Controversial shark researcher seeks permit renewal

May 17, 2011 7:29:36 PM PDT
Managers of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary are grappling with a controversial issue. Should they renew a permit for a researcher to hook and land great white sharks near the Farallon Islands, 28 miles off the Golden Gate?

Great whites are protected under federal law, and the Farallones Sanctuary has strict rules to prevent people from even going within 164 feet of them. But the sanctuary superintendent made an exception for this one researcher, and now she's facing some tough questions because of it.

Long-time shark researchers at the Farallon Islands got to know a stocky, young adult great white. They gave him the nickname "Junior." But they've seen a terrible change in Junior since he became the star of a National Geographic "Shark Men" special -- it was taped November 2009, but aired last month. A controversial tagging technique designed by Dr. Michael Domeier went very wrong.

Junior was gut-hooked -- he swallowed a 13-inch barbed hook. The crew tried to bring him up on a hydraulic platform, but the gate was not secured and it floated away. In the struggle, the shark chomped down on one of their buoys.

It took the crew about an hour after hooking Junior to finally raise him on the platform. However, they have a hard time giving him oxygen by pumping water through the mouth and past the gills, because the buoy was in the way. While the crew tried to figure out how to get the buoy and the hook out, Domeier took samples.

After a struggle, the buoy finally pops free. The crew members bolt on a satellite tag and turn their attention to the hook -- it's set deep. Critical minutes pass before they reach through the gills with bolt cutters to clip the eye off the top of the hook, leaving most of it inside the shark's throat.

In all, from hooking to release, Junior spent about an hour and 20 minutes with the crew.

"It's unfortunate," said Domeier in the video. "We worked really hard to get that hook out. It was just in a bad spot."

They gave Junior a new name, "Lucky."

Domeier refused to be interviewed for this story, but I spoke with him in November 2009, shortly after he caught Junior. I wasn't allowed to see video of what happened until the special aired.

Noyes: What happened with that shark?

Domeier: Yeah, well, that shark, we caught it and released it, and it is fine. I even showed you a track and we even got a hit last night, so it's been over two weeks and we're getting great data from that shark.

But a ping off a satellite tag doesn't tell the whole story. A year later, researchers took video of Junior back at the Farallones -- he's in terrible shape.

"Huge bites all over its head, grossly underweight, the other sharks are beating it up, you can see," said Sean Van Sommeran with the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation.

Sanctuary superintendent Maria Brown also refused to be interviewed for this report. Back in 2009, she defended Domeier's techniques after watching him catch a second shark.

"I equated it to, it felt like what it's like when I go to the dentist. When you go in, you get a cavity filled. It's something that maybe you don't want to go do, but you do it, it's quick, it's over, and it's done," said Brown.

Now, Brown and her staff are defending Domeier on the sanctuary website: "In general, the experts do not believe that the hooking and capture of the shark in 2009 caused the injuries that are shown in the video segment from 2010."

"And then the shark comes back and it looks terrible," said shark researcher Pete Klimley.

But a broad range of researchers I contacted are not buying it.

"It seems apparent to me that the animal's weakened condition is directly related to having been throat hooked the previous year," said Van Sommeran. "In fact, it would be reckless to assume it was due to anything else. We've never seen a shark in this bad of condition before."

"And we do make mistakes and Michael made a mistake," said Klimley. "But I don't think he should be lynched because he made a mistake, and I'm very sympathetic, his career has been really affected by this."

Several researchers believe Domeier's tagging technique, with the long fight and the barbed hook, made Junior weaker.

"If an animal becomes injured or is in a weakened state, is not healthy, other sharks will strike out and attack them," said Ralph Collier with the Shark Research Committee.

An aquatic veterinarian working with the sanctuary staff seems to agree. The I-Team obtained an email from Scott Weber in which he concludes Junior's condition could be the result of "the migrating hook that was left in during capture." He also believes Junior suffered "a broken jaw," possibly from an attack by another shark. "Jaw is agape without noticeable jaw movement," he notes.

"And then the transmitters are bolted on as if these sharks are robotic machines," said Van Sommeran.

The other issue -- Domeier doesn't use the normal tags that pop off after a set time. His are permanently installed; his crew even welds the end of the bolts. Researchers point to photos that seem to show Domeier's tags harm the shark's dorsal fin, over time.

"A number of different people have provided photos that show the shark's fins are warped and deformed by this permanently attached device which eventually turns into debris, covers with algae, becomes burdensome to the animal," said Van Sommeran.

Domeier has now applied for a four-year permit to take up to 11 more sharks at the Farallones. Sanctuary superintendent Brown has been forced to postpone a final decision.

"Since there's new information, we're going to put it out for public review again," said Brown. "Our target date is this summer."

At last week's Sanctuary Advisory Council meeting, members questioned whether Domeier's invasive techniques are adding all that much to existing research. They expressed concerns about him getting another permit, in light of a recent study -- it put the population of great whites at the Farallones at around 200.

"My position has been, is that at this stage, with the small number of animals that are there is that we have to find a different way to do the research than this invasive process that they're proposing," said Bob Wilson with the Sanctuary Advisory Council.

In an email, Domeier tells me he quit "Shark Men" -- he didn't explain why. I'm posting a new I-Team blog to tell you which scientist is taking his place, and the changes he's making to prevent these problems in the future. I'm also posting email addresses for Domeier, Brown, and the Advisory Council, if you want to express your opinion.

There's big money at stake -- Domeier told me in that first interview that his work was costing millions and the TV production company was helping to pay the bills.


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