04 December, 2013

FishLove: Nudity saves the ocean - or not.

This is a typical example of how marketing campaigns quickly spiral out of control.

Mission: Call attention to unsustainable fishing through an online campaign.
Marketing team member 1, "Sex sells!"
Marketing team member 2, "Dead sharks are a call to action!"
Marketing team member 1, "Celebrities sell!"
Marketing team member 2, "Lets take seductive portraits of naked celebrities/models with dead fish!"
Marketing team member 1, "WE'RE CRUSHING THIS!"

There's no mission on their website...
They mention 'simple solutions' to over-fishing, which are 'the right political decisions'...
And of course, there is a shop where you can buy the portraits for a few thousand/hundred euros where all proceeds are going to their mission... 

P.S. As Vicky Vásquez asks, where are they sourcing these dead fish?

29 November, 2013

Online lynch mobs - a flow chart for scientists

"Too often the online audience separates into a series of rival gangs, each of them patting each other on the back and throwing stink-bombs at the other side. In this environment civility can disappear, with the result that those who do not take an extreme approach in offering their views decide that online forums are not for them." - James Harkin, The Guardian.

We are truly entering a brand new world.  Many scientists - young and old - are embracing the power of social media as a venue to interact with the public and discuss research.  In many cases, this accessibility has broken down the stereotype that scientists are secretive loners, and has lead to impressive citizen scientist driven projects.  However, in equally as many cases, this accessibility has had a serious negative consequence - the phenomena of the online lynch mob...

Soon, achievement will be measured by how early in your career you attract the attention of an online lynch mob.  They are a growing trend in forums and facebook groups, occur in every field, and target any level of seniority - from Richard Dawkins to high school girls.  

For researchers, online lynch mobs can be extraordinarily stressful, as the same genes that makes us attentive to detail and semi-obsessive also leave us socially inept.  If I can't even ask the sleeping guy sitting next to me on a plane to please remove his arm from my leg (and let him leave it there for the whole 3hr flight ), how will I ever process a dozen angry online entities making illogical arguments or slinging personal insults?  

So, I've done what any scientist would do when faced with a series of difficult decisions - develop a flow chart.  I hope this will help you and encourage you to carry on interacting with the public on social media platforms even when a mob is chasing you down...

EDIT - There's been a very nice discussion on some of the oversights in this blog.  Obviously, anytime one faces criticism, you should always take time to re-evaluate.  This by no means states that when someone criticizes you, just ignore them.  Rather, if there is a professional in your field that you know, who is well educated on the topic, but will only express their criticism through an abusive online gang, rather cut that person out of your life because they are indeed not a professional.  Remember, this blog is not about general online criticism, it's about the derogatory and often threatening groups that are growing in popularity.

I also appreciate the concern over the term 'online lynch mob' and how it is overused and evokes the connotation of racially motivated murder.  I don't know of any online groups murdering anyone yet, but there are several cases of them organizing and physically injuring people (for a recent example, check out this post on the South African Shark Conservancy group).  While 'online lynch mob' may be too harsh to some, I fail to find a term that captures the "target an individual to suppress their voice or end their work via abusive language, personal insults, and/or physical violence" mentality.  Suggestions for a better term?

13 October, 2013

The challenges of being a female scientist - especially with sharks

DNLee is a professional blogger for Scientific American.  She’s a biologist, focused on animal behaviour, mammology, ecology, and an extremely well-known scientific communicator because she combines her intelligence with serious wit.  This is why Biology-Online.org editor ‘Ofek’ asked here to write monthly content for their site.  After his request, she asked for more details – how many blogs would they like, scope, etc – and most importantly, what is their pay-rate?  ‘Ofek’ then explained that she would not be paid and that she should rather look at it as ‘great exposure’.  She then thankfully declined his offer – and then he called her a whore

DNLee then wrote an entertaining piece for Scientific American about this interaction – which is all too familiar to us vaginas in science.  In a shocking twist, Scientific American removed her blog, saying:
“Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.”- Mariette DiChristina

This has sparked a large online debate on gender inequality in science, a boycott of Scientific American, and a #2 worldwide ranking twitter campaign #StandingWithDNLee.  So yes, Ofek, this has indeed been great exposure!  If you want to read DNLee’s SciAm post that was removed, you can click to this blog, one of many that had the foresight to copy her cached original post.  Deleting posts always works, said no one ever and the Scientific American blog admin…

Is this debate warranted?  Yes.  Whether or not you have a dick is the best predictor of how well cited your publication will be (this is exacerbated by the fact that women authors are much less likely to self-cite than men).  Women are still more likely to leave their scientific field than pursue higher level academics – because men are paid more, get more funding, and are appointed to higher positions faster than their equally qualified vagina counterparts. 

