OCEARCH Keeping Its Sights Set On Shark Research: Shark Research Groups Spar Over Methods

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: Marine Mammals , Sharks , Chatham , Environment

Clark Morgan, a research assistant and graduate student fellow at the University of Florida shares his work aboard the OCEARCH vessel, while scientists Bob Hueter, John Timinsky, and Dr. Mike Hyatt look on during an on board briefing. Kat Szmit Photo

On Monday afternoon roughly three miles off the shores of South Monomoy Island, a vessel rocked slowly on gentle swells as those on board peered eagerly at the water, hoping for one thing: the slice of a fin through the waves. Unfortunately, it was a shark-free day aboard the OCEARCH shark research boat, but the day provided an opportunity for guests joining the crew to learn a bit about what goes on “out there.”

Ironically, OCEARCH was the brainchild of a landlubber named Chris Fischer, who spun a popular ESPN series called “Offshore Adventures” into a successful non-profit when he started taking marine scientists out to conduct research on fish.

Little by little, Fischer began hearing about “the shark problem” until his interest was piqued.

“I asked, 'What's the shark thing?'” Fischer said. “That's when I began to learn about shark fin soup. We're losing 100 million sharks a year, 250,000 a day. There's no time left. We have to affect change fast.”

Fischer, a longtime angler and someone who is passionate about preserving the oceans, was captivated, and in 2007 took his first group of scientists out to tag and study sharks.

“We're still tracking one of the sharks from that,” Fischer said of the shark dubbed Kimel, a female great white.

Almost 30 sharks were tagged during that inaugural outing, spawning something of a movement involving the hands-on scientific study of sharks, which today are regularly tagged and tested on the OCEARCH research vessel in locations across the globe.

The boat is anchored about three miles from Monomoy to tag sharks and conduct research through Oct. 10. Though OCEARCH has plied these waters in the past – tagging five sharks in 2012 and 2013 – this visit is muddying the waters a bit due to a conflict with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the nonprofit Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.

According to the DMF and AWSC, where OCEARCH has chosen to conduct its latest research could interfere with the ongoing mark-recapture population study headed by Dr. Greg Skomal, a leading shark expert and marine biologist.

A letter sent to Fischer in June by David Pierce, director of the DMF, denying a permit to tag sharks in state waters, said the practice of capturing sharks and “lifting them out of the water” for research could impact their behavior, thus affecting the results of Skomal's ongoing study. A Sept. 17 letter to Fischer from the AWSC echoes those sentiments.

Shark expert Bob Hueter, associate vice president for research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., is mystified by the controversy.

“In my opinion it's not a non-issue. No evidence has been provided that their concerns are really justified,” said Hueter. “It's really concerns I think that are based more on a fear of what might happen rather than what really does happen.”

Because OCEARCH can't operate in state waters, the vessel has been stationed in federal waters between Nantucket and Monomoy, just outside of the three-mile limit of state jurisdiction.

Currently, Hueter is one of several scientists aboard the OCEARCH vessel, along with John Timinsky, a senior scientist with Mote Marine, Dr. Mike Hyatt, the veterinarian at Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey, and Clark Morgan, research assistant and graduate student fellow at the University of Florida.

Each is tasked with a unique role when a shark is brought on board. To make that happen, researchers spend many long hours “fishing” or chumming by adding chunks of bait to the water in the hopes of attracting curious and hungry sharks. A seal decoy is also used.

Once a shark is caught, the adventure begins. The OCEARCH boat, once a crab boat such as those seen on reality television, is outfitted with a large moving platform that can be lowered into the water, allowing the shark to swim onto it. During a 15-minute window while the shark is on board, scientists run about a dozen tests, drawing blood to look at its makeup, taking mucus, muscle and tissue samples, and even tooth scrapings, all while the animal is kept safe by running seawater through its gills.

“People think it's exciting or a rush,” said Fischer. “It's not. It's about going through the method and trying to make sure you get all the people and the animal through it safely.”

The shark is also given three tagging devices, one that tracks its location via satellite, another that provides key data on its movement and health, and a third that provides an acoustic ping, again to allow tracking.

When the tests are complete and the shark tagged, it is lowered back into the water to swim free. It is because the sharks previously tagged here using this method haven't returned to local waters that the DMF and the AWSC are concerned about a negative impact on their work.

“The methods used by OCEARCH have the potential to violate the assumptions of the population study,” said Cynthia Wigren, executive director of the AWSC. The nonprofit has funded Skomal's population study, which on Monday tagged its 20th white shark of the season off North Beach Island, the 98th since shark tagging began in Cape waters in 2009. Since 2013 the Conservancy has raised more than $400,000 to support the study of white sharks on the Cape, and has committed to funding another $275,000 to complete the study.

Hueter disagrees, and reflects on the times when OCEARCH worked harmoniously with Skomal and the DMF and AWSC.

“I totally believe with all my heart and my scientific head, until I get other information, the kinds of work they're doing and the kids of work we're doing here are completely complementary,” Hueter said. “They're not competitive, they're not exclusionary of each other. Quite frankly I don't understand the controversy.”

Fischer, for his part, chooses to focus on the good that has come and continues to come from his organization and the research it allows for through the collaborative efforts of the scientists who venture out to sea with OCEARCH.

“[When we] started to build collaborative teams with multiple disciplines, that was very disruptive in the ocean research space because the people in that space had been shaped by the system, and the system forced them into individual silos to get ahead of other individuals. The system didn't nurture collaboration,” Fischer said. “But [collaboration] is what's allowed us to help so many institutions so fast.”

To keep OCEARCH funded, Fischer has partnered with companies such as Costa Sunglasses and Yeti coolers, which he calls “socially innovative.” The organization also had a crowd-funding campaign for the first time beginning in May using Kickstarter. So far more than $150,000 has been raised.

What Fischer is hoping for above all else is ocean preservation.

“It's going to take us all,” said Fischer. “We need the people who live on the water and around the water included if we're going to effect the future of the water. It's going to take us all to create a future for the ocean.”