A crew of researchers and fishermen are tagging great white sharks off Cape Cod in a unique way. The real-time satellite tag tracks the shark each time its dorsal fin breaks the surface, plotting its location on an online map.
SOT Robert Hueter, Director for the National Center for Shark Research: "There are about 500 or so different species of sharks. The white shark is just one. So, it's not really any more important from the biological standpoint than the others, but because of the great interest in it and the fact that, yes, it does occasionally bite human, we really need to understand them and understand what their ecological role is and the interaction they have -- this balance between the seal population, the grey species up here in the New England area."
SOT: Marine biologist Greg Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries naming the shark: "The way we've been tagging these sharks right off the coast of Massachusetts here is kind of a hands-off approach. We've been using a harpoon tagging technique -- very, very effective at getting tags on to sharks."
SOT: Chris Fischer, Leads the Ocearch team: "Yeah the shark wouldn't take the bait. It was refusing the bait. It was fooling around with us by the boat for a full hour. It just continuously was giving us fly-bys, not really taking a bait. It kept coming up on the corners of the boat and biting at it and kind of nudging it with its nose. So finally Brett (McBride) had to do kind of the old-fashioned bait and switch. We had some chum there and it was coming up from the chum and kind of rub its nose around and Brett literally reached down and placed the hook and the bait right in the corner of its mouth and we knew exactly where the hook was at that moment because we literally did it with our hands. It was, it was an amazing moment, I think."
SOT: Chris Fischer, Leads the Ocearch team: "I think this is the most significant fish we've ever caught together ... You know the first one was the first one but it was in a far away place, you know, and we are in America and we are bringing this spirit of exploration and pioneering research back to America -- right here to Cape Cod."
SOT: Brett McBride, Co-Captain Whitworth: "Everything has to go down the same exact way every single time and everybody gets better at their job, that's why it gets to the point where there is much less risk and the sharks go off healthier and faster. It's like a pit crew.
SOT: Fischer "Aaaaah! I can't believe it! We got you one Greg (skomal)!"
SOT: Marine biologist Greg Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries naming the shark: "It is the first time we've put this kind of tag on a great white shark in the Atlantic Ocean, northern Atlantic. So, it's uh, it makes a great difference to be able to do it and have access to this technology we didn't before."
BC-Great White Tagging
Atlantic Ocean off Chatham, Mass.
Researchers tag great white sharks off Cape Cod
Researchers lure great white sharks onto boat platform for tagging miles off Cape Cod coast
Atlantic Ocean off Chatham, Mass
The great white shark was out there somewhere. She was at least 2,000 pounds and nearly 15 feet long. And she was about to get up-close and personal with a research crew near the Cape Cod home of "jaws."
A flurry of choreographed activity broke out on the Ocearch, a 126-foot repurposed crabbing vessel docked three miles off Chatham, Mass., once the researchers and fishermen on board received word their scouting boat, the Contender, had hooked a great white.
In an hour, the shark would be there on the lift, and the fishermen and scientists would be there too, taking blood and tissue samples, measuring and tagging the shark. Not even inches would separate their fingers from her teeth, tail and fins.
The Contender's light appeared in the distance, visible miles away in the clear, fog-free night.
"I'm nervous," said state shark expert Greg Skomal, who has tagged great whites in the area with a harpoon, but never like this, never this close.
The Contender and the shark arrived just before 8 p.m. Thursday. It was time.
While Skomal and his team have tagged more than a dozen great whites off the coast of Massachusetts, the Ocearch crew tags great white sharks in a unique way. The two to three week expedition off Cape Cod aims to shed light on the sharks' migration patterns to protect breeding and birthing sites, improve public safety and raise awareness about the threatened species that is a rising presence in the area.
Rather than harpoon the sharks from a distance, his team baits the fish and leads them onto a lift, tagging and taking blood, tissue and semen samples up close.
The satellite tags last five years, allowing researchers and the public to monitor the sharks' one- to two-year migration patterns in real time online, unlike Skomal's five-month tags. Each time the shark's dorsal fin breaks the surface, it pings a satellite and marks the online map.
"We have massive knowledge gaps about how to protect their future," said Ocearch expedition leader Chris Fischer.
Ocearch, a nonprofit research organization named for a combination of "ocean" and "research," is crewed mainly by sport fishermen and their similar South African expedition was featured in History channel's "Shark Wranglers." It is funded by sponsors and fundraising and doesn't receive government funding.
The vessel costs about $2 million a year to operate. This expedition alone adds up to about $650,000.
The work is dangerous for both man and fish. Once on the lift, sharks are closely monitored at all times, and one shark, named Maya, died on the lift in South Africa.