NOTE: The following is written from my experiences.  This is not to say that everyone will have the same experiences in all fields throughout the universe in perpetuity, etc...

Unfortunately, ladies, shark science may be one of the worst fields to have a vagina in. Take the white shark circus for example – you’re either billed as a butch Shark Man, Ultimate Shark Guru, White Shark living legend … or a gentile mermaid that swims with sharks to protect themIf you refuse to be type-cast to the above extremes, your life will be difficult.  You will either have to grow an extra layer of fat around your tongue, or you may be silly enough to speak out. 

I started off as a tongue biter since all young women have to in the beginning.  One day, women scientists will be selected for their ability to confidently debate scientific topics – even to men! – but we are a long way off.  In my experience, the young women scientists who are selected to ‘make it’ are the ones who are seen but not heard… at least in the beginning. 
Once you are ‘established’, or (in my case) work with an extremely rare higher ranking male that does not consider supporting you a threat to his masculinity, you can begin to speak publically about issues important to your field.  I began to take public stances on white shark conservation issues about 2 years ago.  I used Uma Therman as an avatar in public forums since men are more likely to engage with attractive women and the majority of the ignorant posts in this forum were authored by men.  This tactic seemed to work, as these men interacted with my posts for over a month before banning my account, whereas they would ban other female authors of similar informative posts in 1 day (after 1 post that contradicted their stance).  I still periodically include relevant scientific information into white shark debates or correct erroneous statements, and as a result, I get called a whore ­- or equally insulting sentiment - once a month:

At least read the study, for crying out loud!  In this case, the corrections I recommended to this facebook group were silently rectified in the end, but I won’t hold my breath for an apology.  Also, do not get the impression by this post that bullies are only male – female ones definitely exist too!  Such comments have now lost their venom, but I can understand how other female scientists would be put off from engaging in scientific debates publicly.  Remarks such as bitch and whore are not rare, but I encourage you… no, I implore you not to be put off.  They are just bullies who will target anyone they render as an easy punching bag to their own low self-esteem.  

Like the above case, some of these bullies have successfully disguised themselves as respectable scientists/conservationists/etc.  You will end up being suckered into working with one of these fools during your career, but don’t worry, we have all been there.  Learn from the experience, keep calm and carry on.  Also remember, for every one bully you encounter, there are at least five silent  ‘good guys’ out there.  Bullies just make the most noise (i.e. Ofek above) so it seems as if the world is full of them.  Cultivate the ‘good guys’ and have the strength to remove yourself from the bullies you encounter.  They will only – and intentionally! – bring you down until you say when.

This is why I encourage more scientists - especially females - to engage the public, if only to drown out the bullies.  Currently, constructive scientific discussions are limited to the protective walls of conferences and symposia, when they should be discussed publically, ad libitum.  Invite the abuse of bullies and trolls to learn how to manoeuvre this brand new world, because the future of online scientific communication currently stands to be dominated by these loud idiots.  You hold the power to shut them up. 

To the prospective woman scientist/shark researcher, I cheer you on big time.   I also want to warn you, it will not be easy.  There will be tough times ahead and you must prepare yourself (by cultivating ‘good guys’) for those low moments.  Remember, ‘this too shall pass’, both the bad times and the good.  

UPDATE:  Ofek was fired.

30 September, 2013

White sharks and speedos - ugly for many reasons

One can always tell when the Guadalupe season is wrapping up, simply by watching The Daily Mail's news feed.  The researcher is reported to be from Pelagic Life - and I hope PL is taking the necessary steps in terminating this person from their position immediately.  Take this terrestrial example, where a guide was terminated after the video of him charging a bull elephant was released.

Know that I do not disagree with diving with sharks, and I do agree that at the right times/conditions and with the right animals, you could even dive with a white shark, but your motivations to do so must also be checked, and not everyone's motivations are so benign.  I'd go on about this, but Cristina Zenato has already done such a great job here:
"We also have what are called “red flag” motivations. Those are the thrill-seeking, defeat-danger-and-death, peer-pressure kind of motivations. So if we are honest with ourselves, what is it that pushes us outside the cage: A desire to connect? A desire to brag about it? Being able to post a picture of us next to the shark? A desire to know more?"
I am shocked that a researchers at Pelagic Life would have "I want to swim next to a white shark in a speedo so I can get on The Daily Mail" motivations...

