What We've Learned About Tiger Sharks in Hawaii

Tiger2Working on a tiger shark. Photo: Carl Meyer

For 19 years, University of Hawaii scientist Carl Meyer has caught sharks up and down the Hawaiian archipelago, a 1,500-mile-long chain that runs from the Big Island northwest to Kure Atoll. He’s fished up sandbar sharks, tiger sharks, and Galapagos sharks and tagged them with tracking devices in the gin-clear shallows of remote atolls, in the dark blue depths around a fish farm cage off the Big Island, over rainbow reefs where outfitters take North Shore tourists shark diving, and in turquoise waters just offshore from any number of the state’s white sand beaches.  

In 1993, he arrived at the University of Hawaii green, at least as far as big tropical sharks were concerned. In 1991, a tiger shark had attacked and killed a 41-year-old woman, and the state responded—as it had numerous times before—by culling the predators. Meyer began tagging and following the animals with his mentor, Kim Holland. What they found led the Hawaiian government to change their response to fatal shark attacks. We’ll let him tell that story below, as well as several other stories related to his studies that have changed our understanding of how humans and sharks interact in the aloha state.

When did you see your first shark?
I had seen sharks while fishing as a kid, albeit small ones found coastally in Europe. I didn’t see a tiger shark for the first time until 1993, when I came to Hawaii.

What was the context of that?
In Hawaii, over time, there had always been a low number of shark attacks, but back in the late 1950s there was a fatal attack on a guy named Billy Weaver. As a result, the local government decided that they should instigate a shark-culling program. That program was predicated on the concept that tiger sharks were highly residential. In fact, they used the word territorial, which has additional meaning to a biologist, implying active defense of space. The untested assumption was that these sharks hang out in one area, and you could have a program that would take out the problem animals and make the water safe. They had a number of shark control programs in the '60s and '70s, and they killed thousands of sharks, including 554 tiger sharks from 1959 to 1976.

It was the standard MO for the state of Hawaii in those days, built on the belief that they could make the water safer. Eventually, the programs were stopped for more than 10 years. Then, in 1991, there was a fatal shark attack on the island of Maui. Unusually in that case, when the emergency services showed up, the shark was still on site. It was a large tiger shark. This particular event prompted renewed calls for the culling of sharks. In 1993, I had just started as a graduate student with Kim Holland, together with Chris Lowe and Brad Wetherbee, who are now professors on the mainland. We said: “Well, hold on a second. Nobody’s ever tested the assumption that tiger sharks are territorial or highly residential, and this whole culling concept is built on that cornerstone.”

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