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Canada These media-savvy scientists brought elusive sharks into the spotlight. Some experts find their methods fishy

Cabot the shark, shown off the coast of Nova Scotia, is one of several great whites to have been captured and tagged in Canadian waters by the non-profit group Ocearch.

Robert Snow/The Canadian Press

The marine radio crackles a bit before transmitting the signal that the show is about to begin.

“Ocearch, this is Contender. You copy? We are, uh, all green here.”

The bluegrass-tinged voice belongs to Chris Fischer, a soda-machine-salesman-turned-millionaire who made himself a reality star before transforming – when the TV contracts ran out – into an ocean conservationist (he still rolls plenty of video, but for YouTube now).

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His small crew of fishermen has just hooked a great white shark off the Nova Scotia coast. Enticed by a slab of tuna, the elusive ocean beast chomped down on the circle hook that is now embedded in the side of its mouth.

Sharks are hard to see in the blue-black waters of the North Atlantic, so Captain Brett McBride feeds a giant orange buoy onto the line to keep the animal’s head high while the crew aboard the Contender, a sleek fishing boat built to handle big game, coaxes it across the choppy sea. Their destination is the much larger MV Ocearch, a former crabbing vessel that’s now a shark research station. An anxious cluster of scientists with binoculars glued to their faces and fanny packs stuffed with syringes, sample jars and tweezers hung around their waists, waits on board.

They are here for the Ocearch’s trademark experience, which sees briny fishermen manoeuvre their massive, endangered catch out of the water for tagging with sophisticated tracking devices while allowing white-shark researchers 15 minutes of rare face-to-fin time. Interacting with white sharks out of the water is an opportunity offered only by Ocearch, a non-profit organization led by Mr. Fischer, the group’s founding chairman and “expedition leader.” Some scientists disparage what they do as a cowboy display designed to drive social media – their shark-catching skills were honed for television shows (Shark Men; Shark Wranglers). Yet others insist Mr. Fischer’s crew is enabling elemental research that would not otherwise be possible for grant-starved academics.

The irrefutable truth about the work done on board the Twitter-savvy Ocearch, plastered as it is with sponsor logos from bourbon, cooler and sunglasses companies, is that it is exploding everybody’s access to white sharks, perhaps the world’s most-storied but least-studied ocean creatures.

September, 2012: Captain Brett McBride streams seawater over the gills of a captured great white shark off the coast of Chatham, Mass.

The Associated Press

“We don’t know quite a bit about the white shark,” said Heather Bowlby, a shark researcher at the federal government’s Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth. International trade of white sharks is banned and many countries have legislation designed to protect what researchers suspect is a lagging population. In Canada, white sharks are considered a “species at risk”; harvesting them is illegal.

Still, there are no estimates of their population size in Canadian waters nor is there good data on how long they live (estimates range from just over 20 years to 70), where or when they mate, how long a gestation cycle is or even how many pups a female is likely to give birth to.

“Part of that is because … of the difficulties of observing them,” said Dr. Bowlby, who scored an important first for shark science in September when she became the first to tag a white shark in Atlantic Canadian waters for a government project. “To tag in Canada, we weren’t even sure if it was possible."

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Dr. Bowlby collaborates with a team of Massachusetts-based researchers studying the white-shark population; that team has locked horns with Mr. Fischer in the past. Dr. Bowlby said she did not want to go aboard the Ocearch while it was in Nova Scotia. “We have different research goals,” she said.

The belief that it is important to track white sharks, however, is a rare point of consensus between Mr. Fischer’s team and the institutional researchers who turn away from Ocearch.

“Sharks are the lions of the ocean. They are the great balance-keepers,” says Mr. Fischer, who is determined to help solve “the life-history puzzle of the North Atlantic white shark.”

In three weeks off Nova Scotia, Ocearch caught and tagged six mature white sharks, an accomplishment that dramatically bested Canadian researchers' single-shark accomplishment. While it won them thousands of new Twitter followers, it did not win them friends in the research community here. One professor derided the Ocearch organization in the local press as having “a candy shell of science.”

Mr. Fischer scoffed at the allegation.