EDIT and UPDATE:  Check out the interview with Pelagic Life over on the BAD blog.  Another terrible example of media taking advantage of a non-profit:
"Lesson learned - at an extremely high price:  Never trust sensitive underwater images/stories to someone who has absolutely no interest in what you believe in"

13 September, 2013

Japanese longliner held in South Africa for illegal fishing

Looks like the Koel Maru No.88 has gotten itself into hot water off of the Aliwal Shoal MPA.  I appreciate IOL's specific listing of what tuna species this vessel is allowed to catch... "yellowfin and bigeye tuna, as well as swordfish and shark."

Which sharks, guys?  Don't stop your investigative journalism there!  Chalk it up to yet another shournofail.

Will be very interesting to see how this develops, and track down who, exactly, got the R2million 'security' bri-hrmp... I mean... fee.  

06 August, 2013

Megalodon sharks in South Africa!

At least Sharknado never tried to be taken as fact - and yes, I am having night sweats!

Discovery Channel's Shark Week has done it again by producing, Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives.  Evidently (I have not watched it myself) a fake team of fake researchers embark on a fake expedition to find the extinct shark in South Africa.  They report that a large shark capsized a boat in April 2013 outside of Hout Bay, South Africa, as part of their evidence of the animal's existence.

This would be funny if a commercial boat hadn't capsized last year outside of Hout Bay, killing two passengers.

This would be funny if Huffington Post wasn't reporting this as an actual expedition.

This would be funny if this wasn't, so far, Shark Week's highest rated show.

This also would be funny if local cage diving operators here in Gansbaai weren't receiving concerned emails about the safety of cage diving after watching the Megalodon show...

Why do we keep giving Shark Week a second chance?  When will we as conservationists and operators realize we can not keep supporting/promoting this sharkarrhea?  Tell these film crews to fuck off... like they do in Fiji!

For more facts, check out the snopes article.

18 July, 2013

Is a shark forecast in our future?

Check out the latest False Bay white shark manuscript just published in PLOS ONEWeltz et al. 2013. "The Influence of Environmental Variables on the Presence of White Sharks, Carcharodon carcharias at Two Popular Cape Town Bathing Beaches: A Generalized Additive Mixed Model." doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068554

Sound elegant science, done like a boss, with female authors leading the publication.  Let this please be the beginning of a much needed shift in South African white shark science!

Take away message?  Make sure you double check the SST and moon phase before you go out.  Is this novel info?  For white shark science - yes, but for shore based anglers - no.  Nonetheless, it is great to see this kind of information translated into a language academics/government officials are capable of digesting.

So... any bets on how long it takes for a crazy to develop a sea-cooling 'shark barrier'? 

12 July, 2013

Sharknado - two fins up! [with spoilers]

I love these movies, because I was one of the many raised on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and, as a researcher, I can relax knowing that the audience is aware of the film's fallacy.  This is opposed to most (not all) shark documentaries, which have literally given me the night sweats as they are chock-a-block full of pseudo science or (spoiler alert) are completely faked.  Films like Sharknado purposefully take the piss and, considering what passes as a shark documentary now a days, Sharknado could be doing more good for sharks than bad - follow me out on this limb...

The film starts out with a scene on an offshore trawler where they are finning sharks.  Spoiler Alert: The fishermen get owned by the pissed off sharks.  Then, once the sharks are pissed off, they go into shore and start causing havoc while the unnatural hurricane (caused by global warming) hitting Los Angeles makes tornadoes which suck up the water full of sharks.  Sharks are then thrown around town killing people (since no one seems to be able to stand up and just walk away from the sharks after they have landed) or start swimming into the flooded streets (based on fact).

After a massive failure of logic (you really expect me to believe that one can dive into a shark's stomach chainsaw first and not cut up the girl that's trapped inside???), the take-away message is: Don't fin sharks and piss them off while simultaneously fucking with the climate, this makes Sharknadoes and no one's got time for that.  Is this worse or better than the take away message that killer sharks are your friends and you need sharks to breathe oxygen so save them?  They are both based on b.s. and which do you think is more effective?

07 July, 2013

New white shark aggregation area in South Africa!

Dicken et al. 2013.  White sharks Carcharodon carcharias at Bird Island, Algoa Bay, South Africa.  African Journal of Marine Science.

