Expert: Great white shark is 'blowing our minds'
The Ocearch Shark Tracker has kept track of a 1.6 tonne great white shark named Mary Lee since she was tagged off the US coast.PT2M21S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2dohc 620 349 February 1, 2013
The Western Australian government was offered $1.35 million worth of assistance a year ago to tag sharks following a spate of fatal shark attacks but it was not taken up.
A shark tagging program which provides real time monitoring of great white sharks, as well as other vital information about the animals, was presented to WA, the shark attack capital of the world, in 2012.
OCEARCH Ocean Research proposed to carry out two expeditions, funded by their backers Caterpillar, to the tune of $1.35 million - all that would have needed to be provided were local scientists.
Up close and personal with great white monsters
The OCEARCH sea lab. The shark platform hangs to one side of the vessel.
The government has already pumped millions into research projects to learn more about shark behaviour.
The method used by OCEARCH to tag sharks is different, using the expertise of scientists and fisherman on un-sedated sharks, on an open-water platform.
WA Fisheries Department principal research scientist Rory McAuley said while the department made enquiries to the federal government on behalf of the organisation, the matter had gone no further than "preliminary discussions."
He said OCEARCH was yet to secure permits to carry out its operations in Australian waters, but once it did, the department would be prepared to work with it to assess whether it would benefit the state's existing shark hazard mitigation initiatives.
OCEARCH expedition leader Chris Fischer said as in the other countries he had worked in, it would be the local scientists required to apply for the permits the department was referring to as it was them carrying out the scientific work.
Mr Fischer said there was more to the matter, that despite receiving a lot of positive feedback and interest from the department, he understood the federal government had put a stop to the proposal.
"They are stuck in the politics of science," he said.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt has simply said that "any proposal would need to meet the requirements and standards under Australia's national environment law."
Mr Fischer said the Australian government was concerned that OCEARCH's methods could "overly stress" the sharks, something he denied.
"All our methods are International Animal Care Protocol sanctioned.
"Certainly our research shows that it is less stressful on them than it would be for them to be captured as part of a catch and kill order or if the issue gets worse and the government ends up culling sharks.
"We could be catching them to help your scientists get the information," Mr Fischer said.
"We have to put the public and community first," he said.
The funding that would have covered two expeditions, which included WA, have since been reallocated to the Galapagos Islands and Brazil.
The same population of sharks move between SA and WA and he said tagging would be most productive if done near the Neptune Islands in SA where the chances of finding and capturing sharks for tagging was highest.
Mr Fischer is still keen to come to Australia however, even if he was invited by the WA government and funding from sponsors was available, his commitments elsewhere meant expeditions would not take place until the second half of next year.
OCEARCH - the early days
Always a recreational fisherman, Mr Fischer started to spend more time on the water after his family's vending machine business was sold and he found himself out of a job.
"I started to see a disconnect between professional fisherman and and world-class scientists.
"One had the practical knowledge and one had the academic knowledge, I started to see we needed to get these people together, they weren't talking.
"If we don't understand their lives we can't understand their future."
He said while the idea was borne out of his passion for sharks and marine environments, the potential for the information to benefit public safety became obvious shortly after the project got up and running and a shark named Mary Lee was tagged.
The monitoring of Mary Lee - named after Mr Fischer's mother - weighing in at almost two tonnes drew attention to the project.
He noticed the shark, originally tagged in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was lurking close to the Florida shoreline on the real time shark tracker and quickly alerted the authorities.
"It was just hanging around in a surf break," he said.
Mr Fischer said Mary Lee came within about 30 metres of the shore and the story of the dramatic beach closure that followed attracted massive media attention in the United States.
Since 2007, OCEARCH has tagged more than 70 great white sharks across more than 17 expeditions.
A unique tagging method
OCEARCH expeditions usually have a 20-day turnaround, with crews of up to about 22 people living together on the 126ft former crabbing vessel.
The great white sharks are caught with baited, barbless hooks, then pulled towards a platform next to the OCEARCH vessel which has been lowered into the water.
The shark is positioned in the centre of the platform, which is then raised.
A wet cloth is placed over the sharks eyes to keep it calm and salt water is pumped into its gills.
The process is a fast-paced one, with everyone involved given roles to make the most of the time the team are working on the shark.
"We are executing so much science so quickly; we carry out 12 research projects in 15 minutes," Mr Fischer said.
As well as inserting and attaching trackers, a number of samples are taken for testing.
WA's current tagging program
Mr McAuley said WA's existing acoustic shark monitoring network project and its infrastructure was "unprecedented and under the guidance of our scientists, it is unlocking unknown knowledge of white sharks."
He said significant information gained from the program would be published in "the coming months" as part of interim results.
The tagging program, which extends from SA to WA, has more than 130 tagged white sharks and there are about 320 receivers embedded in WA's seabed up and down our coast.
There are also 20 satellite receivers that can give real time information on the presence of a tagged white shark, which can be monitored 24 hours a day by the public.