Tracking sharks in the Atlantic

In 2007, Chris Fischer had a bit of an epiphany — he needed a bigger boat.

Unlike Amity, Mass., police chief Martin Brody in the 1975 blockbuster movie, “Jaws,” however, Fischer needed the boat to get closer to the sea’s apex predator; he wanted to study sharks, not kill them. By 2008, Fischer — a sports fisherman and host of television shows such as ESPN’s two-time Emmy Award-winning “Offshore Adventure” — had sold the 69-foot Elliott yachtfisher that served as the floating set for “Offshore Adventure,” and purchased that “bigger boat.” The 126-foot former crabbing vessel, now dubbed the M/V OCEARCH, is outfitted with a hydraulic lift and a research platform capable of handling a 5,000-pound shark; it serves as the base for Fischer’s nonprofit foundation, also named OCEARCH.

“OCEARCH’s mission is to democratize the exploration and science base in the ocean — to open up that world and then communicate it in a way that’s digestible and understandable and interesting,” Fischer said. “If you’re going to manage the resource, you’ve got to chase the data.”

The M/V OCEARCH recently spent more than two weeks off the shores of northeast Florida and southeast Georgia chasing that data, and a CNI reporter was invited to spend the final day of the expedition aboard the vessel as the crew sought to capture and tag a great white shark and gather data about why and when these predators are off the north Florida coast, and where they go from here.

Accompanied by crew members and scientists, including Gregory Skomal from MA Marine Fisheries, Jim Gelsleichter from the University of North Florida and Robert Hueter from Mote Marine Laboratory, the expedition’s goal was finding a male great white shark that would be the first to be SPOT (satellite) tagged in Atlantic waters. In addition, scientists on board were prepared to conduct innovative procedures such as performing an ultrasound on a pregnant female great white shark, and the use of a new shark-mounted tracking receiver that would allow scientists to gather information about the animals a tagged shark comes in contact with.

Fischer’s journey

Unconventional, charismatic, and sometimes controversial, Chris Fischer has his detractors, but he also has — literally and figuratively — a boatload of prominent scientists and conservationists who say his methods are breaking ground in both scientific research and in bringing the issue of ocean conservation to the forefront of public attention. Fischer’s approach of open-source science, networked data, leveraged publicity and corporate-sponsored expeditions — all driven by social media saturation — has turned the perception of jealously guarded intellectual property and competitive scientific research on its head. The M/V OCEARCH is a hub of scientific networking and collaboration.

Fischer himself is no scientist, and makes no effort to conceal that fact. His position is that of facilitator, providing the tools that allow scientists to do their work and the platform where information and education can reach the widest audience and do the most good.

A Kentucky native with a bachelor’s degree in business, Fischer followed a childhood interest in fishing into the entertainment industry. While his television shows captured a growing passion for conservation issues, they were, first and foremost, entertainment. Comments from scientists involved in his shows prompted Fischer’s shift from TV host to ocean advocate.

“After five or six scientists from different disciplines kept saying that we’re losing the sharks, and if we do that the whole food chain collapses and we end up with a dead ocean, I asked them why we didn’t just manage the oceans back to abundance (by protecting) shark breeding and mating sites, and they said we didn’t know where those are,” Fischer said. “We didn’t know where our ocean’s lions are mating or giving birth – we didn’t have good data sets, or there was no data, on sharks.”

While he continued producing episodes of television shows such as “Ocean Hunter” and “Shark Men,” the tone of the shows followed Fischer’s lead in focusing more on conservation, sustainable fisheries and marine wildlife preservation. In the National Geographic series, “Shark Men,” Fischer and crew – including “Fast and Furious” actor Paul Walker – made use of Fischer’s specially-outfitted “bigger boat” to lift gigantic sharks from the water, attach tracking tags, and collect data and samples before releasing them.