Perhaps this area isn't 'new', but this is the first time white shark presence at Black Rocks/Bird Island has been quantified and published.  Unfortunately the paper is not open source, so you will have to ask your academic friends to download a PDF for you.  This area highlights yet another aggregation determined by the presence of seals even though it occurs in the warm Agulhas waters, and also shows small shark sizes when compared to our stomping grounds.  Yet, I am dubious of the accuracy of surface white shark sizing.  Anyone who has been on a cage diving vessel has experienced a good debate of 'hoe lank is dat haai', and the ranges can be startling!  Also, as boats/cages get larger, so do shark sizes.

A good example of this is Gansbaai local, Nemo.  When all the cage diving operators were working with ~3.0m long cages, Nemo was sized at around 3.0m.  Then, when cages suddenly upgraded to 4.0m in length, Nemo suddenly grew to 4.0m in length and the sizing debate began...  Here's hoping that someone who has/is/will be using those laser measurement systems on white sharks publishes a nice comparison between observer bias, surface sizing and laser sizing!

But I am digressing as usual.  Check out the paper!

17 June, 2013

Great white sharks - most endangered species in the universe

First off, I am deeply offended by DaShark’s latest entry where he accuses me of being ‘human’ and ‘soft’Have I lost my edge so soon?  Have I turned into just another whinger with a keyboard (and a shark blog)???  Only time will tell…

As for the DICT, I admit to my soft spot.  Gansbaai is a klein dorpie where the omniscient shark experts, shark saviours, and shark ‘men’ roam the streets/pubs/grocery stores.  For one to merely live here you must either avoid the egos or become one of them.  So, I do relate to the DICT researchers who are based here and also dare to publish research that questions the Gansbaai white shark paradigm (i.e. there are not 2000 GWSs in the bay).  With this environment, it is no wonder that so many shark researchers in the past dropped everything to escape Gansbaai.  I hope the DICT can keep it up even under such hazardous living conditions.

…and for fucks sake fix that infographic!  While the Marine Dynamics based 'sharkfographic' certainly succeeded in spreading word about the research (already more people have read the PLOS article than there were GWSs in Gansbaai from 2007-2012!), the graphic has a massive error on the top panel that journalists are only too happy to report!  The information on the bottom 9/10ths of the infographic is solid, but the top panel is completely false, not based on the research, and hopefully gets changed.  But at this stage, the damage is done… 

Did you know that ‘the great white could be one of the most endangered species in the world’ (source)?  Did you see the meme heard round the world?  Where are the online petitions???  But it’s not all bad write-ups, check out iol.co.za’s write up and Scenic South, so far the only accurate ones.

Closing comments?  If you spend years on a project, don't let your work be marketed independently and commercially as it just might facilitate a classic media bonanza of bullshit.

13 June, 2013

02 June, 2013

Is the blog mightier than the pen? The Shark Safe shark barrier saga (part 2)

So, which was it?  I’ll leave the readers to judge.

I was paid a visit by Craig, which in the end was a very nice experience and we agreed to more cups of coffee in the future.  He said he felt personally attacked, however, if you read the blog again – I explicitly say how much I like him (I still do!) and elude to the fact that he’s dealing with the most challenging experience one will face during a career in white shark research.  The blog attacks the motivation behind rushing to publish a flawed research design on a controversial topic, the highly inaccurate press release generated by someone, and questions the various hands at play which I am now able to address a bit further in the blog... 

Craig also mentioned that the effects of the blog were immediate/severe and asked that I take it down.  Upon further investigation on my side, I find this hard to believe.  Let me give you some stats:

Which is most likely the culprit for the backlash?  Craig agreed that the press was bad and that the publication was never to test the barrier as a barrier, like the press says, rather to see if it is possible to manipulate shark movements using plastic pipes, magnets, and bait.  (I won’t dive into this here, rather read this tutorial on non sequitur arguments and then read the publicationI’ll leave the academics/statisticians to the rebuttals).    

This press situation is seriously troubling.  If a university is incapable of producing accurate press releases on their students’ work, then they should be named/shamed and future releases from this institution should not be taken seriously. Stellenbosch University's press release about the shark barrier is rife with inaccuracies, such as: 
‘Our structure has already been in the water for eight months and can resist waves of up to seven metres.’

Dead fucking wrong.
  The structure is in the 'Shark Alley' channel between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock which is protected by the 500m rock breakwall of Geyser Rock.  Yes, Gansbaai does get 7m waves regularly (i.e. Monday), but that structure is in the most sheltered spot in the bay.  Even with this protection, it still came loose!  Why lie about this?  Surely, if this gaff in the media is entirely attributed to Stellenbosch Uni. then Craig won’t work with them in the future.

