Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Farallones - "Striped Bass and Dentistry?"

When does the disastrous hooking of a great white shark and the application of industrial bolt cutters to "save it" get referred to as a "dental procedure" or catching a "striped bass?"

Only in the ongoing and increasingly strange world of shark research and reality television shows, where science and professional PR teams race to promote and then save a 10 week production for National Geographic Television.

We have been covering this story from the beginning, when a team of researchers announced they were going to SPOT tag white sharks at the Farallone islands. SPOT tagging involves the catching of 10-17 foot white sharks with hooks, landing them on platforms where the full weight of the animal slowly crushes internal organs, and then drilling electronic packages into their dorsal fins.

The SPOT tag method is extremely controversial for many obvious reasons. I have been supportive of it under the proviso that it is done by "well funded research professionals."

The team, lead by Dr. Michael Domeier from Marine CSI have also been the lead researchers at Isla Guadalupe for many years applying standard non invasive sat tags on a large segment of the population. His work with those animals remains untarnished, and important work.

Dr.Domeier recently changed to SPOT tagging with apparent success at the Isla Guadalupe site claiming 15-17 animals tagged there - and this is where the entire effort begins to go sideways.

Domeiers work at Isla Guadalupe was done without apparent Mexican oversight, not so at the Farallones which had an observer on hand. What she witnessed set off shock waves within the entire shark community.

The Farallones effort was a disaster for the first shark tagged and this opened the question for many who decry SPOT tagging, who, exactly, is involved in this effort?

The answers to me were shocking, and I am now firmly in the camp demanding answers for both the Farallones and now Isla Guadalupe as well (see image).

As it turns out the entire effort is in conflict of interest. The vessel used to transport Dr.Domeiers staff, members of the team who actually hook the sharks, and the people who fund this work are also a reality television production house, Fischer Productions.

The conflict of interest reared its ugly head when the Farallones shark was badly hooked.

Admittedly for the production company that was just about to launch a massive media push for its 10 week reality television show about this "research" complete with a Hollywood actor as a member of the crew, the Farallones sharks disaster was for them a media disaster first and foremost.

Subsequent interviews with both Dr.Domeier and Maria Brown who is the Farallones Sanctuary Manager have shown that this is also a media disaster for them as well. Responses to questions about SPOT tagging procedures to both of these individual were met with offhand remarks about the seriousness of this method.

Maria Brown likened SPOT tagging, after witnessing it first hand, to "minor dental procedures," and Dr.Domeier "to catching striped bass." Maria Brown allowed this research to continue even after the first shark was badly mauled in the effort. According to many she should have halted the entire production after the first day.

As a well worn media guy it is evident to me these responses come from either callous disregard for the entire process or a carefully planned team response to downplay the issue of SPOT tagging for the public. I highly doubt these people are callous, so can only come to the conclusion they got very bad media advice.

Conflict of interest compounded by what looks like a healthy dose of good old fashioned CYA.

Both Brown and Domeier realize that the reality television crew, who also act as the complete enablers, from the hooks, to the funding, leave questions open to the sanctity of this hybrid brand of shark research and both are scrambling to downplay a disastrously hooked shark within a national marine sanctuary, off a coastline that banned all shark fishing 15 years ago.

We are left with many unanswered questions and images that like the one featured in this post that claim to be from Isla Guadalupe and Dr.Domeiers SPOT tagging work, which may or may not feature a broken tail fin.

I want to see the answer to the basic question of "what happened to the first badly hooked shark at the Farallones?" I am calling for independent review of all data from this animal and independent monitoring of this shark for one full year.

The animals that Dr.Domeier are SPOT tagging are not juveniles they are breeding adults, the cream of the entire western pacific population. These animals deserve to be treated with as much deference and respect as any marine mammal. We would not SPOT tag a killer whale within a national marine sanctuary and have the work partially done by actors from L.A.

This work is anything but "dental procedures and striped bass fishing."

Proof of life, and long term independent monitoring. Is to too much to ask?

Not for the great white shark. Let's get the data flowing.

Patric Douglas CEO