My initial reaction was one of amazement, that it was there, and a little bit of, 'This thing is a man-eater.' But I didn't feel threatened," he said.

Unlike Hall, however, Richard Parry never considered getting out of the cage to be closer to the shark.

"It goes through your mind, and then you think, 'Nah, I'm not going to do that,' " he said.

Naughton said great whites are rare in Hawai'i because they prefer cold waters, and there isn't a concentrated food source like there is off Northern California, where seals migrate. He said there have been many great white sightings here over the years, but the footage of the one seen Wednesday "is the best I've ever seen."

In clear ocean, great whites don't usually attack humans, Naughton said. "They just don't recognize us as a food source," he said.

Still, Naughton said, he wouldn't recommend that anyone do what Hall did.

"It's very dangerous for somebody to be in the water with them, because if they wanted to, a thing that size could have cut Jimmy in half in one bite," Naughton said.

"But I don't blame him. He was so excited, and he's been in this business for so many years, and this is something new and exciting."