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Dispatches : Science

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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How You Can Track Great White Sharks on Your Phone

Shark Net app for iOS devices-2_Courtesy Stanford UniversityShark Net. Photo: Kip Evans

Tagging technology now allows anyone with a computer or mobile device to follow the movements of great white sharks.

Along the East Coast, people are tracking Mary Lee and Genie, two great whites. A group named Ocearch captured and tagged the sharks off the coast of Massachusetts earlier this year. Each time, they baited a hook, hauled the shark aboard a specialized platform, put a pipe in the animal's mouth that streamed running water through the gills, drilled holes through the dorsal fin, attached a SPOT tag, and let the predator go. Their tagging methods attracted some controversy. Environmentalists filed a petition with 750 signatures on change.org asking for Ocearch's permit to be rejected. They said tagging methods that involved hooking and lifting sharks out of the water could cause harm. A September New York Times story mentioned that one shark tagged by Ocearch during a South African expedition died. The Ocearch crew brought scientists on board in Massachusetts to monitor the sharks, and sucessfully tagged and released the two sharks. Now, whenever one of those shark's fins breaches, a signal is sent to a satellite and then on to the Ocearch website. The locations of the sharks show up on an interactive map.

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George Burgess Talks About Shark Finning and Conservation

Shutterstock_101559460Shark fins. Photo: Elira/Shutterstock

In 2000, a graduate student at the Imperial College of London named Shelley Clarke began using shark fin data from the auction houses of Hong Kong and the ports of Taiwan to estimate how many sharks, and what species, were heading off for sale at the world’s biggest market. She used her data to estimate a global take of 38 million sharks a year—though she said that that number could be as low as 26 million and as high as 73 million.

Her paper was important in that it provided the first scientific estimate for the number of sharks being traded based on the take of fins, offering scientists and fisheries managers a number for the global shark trade they could rely on. Though people in many countries eat shark flesh, fins are the most valuable part of the fish. As a result, fins made it to market, while bodies often didn’t. Some fishermen sliced the fins off and let the live sharks drown. Others took the fins off dead sharks, but with no set rules in place, there was no way to tell. As a result, many countries have now required shark fins to be taken ashore with the corresponding body. Most recently, the European Union ruled that fishermen must take the fins and the body to dock.

There are 471 species of sharks in the world, and scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have categorized at least 73 of them as threatened. The truth is, scientists know very little about almost half of those species—212 shark species are categorized as data deficient. To find out more about the conservation status of sharks and finning, we talked to George Burgess, a vice chair of the IUCN’s Shark Specialist Group.

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George Burgess on the Science of Shark Attacks

Shutterstock_106591796Great white shark. Photo: Yuri Arcurs/Shutterstock

Most people know George Burgess as the kahuna of shark attacks. For more than 20 years, Burgess has overseen the International Shark Attack File, a detailed listing of toothy maulings that goes back to the 1500s. He’s been quoted everywhere from The New York Times to the Discovery Channel. Burgess took on that gigwhich requires the orderliness of a librarian, the exactitude of a scientist, and the speaking skills of a public relations whiz—as a result of a voracious appetite for anything having to do with sharks, which he's had since he was a kid. “We all get excited about something as we’re growing up, whether it's sharks or Star Wars,” he says. “Sometimes people are lucky enough to follow along on their early interests, and I always knew early on that I wanted to study marine biology and that was where I was headed all the way through high school and college.”

As a teenager, he caught a nurse shark off the coast of Florida and was hooked. By the 1970s, he was attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina and catching sharks off a research boat. Now, in addition to running the International Shark Attack File, he also serves as the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, teaches ichthyology and marine biology at the University of Florida, and serves as a vice chairman of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, an international organization committed to the science and conservation of sharks and rays. As a result, he was more than happy to talk to us about two things: shark attacks in 2012 and the conservation status of sharks. We’ve divided that interview into two parts.

Up first, we talked to Burgess about the overall increase in shark attacks over the last century, Western Australia’s recent decision to hunt great whites before they attack people, and how climate change could affect the overall number of shark attacks. 

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Surviving a Great White Shark Attack

Shutterstock_89941513-1Great white shark. Photo: David Stephens/Shutterstock

On the morning of October 30, 2012, surfer Scott Stephens paddled out to a local break near Eureka, California, and was attacked by a great white shark. Here’s his story, with analysis of the attack by international shark attack expert George Burgess, as told to Joe Spring.

I’m 25 years old and I live in Samoa, California, which is just outside of Eureka. On October 30, I went down to the beach about 10:00 a.m. It’s only about 10 minutes from my house. It’s BLM land, so you can drive right out on the sand and park. It was just a beautiful morning—really calm offshore winds, a really high tide, and real clean, six-foot waves. I drove down to the beach and just watched for half an hour, figuring where I wanted to go out. There were about 20 guys in the water at a spot called Bunkers, which breaks just north of the jetty that is the harbor entrance to Humboldt Bay.

My buddy called me and said, “How do the waves look?”

I said, “How do you know I’m checking the surf right now?”

He said, “I know you too well. I’ll meet you out there.”

And so I went out.

I put on my new Xcel 5-4 wetsuit, which I had worn—maybe—a handful of times. I ran along the jetty and jumped in, letting the current take me out. I didn’t really have to paddle too much. It was about a quarter-mile to Bunkers. The wave breaks in pretty deep water about 500 yards from shore. It’s probably one of the furthest out spots that I surf. The waves just seem to funnel in through that channel and then break on the sandbar—A-frames that go right and left.

I went inside most of the guys out there because I’m a shorter guy and I ride a little bit shorter board. I sat where the waves were going to break right on me. I went both right and left, but toward the end, I just went left. I caught three in a row, and that put me further down the beach. I was separated from everyone else by about 150 yards. By that time there was about 10 people left. I had been surfing for more than an hour and a half.

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