But how did Craig initially get into this hot mess?  I wasn’t shocked when he mentioned the influence of a certain government technician at the beginning of his study, but maybe my government department readers will be.  When Craig was looking for areas to test the pipes on white sharks, an official at DEA actually discouraged Craig from contacting the only registered NPO publishing peer-reviewed white shark research from Gansbaai, and instructed him to only work with a shark celebrity who runs a commercial dive business.  What motivated a government official to discourage an international researcher from working with a functional NPO but to rather work with a business?  Either way this is a hot mess he certainly didn't ask to be thrown into.

So to my 120 readers, I hope you don’t hate on Craig as a person, I don’t.  I am also passionate about his cause to replace shark nets and drumlines which kill +-30 great white sharks annually within South Africa.  However, before one goes running to the press – whether that was Craig or the geneticist or another hand – the research must support the elevated claims in the releases, otherwise you become fodder for shark blogs. 

22 May, 2013

Eco friendly shark barrier or money making scam?

You can usually tell if new ‘research’ is a money making scam by the following criteria:
  1. Research conducted by foreigners
  2. Big PR/marketing campaign
  3. The only supporting research is published in low-ranking/little known journals
  4. The study gained several high profile sponsors and then lost them all
  5. Supporting research was done by the people who own the patents

I’ll let the readers decide if this is what’s happening to the latest ‘shark deterrent’ system being tested here, in Shark Alley’s home town.

All the latest press releases about SharkSafe have heralded it as the world’s first eco-friendly shark deterrent.  The magnetic tubes of plastic mimic kelp which repels sharks, and there is no bycatch!  The research shows that sharks did not swim through the plastic tubes that were based in Shark Alley.  Sound too good to be true? 

The SharkSafe plastic debris is a single line of tubes in the corner of the alley.  It does not act as a barrier at all, but merely a bunch of plastic junk that the sharks swim around.  Thus, anyone could have achieved these same ‘results’ by putting, say, wooden poles in Shark Alley or a chain of blow up dolls or just ropes.  Of course the sharks don’t swim through it, why would they? 

How about a hypothetical example…  Lets say I want to create a human barrier, something I can deploy that will repel humans from specific areas.  To test this, I will go to one of the busiest sidewalks in New York City and put three steel poles in the middle of it.  Indeed, you will see that no humans will cross through the steel, because they will walk around it.  Does this mean steel poles repel humans?  No.  Although simplistic, this is actually the design of the SharkSafe tests in Shark Alley.  Their 'results' are that sharks didn’t swim through the plastic, thus it is a deterrent - make the patents!  But actually, it was never tested as a barrier.  What this study does unequivocally prove is that sharks are capable of ignoring man-made bullshit no matter how much funding went into building it.  How dare they!

What would be a better test in my human example?  Say I put a line of these steel poles outside of a Wal-Mart before a Black Friday sale.  The humans are drawn to the area for a reason, but my barrier lies between them and their goal.  As countless Youtube videos show, this barrier does not work.  SharkSafe has not tried a similar study where sharks are motivated to cross through a barrier that they can't simply swim around.  If you read the research, they say they used bait to motivate the sharks, but I talk about that at the end of the blog...

So, why would a group of ‘researchers’ push such a massive PR campaign even though the research actually hasn’t been done?  Read between the lines!  The plastic debris tubes have been patented by the University of Stellenbosch.  The ‘researchers’ estimate it would cost the City of Cape Town R10 million to deploy a SharkSafe barrier to protect Muizenberg bathers, which is what they are pushing for.  Clear now?  This appears to be following in the wake of the Shark Shield gold rush i.e. a PR campaign before legit research, so by the time real researchers can do the work, the public are already sold on an empty promise and the 'researchers' have moved on to the next town with their shark cure. 

And then I could get petty.  I won’t delve into the politics I suspect are at work in this study as it involves Shark Defence, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, and the Shark ‘Man’ Mike Rutzen.  I also don't understand how a geneticist can be the scientific advisor of what is clearly a behavioural project (unless he's the one holding the patent...).  You can expect further blogs for the SharkSafe Saga as more of this comes to light.  I will, however, delve into my personal observations of this plastic pollution cum shark deterrent. 

