Ten years ago, a large research vessel motored up the California coast, bound for the Farallon Islands. The crew was armed with TV cameras, heavy-duty fishing gear, and a federal research permit that allowed them to catch and tag ten great white sharks. The procedure would involve bringing the big fish aboard the boat and bolting advanced tracking devices to their dorsal fins. Conservation advocates and other scientists worried that this rough method of handling the sharks might harm them. But the technique happened to be the centerpiece of expedition leader Chris Fischer's grand plan to save the oceans.
Fischer has shared his vision of marine conservation in many interviews and lectures. He believes in gathering migration data on great white sharks to help identify key breeding, pupping, and feeding sites and drive policy changes to protect the species — and with them, the entire marine food web. Although great white sharks are feared by many humans, they pose us a statistically insignificant threat. Instead, by helping control populations of fish-eating seals and sea lions, these high-level predators are believed to play an important part in maintaining ecosystem health and the overall abundance of other species lower on the food chain.
"If we lose our sharks, we will lose our ocean," Fischer said in a 2015 TEDx Talk. Or, as he flippantly put it in a March 2018 lecture, "I'm just trying to make sure that our grandchildren can eat fish sandwiches — it's just that simple, and to do that, you gotta have data."
To acquire that data, Fischer — the founder of the widely televised research organization Ocearch — lifts captured great whites out of the water on an elevating platform on his boat. As a hose jets water into their mouths, providing some oxygen flow through their gills, the crew applies a tag and takes various samples and measurements.
As Fischer neared the Farallones — one of the world's hotspots for viewing and studying great whites, which gather here to hunt seals and sea lions — outcry erupted. Scientists and conservationists who value the great white shark warned that Fischer's tagging method was liable to seriously hurt a shark. And it did.
On Oct. 29, 2009, a 14-foot male great white well known to local researchers and cage dive operators swallowed Fischer's baited hook, about the size of a Kryptonite U-lock, and engorged the large red buoy used to float the bait. The shark, choking on hook, chain and bobber, was lifted onto the research vessel, where the crewmen, following their standard procedure, bolted a satellite position and temperature, or SPOT, tag onto his dorsal fin and took blood samples. Another crewman slipped giant bolt cutters through the fish's gill slits to cut the hook, which was embedded in his throat. Video footage of the event shows the ordeal in close-up detail, including a shot of one crewman forcibly trying to pry open the shark's mouth with a metal bar.
The shark — which was named Junior in a tag-and-track database — reappeared a year later, looking lean and unfed and with a festering wound on the right side of his jaw and a sagging dorsal fin. Fischer's detractors believed, and still, do that the capture of Junior injured his jaw and caused the gory infection. Fischer's defenders said Junior had been attacked by other sharks.
The Farallones debacles brought to public attention the risks of applying SPOT tags to such large fish as adult great whites, and it fueled an ethical dispute between researchers. Sharks matter for ecosystem health, everyone agreed, and learning more about them is important — but to what extent is it worth hurting them to gain more data, they asked?
The disagreement remains unresolved, and the spotlight on Junior hardly cost Fischer and his team public sympathy. Rather, they would become television stars on National Geographic and the History Channel, with their outings often featured in the media during the annual primetime television frenzy of the Discovery Channel's "Shark Week," which begins this year on July 28. The late star Paul Walker of The Fast and the Furious joined an early expedition to provide some extra TV eye candy, and in the decade-plus since, Ocearch has collaborated with numerous researchers and produced volumes of migration data on numerous species, including turtles, marine mammals, and other sharks. Even accidentally killing a great white in South Africa in 2012 hardly dented its general audience appeal. Fischer, whose boat has been called the Ocearch since 2012, has become a cult-status TV star — an ocean-conservation icon who talks like a motivational speaker, has 23,000 Twitter followers, has compared himself to Jacques Cousteau, and says his work is supporting science that could save entire ocean ecosystems from collapse. To date, Ocearch has tagged nearly 150 great white sharks and more than 400 marine animals in total.
Fischer said his tracking data is more accurate than that of just about every other research outfit. Combined with the results of the blood tests and other sampling conducted on the restrained animals, Ocearch, he argues, is eclipsing the efforts of other scientists.
"We'll learn more in five years what they've learned in the previous 30," Fischer said.
But there are other ways to tag and track sharks that don't require hooking or catching them, and Fischer's critics have suggested he favors SPOT tagging because it involves an action-packed process seemingly made for television.