I-Team

Shark tagging technique criticized as being cruel

Tuesday, November 17, 2009
, Chief Investigative Reporter
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A new series debuts Monday night on the National Geographic Channel featuring a controversial tagging technique for great white sharks. They are supposed to be protected under federal law as an endangered species, but one scientist is being accused of animal cruelty by other professionals in the field.

Scientist Michael Domeier and his film crew quietly produced the show off the coast of Mexico. But two weeks ago, he came for the sharks at the gulf of the Farallones off San Francisco and that has set off a firestorm of debate among shark researchers.

Domeier gave ABC7 a tour of his research ship in San Diego on Friday. He showed ABC7 the massive hook he has engineered to catch great white sharks and the platform that lifts them out of the water.

Dan Noyes: "That's huge."

Domeier: "Well, you think it's huge, but it doesn't look huge on a 4,000 pound shark, believe me."

But, there's nothing like seeing the system in action. Monday night's National Geographic program explains that Domeier and his crew have been doing this off the coast of Mexico for the past two years.

They bait the hook and after the shark strikes, it struggles against several buoys attached to the hook.

"They're going to go fight the shark, tire it out, and bring it back to us," Domeier said.

The fight can drag on for an hour or more, at which point the crew guides the shark onto the platform and raises it out of the water. They spend up to 20 minutes attaching a satellite tag and taking blood and tissue samples, before releasing the shark.

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."

Domeier has caught and tagged 15 great whites off Mexico's Guadalupe Island, but now he is coming under fire after tagging two sharks in the Farallones Marine Sanctuary off San Francisco's coast two weeks ago. He had to leave half of the hook in one of the sharks after it became lodged deep in its throat.

"I mean, it's like a double punch, it's like one, a right, and then a left," University of California, Davis researcher Peter Klimley said.

Klimley is one of the world's foremost white shark experts. He says the long struggle after the shark gets hooked and the time out of the water amount to animal cruelty.

"I'm a behaviorist and I don't torture animals and I think this would be something I wouldn't, I wouldn't do this to such a big animal," Klimley said.

Domeier: "People go out and catch and release fish all the time."

Dan Noyes: "Right, but not the great white."

Domeier: "No, but this is the same thing though, it's the same exact stress that you put on a striped bass when you bring it to the boat and you let it go. It is the same."

Klimley actually uses the same process on small hammerhead sharks, which weigh about 200 pounds, but he says he would never try the procedure on a 4,000-5,000 pound great white.

"You take them out of the water and now they're not supported by the water and they flatten out, and that can squeeze their internal organs, if it's a female and she has young, young can be forced out," Klimley said.

At the Farallones, federal law prohibits anyone from getting within 50 meters of a great white or from attracting sharks with food, bait, chum, dyes or decoys, but the sanctuary superintendant Maria Brown gave Domeier a permit.

Dan Noyes: "These great whites are protected from harassment, protected from even approaching them. How is this OK under those rules?"

Brown: "This research helps us protect white sharks."

Brown downplays the stress to the shark. She was on Domeier's ship, as the crew hooked the 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, it's done," she said.

Researchers such as Sean Van Sommeran have had success tagging great whites quickly, with a pole.

"Are we actually protecting them by doing this, and you know, we're not breaking eggs and making omelets, we're working with wildlife you know, protected, potentially endangered wildlife," he said.

Domeier says he has to catch the sharks to install longer-lasting tags, but does Domeier's technique actually change the behavior he wants to study?

Tracking data on the two sharks tagged at the Farallones shows they traveled quickly out of the area; the second swam away in a straight line for 500 miles over the past two weeks.

Dan Noyes: "You're confident that the tagging of those two sharks didn't alter their behavior?"

Domeier: "No, I well for a for a few hours they might be tired, might be sore the next day, like if you went out and ran 10 miles and you don't run every day, you're going to be a little stiff the next day."

"There are benefits and costs to doing this sort of thing, and here, I think, maybe the costs outweigh the benefits, that's my opinion," Klimley said.

Right now, Domeier and his crew are heading back out to Guadalupe Island for more tagging and more filming. Expedition Great White airs Monday at 9 p.m. as part of Expedition Week on the National Geographic Channel. The Farallones sharks will be featured in the 2011 season.

(Copyright ©2014 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.)

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animals in peril, endangered species, i-team, dan noyes
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