I like Craig, I’ve met him once and he seems nice, but I think he’s suffering from a classic case of someone who hasn’t spent enough time physically at their study site.  Like every other group of foreign researchers, these guys come out a few times a year for a few weeks and then go back home, missing out on the rest of the season’s picture.  I do believe if Craig had spent as much time as I have in Shark Alley looking at those plastic tubes, he wouldn’t be so quick to push all this press (but that is entirely dependent on his motivations).  I have seen sharks take seals next to the tubes, I have seen sharks bite off the sardine oil cans they hung from the tubes to attract sharks to it, I have seen sharks eat the buoys that were once attached to the rigging.  Of course, I cannot prove if any of the SharkSafe team had similar observations, but I don't doubt that if they have, they've left Craig in the dark intentionally.

Also, this thing got ripped apart by the winter storms even though it was in the most sheltered area, so how could a SharkSafe deployment ever be logistically feasible?  The costs to keep repairing it would be astronomica-oh snap!  It’s the American car company of shark deterrents- ingenious!

So what’s my answer then?  I have recently learned about a 100% effective way to forecast shark presence in South Africa and how to eliminate your chances of shark encounter.  Step 1: Go to the shore and stick your finger in the water and then stick this finger in your mouth, if it tastes salty then there are sharks there.  Step 2: If you’re not prepared to meet one, stay on the beach.

18 May, 2013

Am I the only one...

... who thinks this is a very bad idea?

The video was shot near Puget Sound, Washington, USA.  Of course, this is just one case of someone with an old board and a GoPro (who wanted to make a documentary of this), but shouldn't we not encourage seals to sit on top of stationary surf boards?  Does this raise any red flags to anyone else?

Ah well, it is very cute - that's all that matters....

14 April, 2013

Two men enter; one man leaves...

Jislyk, what a time to be cut off from the internet!  In case you have been living under a rock, the Domeier – Fischer drama bomb has exploded on the BAD Blog.  Check out the DaShark v. Fischer comment battle royal, and then the good Doctor’s rebuttal

Since I have met both these okes (and have had both of them warn me about the other), I am not surprised to see this boil over, although I am surprised by the source.  Goes to show how influential these pesky shark blogs are after all, ney?

Unfortunately, a situation such as this is not rare in the ‘industry’, but is rarely so public.  The most challenging experience one will face during a career in white shark research is being suckered into working with someone that is a dick.  Like a one-night stand, they/their projects may look attractive and say all the right things, but then you wake up and realize that you’re some wrinkly married man’s mid-life crisis.  Seems like when Dr.D and Fischer woke up next to each other, they were sourly unimpressed.  In such cases, you can either scream and defame as much as you can to anyone who will listen, or you can walk-of-shame onto the next phase of your life wiser.  I’ll let the readers suss out who is doing what in this case but in the end it doesn’t matter.  Both are still going on and achieving their respective missions, and most importantly, know never to get in bed with each other again.  Yet, when you burn a bridge sometimes an olive branch is extended.  

Like most female white shark researchers (who suffer daily exposure to wounded male egos), I could care less.  The results speak for themselves.  Props to Dr.D and force-of-nature N.Nasby-Lucas for submitting to a brand-new open access journal.  So, go read it!

As for the PAT v. SPOT rash that just won’t go away no matter how much peer-reviewed literature you ingest, let me tell you a crushing story…

Note that most of her dorsal is missing (but is making a come-back) and all of the right pectoral is gone except a nub.  No one is sure how her fins got sliced off, but we have documented cases where fishing line draped across a fin worked like a cheese-cutter through the cartilage resulting in clean cuts like Nemo’s.  At the end of 2012, a PAT tag was attached to her to see where such a finless shark goes.  Do her damaged fins limit her migratory patterns?  Does she leave Gansbaai at all?  Any clue as to why this is an important question to answer?

The PAT popped up 2 months ago south of Madagascar, got caught in the south Indian subgyre and has now stopped pinging.  Thus, the high-definition location/temperature/depth data archived (PAT = Pop-up Archival Transmitter) in that tag has been lost.  Without the actual tag we are limited to the summary log that is transmitted when the PAT surfaces, so we will now know that Nemo was around southern Africa in coldish waters that got warmer, a fantastically anticlimactic ending that can’t be published anywhere!  The good news is, Nemo has now been spotted back in her usual haunt near Geyser Rock just in time for winter.     

30 March, 2013

The effect of shark cage diving on my patience

First off, thanks to DaShark and Patric for the warm welcomes to the shark blogosphere!  Especially Patric’s observation that …it's about bloody time someone grew a pair of steaming hot bolas and got on to the Internet to blog about South African shark diving. Perhaps my greatest strength lies in my lack of bolas in the first place. J

When starting this blog, I promised myself to limit posts to South African related issues, to not criticize shark research and not to have loads of posts about the cage diving industry.  I now break all of those promises in my second blog… damn!