“Really, what’s going on here is we have fishermen and scientists working together on an ocean-first vision,” Mr. Fischer said. “We’re disruptive. We know that. But the scientists can’t catch what they study. For the most part they don’t even have boats,” he said. “That’s why we don’t have a good data set. 'Cause it takes some salty guys to catch a 4,000-pound white shark.”

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In 2017, the Ocearch crew captured this great white shark off South Carolina's Hilton Head Island. Dubbing him Hilton, the researchers drilled a tag into its dorsal fin that would let them track his movements (which, as shown in the map below, eventually took Hilton to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland). Like all the great whites being tracked by Ocearch, the shark has a Twitter account, which the researchers use to give the creature a personality and advertise its movements, including its fall sojourn in Canadian waters.

Robert Snow/The Canadian Press


NFLD/LAB.

ONTARIO

QUEBEC

N.B.

N.S.

MAINE

VT.

N.D.

N.H.

N.Y.

MICH.

CONN.

PA.

S.D.

N.J.

OHIO

ILL.

HILTON pings

IND.

WEST

VA.

Feb.

Oct.

VA.

NEBR.

KENT.

N.C.

TENN.

Hilton was caught off the coast of Hilton Head, S.C., on March 3, 2017.

Here’s a look at his movement in the past six months.

KANS.

S.C.

GA.

ALA.

OKLA.

FLA.

TEX.

Routes of the six sharks

tagged on Ocearch’s

Nova Scotia expedition

from time of tagging,

as of Oct. 22.

NFLD

N.B.

QUEBEC

N.S.

MAINE

VT.

N.H.

N.Y.

LUNA

CABOT

N.J.

PA.

JANE

JEFFERSON

VA.

NOVA

HAL

N.C.

TRISH McALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: OCEARCH

NFLD/LAB.

ONTARIO

QUEBEC

N.B.

N.S.

MAINE

VT.

N.H.

N.Y.

MICH.

CONN.

PA.

N.J.

OHIO

HILTON pings

IND.

WEST

VA.

Feb.

Oct.

VA.

KENT.

N.C.

TENN.

Hilton was caught off the coast of Hilton Head, S.C., on March 3, 2017.

Here’s a look at his movement in the past six months.

S.C.

GA.

ALA.

FLA.

Routes of the six sharks

tagged on Ocearch’s

Nova Scotia expedition

from time of tagging,

as of Oct. 22.

NFLD

N.B.

QUEBEC

N.S.

MAINE

VT.

N.H.

N.Y.

LUNA

CABOT

N.J.

PA.

JANE

JEFFERSON

VA.

NOVA

HAL

N.C.

TRISH McALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: OCEARCH

NFLD/LAB.

Hilton was caught off the coast

of Hilton Head, S.C., on March 3,

2017. Here’s a look at his

movement in the past six months.

ONTARIO

QUEBEC

N.B.

N.S.

MAINE

N.D.

VT.

MINN.

N.H.

HILTON pings

WIS.

S.D.

N.Y.

Feb.

Oct.

MICH.

CONN.

PA.

IOWA

NEBR.

N.J.

OHIO

ILL.

IND.

WEST

VA.

Routes of the six sharks

tagged on Ocearch’s

Nova Scotia expedition

from time of tagging,

as of Oct. 22.

VA.

MO.

KANS.

KENT.

N.C.

TENN.

OKLA.

ARK.

S.C.

N.B.

QUEBEC

MISS.

N.S.

GA.

ALA.

MAINE

TEX.

VT.

N.H.

LA.

LUNA

N.Y.

CABOT

N.J.

PA.

FLA.

JANE

JEFFERSON

VA.

NOVA

HAL

N.C.

TRISH McALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL; SOURCE: OCEARCH





The Ocearch’s Capt. McBride is in charge of figuring out where to drop lines. His hunch that the South Shore of Nova Scotia would be a lucrative spot this fall was thanks to Hilton, a white shark Ocearch caught in 2017 off Hilton Head Island, S.C.

As is their custom, the Ocearch team hoisted Hilton out of the water and drilled a SPOT tag (which stands for Smart Position and Temperature and sends out real-time location information each time the shark surfaces) into his dorsal fin. He was named and given his own Twitter account (another Ocearch custom), which now has 48,000 followers.