But Fischer left the world of reality television behind. Since 2012, M/V OCEARCH’s science-based explorations are funded largely by corporate sponsorships, which provide a bridge between the academics and the practical. Major sponsors such as Caterpillar Inc., Costa Sunglasses, Landry and Yeti Coolers have allowed the work of tracking and capturing sharks, identifying breeding and feeding areas, and mapping migratory corridors and birthing sites, to continue. The sponsors get to leverage the high-profile publicity inherent in OCEARCH’s social media-savvy work.

Far from abandoning his lifelong love of sports fishing, Fischer’s message through OCEARCH continues to stress the importance — economically and culturally — of sportfishing. “How can we expect anybody other than the recreational fisherman to save the ocean? It’s not going to be some environmentalist in a building in New York or D.C., it’s going to be the people that love it the most; those are the families that are fishing together, diving together, surfing together,” Fischer said. “So what we’re trying to do is get great fishermen together with great scientists so we have great data sets so we can manage our oceans toward abundance as soon as possible.”

An “Us versus Them” attitude between environmentalists and the general public is counter-productive, and finding the middle ground is the key to coming up with solutions that work in the real world, according to Fischer.

“Because (M/V OCEARCH) was the only ship in the world where (scientists) could have access to the big animals, I leveraged that to disrupt the institutional approach to research and forced collaboration; that’s ocean-first, that’s planet-first, that’s great- grandchildren-first,” he said, adding that the experience motivated him to make collaboration and a centrist approach the norm, not the exception.

“That’s starting to happen now. I think collaboration is a growing trend for sure,” he said, adding that people are beginning to realize that “if a suggestion to move forward is not practical, it’s polarizing — it has to be possible or nothing happens.”

“We (OCEARCH) are data-driven centrists; one of the reasons I’m trying to build a booming brand in the middle that is rooted in science and common senses is to drown out the polarizing fringe, because when the whole tone and trajectory of a conversation is dominated by the polarizing fringe, nothing happens,” he said. “They — the polarizers — are not negotiating from a position to find practical progress, they’re holding on to a position. If you’re a polarizer, you’re as bad as a poacher, and they may think they are trying to save the ocean, but when nothing happens, the ocean gets whacked.”

As the sharks go, so goes the ocean

Great white sharks are possibly one of the most recognized animals in the U.S., if not the world. Even those who have never been near an ocean are likely familiar with the torpedo-shaped bodies, the pointed snout, the white underbelly, and those rows of sharp, lethal teeth. From the ubiquitous Da-Dum...Da-Dum... Da-Dum-Da-Dum-Da-Dum of Peter Benchley’s “Jaws” movie, to recent photos of Deep Blue, a 20-foot shark filmed near Guadalupe Island in the Pacific Ocean, great whites have found their way into the myths, legends and cultural identity of generations of Americans. Add in shark-encounter stories such as that of surfer Bethany Hamilton losing her arm to a tiger shark in 2003, and it is not surprising that sharks of all species are viewed with emotions ranging from distrust to fear to outright hatred. However, information, from simple biology to detailed research, shows that sharks are a vital ecological component. Great white sharks, especially, play a pivotal role in the health of the world’s oceans.

The reputation of sharks as intentional, murderous killers is shifting — due in part to the Twitter accounts of many of OCEARCH’s tagged sharks — but for many species, it might be too late. Sharks are considered “at risk,” and many species are identified as a threatened or endangered. Although the 2015 Coastal Shark Survey indicates that the numbers of sharks along the U.S. East Coast are improving, survey officials say there is still a long way to go to bring shark populations back to optimal levels.

According to the “International Action Plan for Sharks,” initiated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), more than 100 out of 400 shark species are being commercially exploited and "many of those species are so overexploited that even their long-term survival can no longer be guaranteed.” An estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year. Whether caught accidentally in fishing nets and longlines of ocean-going fishing factories, killed for sport, or dying as a result of the wounds and trauma suffered when their fins are hacked off to make $100-per-bowl shark-fin soup, the declining number of sharks has a ripple effect on the ocean’s ecosystem. Destruction of shark habitats, especially mangroves that serve as shark “nurseries,” have also had a detrimental effect on shark populations, according to CITES research.