And it’s all due to Bruce & Bradford’s paper “The effects of shark cage-diving operations on the behaviour and movements of white sharks, Carcharodon carcharias, at the Nepture Islands, South Australia”.  I actually don’t know how these papers keep getting published.

The work demonstrates how chumming and baiting sharks can affect the fine-scale spatiotemporal patterns of white sharks within their aggregation areas within the small window operators are present.  No shit.  If chumming and baiting sharks didn’t attract them, you wouldn’t have an industry which is measured in hundred of millions of USD/year would you? 

What is lacking in all of these studies is whether or not these extremely localized fine-scale spatiotemporal shifts are a bad thing for sharks.  Bruce & Bradford do point out how woodland caribou (a socially complex, terrestrial, mammal) can suffer from petroleum exploration activities… which is naturally the best comparison in the literature to white shark cage diving?  Eish…

There are several generally irritating parts of this paper which DaShark has already highlighted.  However, there are three questions I have about the research specifically, including what appears to be one epic fail in the methodology.

1) What are the seals doing?  Bruce & Bradford highlight how the sharks are aggregating on the east side of the islands which corresponds to the corridors seals use to commute to and from the colony. There is no specific mention of the temporal patterns of seals, however...

By 2010 the peak arrival time of sharks at the island appears to be just after dawn, a few hours before the operators get there.  I don’t think Bruce means to insinuate that sharks are predicting the arrival of the operators (every WSCG operator wishes this were true!).  EDIT: OMFG he does! "Arrival of sharks at 'provisioning' sites in anticipation of vessel arrival has been observed or suggested in a number of studies... but has not previously been demonstrated in white sharks."  Rather, this graph is a clear indication that white sharks at the Neptunes are executing the same hunting strategy documented practically everywhere else on Earth (i.e. Kock et al. 2013Fallows et al. 2012 and De Vos & O’Riain 2010, Klimley Klimley Klimey... the list goes on!!!) and certainly does not provide any clarity on Bruce & Bradford’s subject of cage diving effects.  

2) Shark presence at a VR2 does NOT equate shark presence at a WSCG operator’s vessel.  We’ve had many sharks pass right under vessels and cut through multiple chum lines without ever being spotted at the surface by operators.  This conundrum could easily be solved by looking at operator logbook data to see how many sharks they observed were tagged.  Why Bruce & Bradford utilize logbook data from operators but do not publish this key aspect is beyond me! 

3) The 2010 animals have better tags with higher battery life and they are using better receivers.  When I got to this section;

Transmitters used in the 2001-2003 study were rated for a battery life of approximately 2.0 years and those used in the 2010-2011 study were rated for approximately 6.5 years.” – Bruce & Bradford 2013  

I had an epic face-palm.  Those are not the approximate tag battery life expectancies, those are the maximum battery-life expectancies.  The cold temperate waters white sharks occur in zap tag battery life, so you are lucky to get more than 6 months of transmissions from those old (circa 2000) acoustic tags whereas you may get a few years out of the 2009 models.  Also they got a nice upgrade in receivers for the 2010 study, because two of the 2001 receivers were flooded/highly fouled, one of the receivers was lost in a storm and subsequently that data was lost…

“Due to a combination of battery failures and lost stations, there were periods of no coverage from any of the stations at the North Neptune Islands from 12 February 2002 to 19 March 2002 (36 days), at the South Neptune’s from 9 February 2002 to 20 March 2002 (37 days) and at Dangerous Reef from 12 November 2001 to 21 March 2002 (126 days)…” – Bruce et al. 2005.

If that’s how the receivers fared, how likely is it that all those circa 2000 tags worked perfectly for their maximum life expectancy of 2 years?  It is possible that the short residency times and lack of diurnal patterns observed with the 2001 animals can be explained by a combination of high tag battery failure and the multiple lost/battery failed/fouled listening stations.  I am concerned that Bruce & Bradford fail to mention this, and also side-step it by not including an n=individual sharks value for any of their graphs and only n=detections…

So as much as Bruce (apparently) dislikes the industry, he certainly owes this Marine Biology publication to the controversial title and the white shark’s “iconic nature”.  Moving forward, will someone please take a look at this question: do the potential localized spatiotemporal shifts in white shark patterns associated with cage diving vessels have long-term negative effects on white shark fitness?  Consider this white shark which stranded at Dyer Island that had six Cape fur seals stacked in its stomach.  Dyer Island is the epicenter of the Gansbaai cage diving area where eight operators are chumming or berleying, and baiting on a daily multiple trips/day basis!  Yet, this omnipresent WSCG effort did not seem to affect this sharks’ appetite for seal.  One example, I know that's weak, but this is a blog.