Capt. McBride soon grew interested in Hilton’s penchant for spending summers around Mahone Bay, N.S., and autumns off the west coast of Newfoundland. Ocearch decided to follow him to see what other sharks they could find, with fingers crossed they might uncover important breeding data.

“We’ve never found a place other than Cape Cod where you can have predictable access to white sharks,” said Mr. Fischer, who has tagged all over the world, from South Africa to California (and has occasionally been asked not to come back).

Armed with permits allowing them to tag sharks longer than 3.5 metres and a new social-media campaign (#NovaScotiaExpedition, #dontfearthefin), the Ocearch arrived off Nova Scotia in mid-September.

Capt. McBride used topographical maps and fishing charts to zero in on an area west of historic Lunenburg called West Ironbound Island. Its large seal population seemed a natural attraction for hungry white sharks.

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“That island stinks like seals and has for a hundred million years,” Mr. Fischer said. The underwater topography off the island also appeared ideal for white sharks.

“It has to do with depth and ridges and their ability to ambush, right? If a seal sees the shark, the shark can never catch him. Seals are too agile,” Mr. Fischer explained. “The only way they can get ‘em is the sneak attack.

“So we get in the spots they are more likely to use. We drove in there as soon as the weather was good. Right away we caught two!”




A shark spotter’s guide


LUNA

Tagged: Oct. 11

2,137 lbs

15 feet

JEFFERSON

Tagged: Oct. 5

12 feet, 7 inches

HAL

Tagged: Oct. 15

1,420 lbs

12 feet, 6 inches

HILTON

Tagged: March 3, 2017

1,326 lbs

12 feet, 5 inches

NOVA

Tagged: Sept. 21

1,186 lbs

11 feet, 6 inches

JANE

Tagged: Oct. 18

521 lbs

10 feet

CABOT

Tagged: Oct. 14

533 lbs

9 feet, 8 inches

TRISH McALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: OCEARCH

LUNA

Tagged: Oct. 11

2,137 lbs

15 feet

JEFFERSON

Tagged: Oct. 5

12 feet, 7 inches

HAL

Tagged: Oct. 15

1,420 lbs

12 feet, 6 inches

HILTON

Tagged: March 3, 2017

1,326 lbs

12 feet, 5 inches

NOVA

Tagged: Sept. 21

1,186 lbs

11 feet, 6 inches

JANE

Tagged: Oct. 18

521 lbs

10 feet

CABOT

Tagged: Oct. 14

533 lbs

9 feet, 8 inches

TRISH McALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: OCEARCH

LUNA

Tagged: Oct. 11

2,137 lbs

NOVA

15 feet

Tagged: Sept. 21

1,186 lbs

JEFFERSON

Tagged: Oct. 5

11 feet, 6 inches

JANE

12 feet, 7 inches

Tagged: Oct. 18

521 lbs

HAL

Tagged: Oct. 15

1,420 lbs

10 feet

CABOT

Tagged: Oct. 14

533 lbs

12 feet, 6 inches

HILTON

9 feet, 8 inches

Tagged: March 3, 2017

1,326 lbs

12 feet, 5 inches

TRISH McALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL; SOURCE: OCEARCH




As depicted on video, once the Contender pulls alongside the Ocearch – a white shark in tow – Capt. McBride takes a sprawling leap from the smaller boat onto the Ocearch’s lowered hydraulic lift. The “fishing master” helped devise Ocearch’s catch methods, and his self-appointed role is to hand-guide the shark the final few, critical feet.

Chest-deep in water and clad only in jeans and a shirt, Capt. McBride grabs at the rope lead in front of the shark and steers it onto the lift, called “the cradle.” As it’s raised out of the water, he kneels beside the shark’s head and jams a plastic hose into its jaw, pumping the gills full of sea water to keep them irrigated (sharks are not air-breathers). The video shows a crew member tossing over a dark, wet beach towel, which Capt. McBride drapes over the shark’s eyes, blinding it to the flurry that is about to unfold.

Chief science adviser Bob Hueter clicks on his stopwatch, beginning a 15-minute countdown.