The crew limits lift time to 15 minutes to minimize the impact on the shark. "I used to be nervous of what they'd do to me," Co-Captain Jody Whitworth said. "Now I worry that we'll hurt them."
The Cape Cod expedition faces another challenge: finding the fish.
In South Africa, Ocearch tagged nearly 50 sharks. For this expedition, they hope to tag five.
While great white sightings have risen near Cape Cod, including one non-fatal attack off Truro, they are much less populous than in places like South Africa and Australia and aren't accustomed to "chumming," drawing nearby sharks to the boat by placing whale blubber and other shark favorites in the water.
Skomal and his team have tagged 15 sharks this year. "But if I were to be a betting man, I'd say it's probably twice that on any given day off the coast of Massachusetts," he said.
Protecting these sharks is key, researchers said. Shark finning, removing sharks' fins and throwing the fish back into the water, threatens all shark species, Fischer said. "These predators keep the next lower level in check," said Bob Hueter, of nonprofit research organization Mote Marine Laboratory. "It's a system of checks and balances."
The great white is the "lion of the ocean," keeping seal, squid and fish populations in check, Fischer said. But it is also the shark that people are most interested in, making it a gateway for ocean conservation and advocacy, he said. "Because the white shark is so charismatic, everyone wants something to do with the sharks," he said. "So we use that to get them interested in the ocean to make sure that they want to look out for its future too."
Catching a great white shark stars with chum. The crew puts out at least 35 pounds of chum each day in three locations within a mile of the ship and off the back of the boat. Fischer is careful to specify the crew doesn't draw sharks to the area, as critics have claimed, but merely leads nearby sharks to the boat.
Fischer and Captain Brett McBride, Co-Captain Whitworth and First Mate Todd Goggins, spend each day traveling between chum locations, looking for sharks.
The first three days of fishing, interrupted by Hurricane Leslie, turned up nothing.Then just after dusk Sept. 14, the call came in the radio.
A great white shark was hooked. She had teased the crew of the Contender, which wasn't much bigger than she was, smelling their blubber bait, nudging it but not biting.
So Captain McBride leaned over the side of the sport fishing boat and placed his hand with the bait right in front of her mouth. She snapped up the bait and was hooked.
For the next hour, the crew slowly led the shark four miles to the Ocearch. "Oh my god," Heather Marshall, a Ph.D student at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth studying stress physiology and sharks, said as the Contender and a large dorsal fin came into view. "This is a dream come true."
The shark pulled onto the lift and McBride jumped in too, barefoot, using her tail to guide her as the lift rose out of the water. The shark thrashed and bared her teeth as the water receded, curving her head and tail into the air.
McBride threw a wet towel over her eyes and removed the two-foot hook and buoys from her mouth. He pumped water over her gills with two large hoses as ship engineer Denny Wagner held her tail.
The crew jumped onto the lift in their jeans and long-sleeve shirts, and the clock began.
They measured the fish_14 feet, 8 inches and 2,292 pounds_ and screwed the satellite tag, an accelerometer and an acoustic tag onto her dorsal fin with a power drill. Researchers collected blood and tissue samples as Marshall called out their labels for deck hand Alex Snow to record.
"Looks like she's in great shape, great shape," Skomal yelled. Halfway through, deck hand Juan Valencia lowered the lift back into the water, and McBride flipped the shark on her side, white belly up. The lift went up again for more samples.
Skomal named the shark Genie after renowned shark researcher Eugenie Clark.
After nearly 15 minutes, everybody scrambled off the lift as Valencia lowered it back into the water.
McBride grabbed Genie's tail and slowly guided her back into the ocean. End time: 16 minutes flat. "She looks great," Fischer said as Genie drifted down into the dark Cape Cod waters.
The scientists headed into their makeshift lab to process the samples. The tagging moderately raised Genie's stress level, as expected, Skomal said.
Despite the dozens of sharks the crew tagged in South Africa, this one, the first in American waters, is special, Fischer said. "That one shark alone was worth the trip," he said, noting she can lead researchers to breeding and birthing sites. "Any time we tag a great white shark it adds tremendous information to what we already know, which is very little."
He jumped on McBride yelling, "I can't believe it! We got you one, Greg!" The crew clinked beer cans and soda cups as Genie traveled south.
She last pinged Monday at 1:08 a.m. just south of Nantucket. So far, she is the Cape Cod crew's only catch.
CAPTION: A crew of researchers and fishermen are tagging great white sharks off Cape Cod in a unique way. The real-time satellite tag tracks the shark each time its dorsal fin breaks the surface, plotting its location on an online map. (Sept. 18)
[Notes:Source: AP video]
[Notes:Sept. 7 and 14, 2012]
[Notes:Off coast of Chatham, Mass.]
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