As for my opinion, I do not think cage diving operators have long term negative effects on the overall fitness of white sharks within an aggregation area, when done ethically!  There are definitely short-term negatives like the energy sharks lose breaching on rubber seal decoys, and when sharks get totally fucked up by cages but since we know how well sharks can heal themselves – even from a propeller to the spine – I doubt many cases of cage related injuries have long-term effects.  However, we are still waiting to resight the shark that split its gills open inside a cage last week…

24 March, 2013

Great white shark attempts to kill divers - sent by Al-Qaeda...

Why not kick off the Shark Alley blog with one of the most controversial videos from Gansbaai?  

This video had 110 views on Friday and now at the time of posting has nearly 1 million!  It's the Gangnam Style of white shark catastrophes!  I can easily tell which company that cage belongs to – but does it matter?  Videos like this impact the entire industry – from Gansbaai to Guadalupe – so finger pointing is neither hither nor thither (although maybe someone should recalc those openings – sheesh!).  Amongst the general malarkey, this incident has brought back one of my favourite failures of logic against cage diving: 

“…but if we were to drag impala heads on ropes for lions to chase towards game drive vehicles there would be a huge outcry, why is there not the same with sharks - its baiting pure and simple! “

Big 5 game lodges dig waterholes nearby their premises so that clients can see wildlife, essentially chumming for lions, hippos, elephants etc.  Is this so different?  Also, I think it’s a tad naïve to pretend that the loud landies clients chase around wildlife in aren’t serving as indirect signals to nearby predators of prey abundance.  EDIT: Crazed giraffe attacks vehicle - but don't worry, it was just elevated hormones that caused him to charge the nearest moving vehicle.  Perhaps this shark was just trying to mate with the diver?  It's disturbing how that is more 'acceptable'... 

Think of all the incredible wildlife encounters you have ever had – was there a lure of some sort involved?  Why do I never see anyone rally against bird-feeders? Perhaps there is no huge outcry about shark baiting/luring/chumming because there is no research that support these emotional arguments, in fact, quite the opposite!

The bottom line is, if you want to see wildlife – specifically sharks – within the narrow-attention span of the tourism world, you have only two options; 1) lure in your wildlife in areas of their abundance, or 2) keep them captive.  I’d rather white sharks were kept wild with the off-chance of freak accidents like this than the latter.  Yes you could also sit for months nearby seal colonies on the off-chance to see a white shark, but only a rare breed of humans (called ‘researchers’) have that kind of patience.

So, what happened to this shark to possess it to lunge at the cage?  Fuck knows, white shark behaviour is an imperfect science because each individual animal will react uniquely to stimuli.  I have seen a shark fully breach attack kelp, I have had a shark ram my engine full speed out of no-where, I have had a shark lunge at a shadow.  They are not known for their complex reasoning skills and their ‘bite first, ask questions later’ method makes them terribly efficient predators.  Before we started filling the ocean with non-organic things (like cages and seal decoys) this was fool-proof shark logic.  However, various media outlets have found the natural explanation, the shark was most certainly trying to kill the divers inside – and sharks have fangs!

What I find most disturbing about this video is the reaction, or lack-thereof, of the people/crew.  No one attempts to help the people in the cage (or the shark), and once the shark frees itself (luckily) the people erupt in awesome hoots and hollers like that’s the best shit ever.  What kind of weird shark culture is this?

We will keep our eyes out for this shark (i.e. one that has torn out gills - see the blood?) and hope that this calls for stronger cage-related regulations to be passed.  The Marine Conservation Science Institute page (and their intelligent commenters) nailed it with this:

18 March, 2013

To blog or be blogged - a disclaimer

Welcome to the Shark Alley blog - written by a feisty group from Gansbaai, South Africa - which details all things we deem worth sharing our opinions about. Living in the 'White Shark Capital of the World' - we are most opinionated on things white shark or generally shark related and have first hand accounts of the comical 'white shark circus'. Note that this blog is an opinion blog and that our views are not necessarily shared by any of the conservation/research/social media/ecotourism groups we are associated with - which is what motivated the birth of this independent blog in the first place.

Feedback and comments (at your own risk) on posts are much appreciated, but are moderated entirely for our benefit and are equally subject to witty replies.