A gaggle of hands and bodies manoeuvres the shark to its left side so its belly faces the water. A blood sample is taken from a vein at the base of the tail (to measure lactic acid and potassium levels to assess stress), while another scientist makes an incision in the shark’s belly. An acoustic tag, which will alert researchers when the shark is near a buoy, is inserted in the shark’s body cavity. The 2.5-centimetre-long cut is sutured while a third researcher slices a small bit of back muscle from the shark, to be used in research projects designed to examine genetics, contaminants and diet.

Meanwhile, a crew member reaches inside the shark’s mouth to fish the hook out of its cheek.

“If the animal is female, we pull out an ultrasound machine and look to see if she’s pregnant,” said Dr. Hueter . If the shark is male, his sex organs, called claspers, are measured and examined. A semen sample is collected to measure fertility. Feces, which are also tricky to get, yield information on diet and contaminants.

Just before the shark is rolled back upright, a tape measure is placed beneath its belly. Measurements of the shark’s girth and eyes are recorded, while a small drill bolts the SPOT tag onto the shark’s fin for real-time tracking (Mr. Fischer likes to step in to help here). A photographer clicks away for social media and in hopes of capturing identifying markings on the shark. A videographer films; another researcher tweezes parasites from the shark’s body and drops them into clear vials.

“Those are interesting because they give us an indicator of what body of water the shark has been in,” Dr. Hueter said. Bacteria collected may be used in the development of new antibiotics.

With time almost up, some final fin samples are taken for genetic work. A second blood draw is taken for a final stress test.

Through all of this, the shark remains still, which Dr. Hueter said has convinced him that lifting the animal right out of the water for testing is likely less harmful than the more traditional methods of tagging sharks while they remain in the ocean.

“I’ve spent much of my life hanging over the side of a little boat trying to do something with a big shark,” Dr. Hueter said. “They’re thrashing around and trying to get away. When they come on the lift … they just kind of relent. They chill out here. We have very few problems.”

There have been some, though. One mature female white shark, Maya, died after being released from the Ocearch off the coast of South Africa in 2012. Her death was documented on Mr. Fischer’s show Shark Wranglers. Ratings fell.

Now, with non-profit work as its focus, the Ocearch organization has built up a new audience, including 98,000 followers on Twitter. Over the course of 32 “expeditions,” the group says it has worked with more than 170 scientists and contributed to more than 20 published scientific papers.

In Nova Scotia, samples were taken for 15 research projects for 19 different institutions. Six mature sharks, including two females, were caught and tagged in what Mr. Fischer called “an enormous leap forward” for white-shark research.

Just one Canadian scientist was on board. Mr. Fischer, already planning a return, says he hopes the results will entice more to join him next fall.

“My gut tells me tracking these six sharks is going to reveal a lot in the next year,” Mr. Fischer said. “It’s gonna be crazy.”



VISUAL GUIDE

How do you tag a shark?



Scientists are aboard the MV Ocearch, a '126-foot Cat-powered vessel' with a custom hydraulic platform that has a 75,000-pound lifting capacity.

‘The Contender’ is a smaller white double-engine fishing boat. Pro fishermen use a baited, non-harmful circle hook to catch the sharks.

‘The Contender’ guides

the hooked shark over to the Ocearch vessel and on to the submerged platform. The platform is then raised out of the water. The shark’s eyes are covered with a towel and hoses are inserted into its mouth to pump sea water through its gills to keep it ‘breathing.’

A team of two to four scientists now has 15 minutes to tag the shark and take their samples, measurements and photographs.

25 feet

12

9

3

6

20

feet

7

12

8

3

11

9

1

2

6

5

4

10

1

Blood sample to monitor animal’s stress level through process.

2

Accoustic tag inserted. Small sound

emitting device that allows receiver-

tracking of sharks in multiple dimensions.

3

Back muscle biopsy to identify genetics,

diet and any contamination.

4

If female - ultrasound to determine

reproductive condition and status.

5

If male - measure length of male organs to

determine age and semen sample to study

molitily, viability and breeding time.

6

Fecal sample to study diet and DNA

of what shark is feeding on, as well as contaminants.

7

SPOT tag is mounted, a device capable

of real-time tracking of shark movement.

