When you hear "the great white shark problem,” stuff like news headlines about surfers being attacked might come to mind. But to ocean scientists, "the great white shark problem" is all about the recent drop in numbers of the ocean's order-keeping apex predators.
One group comprised of said scientists is Ocearch, an ocean research non-profit that has been working since 2007 to create the missing data that spells out the life history of the world's large sharks in order to address their dwindling population.
The unique style of expedition Ocearch has been fine-tuning for years brings scientists to the sharks, creating a kind of a super efficient floating research lab.
We were invited aboard the Ocearch ship for a day during the last stretch of its Montauk, NY, expedition and were lucky enough to see some research in action.
A 5-foot white shark (eventually named Laurel Jean) was brought onto the boat’s platform, and the on-hand team of scientists ran tests and applied tagging technology in under 15 minutes. Health information was gathered on the spot to determine things like oxygen levels and what the shark’s been eating. And the tags placed on it will beam back location information to tell scientists more about its migration habits and mating areas.
"We’re learning 15 things about each shark instead of one," Ocearch founder Chris Fischer told Circa of his team's shark research process. "Without a lot of large sharks in the ocean, there will be no fish ... So it’s a fundamental data set to make sure that every one of our kids can eat fish sandwiches."
With the population of large sharks in the ocean down to 9% or 10%, Fischer said, due largely to shark finning and shark fin soup in China, answers for how to facilitate more mating of the species are needed to keep the ocean in balance.
To make sure the data it’s collecting on expeditions is put to best use, Ocearch, which gets most of its funded from corporations and Kickstarter campaigns, makes it all available for free online.
"One thing we’re learning with these tags is that the sharks have sort of temperature preferences, they have depth preferences, they have distance from shore preferences," Tobey Curtis, a policy analyst with the National Marine Fisheries Service and part of the Ocearch Montauk expedition, told Circa.
"When we know all those things, if there’s going to be some kind of human-based activity here, whether it’s fishing or offshore energy development, we’ll have the information we need that helps impact those sharks."
But the action isn’t all just for scientists and reporters who are invited on deck. Ocearch has a global shark tracker app that lets anyone follow the paths of the 20+ sharks it's tagged in the last couple of years, including our Laurel Jean, who has traveled about 100 miles since getting her tag. A lot of Ocearch sharks even get their own Twitter accounts that post regular updates on their travels.
Of course, driving public interest away from shark attacks and more to shark conservation is part of Ocearch’s plan. And to that end, Fischer said fin soup demand has already begun to drop.
But data is the main objective, and Ocearch is convinced it has its hook in the right position to catch it all.
"We will win this. We are going to solve the puzzle of the great North Atlantic shark. And we will have the information to move them back to abundance."