“Since sharks are top-level predators, they tend to have lower population numbers than other fishes. Sharks also have slow growth rates, mature late in life, and produce few offspring,” adds a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report. “These biological characteristics coupled with overfishing can reduce population levels to a point where recovery can take many years. A number of shark species have been overfished and are now protected by regulations in both state and federal waters.”

In Florida, both federal and state laws protect sharks. Harvesting of 25 species of shark is prohibited in Florida, including the white shark, tiger shark, lemon shark and great hammerhead shark. Size limits and regulations on harvest of other shark species vary.

While concern over the survival of individual species is important, the impact of a declining shark population on the entire ocean ecology is an even greater concern, said Fischer. The balance of biodiversity depends on this apex predator. Without sharks, the species upon which they prey become overpopulated, which in turn decimates the populations of the next level of the food chain, which, in turn, makes the following level in the chain explode, with the rebound effect trickling down to affect every level of the oceanic food chain, including the health and survival of the ecologically important coral reefs.

OCEARCH’s “ocean-first” mission

Overall ocean conservation, through the study and protection of sharks, is the underlying mission of Fischer’s OCEARCH organization, and the purpose behind every M/V OCEARCH expedition. Data from blood and muscle samples, parasites and fin-clips taken from sharks during their carefully-monitored and regulated 15 minutes aboard the M/V OCEARCH, along with data from the GPS tags attached to the sharks’ fins, gives scientists clues to migration and mating patterns, which can, in turn, affect policy which will help conserve shark species and their habitat, Fischer said.

“OCEARCH facilitates unprecedented research by supporting leading researchers and institutions seeking to attain groundbreaking data on the biology and health of sharks, in conjunction with basic research on shark life history and migration,” states OCEARCH materials. “We believe in a balanced, science-based approach to rebuild, sustain, and conserve our living marine resources. Working with heads of state, policy makers and conservation organizations in the United States and abroad on ocean-based environmental issues, OCEARCH’s cooperative approach focuses on results instead of politics.”

Using the data and science discovered on the expeditions, combined with the popular shark tracker and companion mobile app and the public engagement with the now-personalized identities of great white sharks Mary Lee and Katharine, frequently tracked to the area off Amelia and Cumberland islands, Fischer has brought the general public on board with his mission.

“We need to get people involved in this conversation because it’s crucial for the future of the planet, and how can they get involved if they don’t know about it, and how can they know about it if they are not engaged. I didn’t set out on a plan to try and get people to have an emotional connection to sharks, that just happened,” he said. “Inclusion is inspiring, and that is organic inclusion that just manifested itself by open sourcing and giving it all away.”

Getting the public, especially the children, involved in the issue is vital, Fischer said.

“They are the resource managers of the future; we have to want them to grow up (so) the way they look at the planet and the ocean is centrist and science-driven, not some emotional fringe disposition,” he said.

During the early years of Fischer’s conservation efforts, while he was working with organizations such as National Geographic to produce his television shows, Fischer said he realized that “you couldn’t change the future of the ocean on a fisherman’s story,” but said he faced frustration and disappointment when trying to bring science to a more accessible, “ocean first” level focused on conservation, not personal or institutional gain.

“I’m all about sustainability. People want to eat fish, people need to make a living going and catching those fish, but we just need to be clever about how we go about doing it so we’re sustainable,” Fischer said.

The elusive great white

Although OCEARCH’s Jacksonville Expedition in March ended without capturing and tagging a great white, several tiger sharks were captured, tagged and released, and the samples and data collected from them will go a long way toward building the data sets needed to achieve conservation of the ocean’s sharks, Fischer said.

“We not only have a North Atlantic white shark research project going on, we have a Southeastern United States tiger shark research project. We were coming down here to work on our white shark program and instead, the ocean decided to really enhance our tiger shark program, so the expedition was hugely successful for that,” he said.

And in case you are wondering where great whites Katherine and Mary Lee might be, or where to follow the migration patterns of other tagged sharks, visit the Global Shark Tracker at www.OCEARCH.org.

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