Scientist questioned over treatment of sharks

The researcher catching great whites in a TV special is being criticized.
April 8, 2010 6:54:24 PM PDT
A Southern California scientist faced tough questions and criticism Thursday for the methods he used to tag two great white sharks at the Farallon Islands off San Francisco last year for an upcoming National Geographic special.

Great white sharks are an endangered species, protected by law. So, scientist Michael Domeier had to get an exemption that allowed him to hook great whites at the Farallones and bring them out of the water.

Everything did not go as planned.

Domeier came to Point Reyes Thursday, to face the advisory council for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

"The humane part makes me nervous; I come from an agricultural background, you don't cause animals to suffer where I come from," GFNMS Advisory Council Chairman Richard Charter said.

Video from Mexico's Guadalupe Islands shows what Domeier tried to do at the Farallones -- use a massive, baited hook to catch a great white shark, drag it for miles to tire it out, lift it onto a platform and spend 20 minutes drawing blood and semen samples and attach a satellite tag to the dorsal fin.

But at the Farallones last November, one of two sharks Domeier caught swallowed the hook. His crew reached into the gills with bolt cutters but they had to leave half of the hook inside the shark.

"I'm not going to ignore that we made some mistakes here in the Farallones with our first shark; it hasn't happened before, it hasn't happened since, but the injuries sustained are actually far less than those that white sharks inflict on each other," Domeier said.

The council peppered Domeier with questions about the size of the hook, the stress on the animal and the length of the fight.

"What is the longest duration in time here or in Guadalupe, anywhere, that a shark has had to fight?" Charter asked. "Presumably it thinks it's fighting for its life, these are pretty intelligent animals as I understand it."

"Fights have gone from about 11 minutes, I think Mimi might remember better, I'm thinking about an hour," Domeier said.

Domeier told the council the sharks are sometimes dragged for four miles or more -- an issue the I-Team raised with him last year.

Dan Noyes: "What sort of stress is that on the animal?"

Domeier: "Well, certainly, we have to stress the animal, I mean, we have to tire the animal out, otherwise it's going to hurt itself when we pull it out of the water, or perhaps hurt us."

The council also echoed concerns scientists raised in the I-Team's first report that all that weight -- sometimes more than 4,000 pounds -- pushing down onto the flat platform could damage the shark's internal organs. Domeier said he tried to build a sling.

"It was just too difficult to get the shark into this device that was all this rubber and was all contoured for the shark, we would have had to practically kill the shark to sit still enough to put him in that," Domeier said.

Other council members questioned whether this is a pursuit for science or for reality TV. Domeier's first show about the Mexico sharks aired last year. "The expedition was not a scientific expedition, it was some fishermen going out to help a scientist, that was the thrust of that program, we're going to go out and catch the biggest fish and 'Yahoo we're great fishermen,' that was that program," Bob Wilson said.

"The whole reason we're looking for the sharks is to understand them, we know that they're a vulnerable species, to be able protect them better," National Geographic producer Maureen Lemire said.

The show with the Farallones sharks airs in the summer of 2011. Domeier says he has no plans to tag more sharks at the Farallones before the permit runs out Sept. 15.


Load Comments