8

Parasite collection from skin of shark helps

determine what bodies of water it’s been in.

9

Photograph and measure eye for studies

on shark eye development and evolution.

10

Fin clip for genetic and population studies.

11

Insert satellite pop-up archival tag,

which records temperature and depth.

12

Attach accelerometer data-logger, which records fine scale swimming behaviour

and how the shark recovers.

After the 15 minutes and the scientists have finished, the platform is lowered back into

the water and the shark is released.

TRISH McALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: OCEARCH

Scientists are aboard the MV Ocearch, a '126-foot Cat-powered vessel' with a custom hydraulic platform that has a 75,000-pound lifting capacity.

‘The Contender’ is a smaller white double-engine fishing boat. Pro fishermen use a baited, non-harmful circle hook

to catch the sharks.

‘The Contender’ guides the hooked shark over to the Ocearch vessel and on to the submerged platform. The platform is then raised out of the water.

The shark’s eyes are covered with a towel and hoses are inserted into its mouth to pump sea water through its gills to keep it

‘breathing.’

A team of two to four scientists now has 15 minutes to tag the shark and take their samples, measurements and photographs.

25 feet

12

9

3

6

20

feet

7

12

8

3

11

9

1

2

6

5

4

10

Blood sample to monitor animal’s stress level

through process.

1

Accoustic tag inserted. Small sound emitting device that allows receiver-tracking of sharks

in multiple dimensions.

2

Back muscle biopsy to identify genetics,

diet and any contamination.

3

If female - ultrasound to determine reproductive

condition and status.

4

If male - measure length of male organs to

determine age and semen sample to study

molitily, viability and breeding time.

5

Fecal sample to study diet and DNA of what shark

is feeding on, as well as contaminants.

6

SPOT tag is mounted, a device capable

of real-time tracking of shark movement.

7

Parasite collection from skin of shark helps

determine what bodies of water it’s been in.

8

Photograph and measure eye for studies

on shark eye development and evolution.

9

Fin clip for genetic and population studies.

10

Insert satellite pop-up archival tag, which records temperature and depth.

11

Attach accelerometer data-logger, which records

fine scale swimming behaviour and how the shark recovers.

12

After the 15 minutes and the scientists have finished,

the platform is lowered back into the water and the shark is released.

TRISH McALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL; SOURCE: OCEARCH

Scientists are aboard the MV Ocearch, a '126-foot Cat-powered vessel'

with a custom hydraulic platform that has a 75,000-pound lifting capacity.

‘The Contender’ is a smaller white double-engine fishing boat. Pro fishermen use a baited, non-harmful circle hook to catch the sharks.

‘The Contender’ guides the hooked shark over to the Ocearch vessel and on to the submerged platform. The platform is then raised out

of the water. The shark’s eyes are covered

with a towel and hoses are inserted into

its mouth to pump sea water through its gills

to keep it ‘breathing.’

A team of two to four scientists now has 15 minutes to tag the shark and take their samples, measurements and photographs.

25 feet

12

9

3

6

20

feet

7

12

8

3

11

9

1

2

6

5

4

10

SPOT tag is mounted, a device capable of real-time tracking of shark movement.

Blood sample to monitor animal’s stress level through process.

7

1

Accoustic tag inserted. Small sound emitting device that allows receiver-tracking of sharks in multiple dimensions.

2

Parasite collection from skin of shark helps determine what bodies of water it’s been in.

8

Photograph and measure eye for studies on shark eye development and evolution.

Back muscle biopsy to identify genetics, diet and any

contamination.

9

3

Fin clip for genetic and population studies.

10

If female - ultrasound to determine reproductive condition and status.

4

Insert satellite pop-up archival tag, which records temperature and depth.

11

If male - measure length of male organs to determine age and semen sample to study molitily, viability and breeding time.

5

Attach accelerometer data-logger, which records fine scale swimming behaviour and how

the shark recovers.

12

Fecal sample to study diet and DNA of what shark is feeding on, as well as contaminants.

6

After the 15 minutes and the scientists have finished, the platform is lowered back into the water and the shark is released.

TRISH McALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL; SOURCE: OCEARCH

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