Talk of Shark Breeding Grounds Off Long Island at Whaling Museum

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Tagging a juvenile great white shark off Long Island. Photos courtesy of Ocearch
 Tagging a juvenile great white shark off Long Island in July.  Photos courtesy of Ocearch

Tagging a juvenile great white shark off Long Island in July. Photos courtesy of Ocearch

By Peter Boody

The great white sharks patrolling the world’s oceans, including the shallow waters just off Long Island’s beaches, once more showed their power to fascinate on Saturday when one of their champions, Chris Fischer, drew a standing room only crowd to the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum.

At least 100 people turned out to hear Mr. Fischer, a charismatic TV producer and host of sport fishing adventure shows, talk about the shark-tagging, tracking and data collection expeditions of his ship M/V Ocearch.

The ship, after a long sharking voyage to Australia and South America, has been working off the beaches of the South Fork since August 11. Mr. Fischer said he believes the waters off Long Island are a prime nursery site for the Atlantic great white shark.

In one week, Ocearch tagged and released nine shark pups near Montauk, said Steve Lobosco when he introduced Mr. Fischer. Mr. Lobosco, whose wife Barbara is a co-president of the museum, arranged for Mr. Fischer’s visit with museum board member Peter Drakoulias.

Chris Fischer, TV fishing show host and founder of Ocearch, tells a standing-room-only crowd at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum on Saturday, August 27, about the organization’s effort to tag great white sharks and collect data to prove that they breed in the waters just off Long Island’s beaches. Peter Boody photo
Chris Fischer, TV fishing show host and founder of Ocearch, tells a standing-room-only crowd at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum on Saturday, August 27, about the organization’s effort to tag great white sharks and collect data to prove that they breed in the waters just off Long Island’s beaches. Peter Boody photo

The Ocearch website includes a global shark tracker that allows anyone with a computer to follow scores of sharks all over the world. Last year, the site recorded 13 billion impressions.

The tracker is a result of Mr. Fischer’s discovery that he could achieve spectacular “bandwith” — an even greater viewership than his recreational fishing TV programs — “by inviting everybody” to participate in the Ocearch mission in real time over the internet.

“Suddenly I was like, ‘Oh wow. We have another way toward scale. This is the Google model …monetize the scale, not the product,” he said.

The Ocearch mission is to end the ignorance that cloaks human understanding of great whites and other shark species by tagging them, developing data about their behavior, and widely disseminating it for free. The goal is to stimulate the academic research that ultimately will allow governments to establish policies to protect shark populations.

That’s vitally important, Mr. Fischer explained, because great whites are a “keystone” species that keep the ocean ecosystem in balance. With no great whites, which feed on squid, the squid population would soar and game fish populations would plummet because squid eat their young, he explained.

Without sharks, it would be “a dead ocean,” Mr. Fischer said.

The world loses 100 million sharks a year, or 250,000 a day, he said, largely as unintended “bycatch” during commercial fishing operations. Another threat, the finning of sharks to make shark-fin soup for Asian markets, is on the decline, Mr. Fischer said, thanks to worldwide pressure discouraging it. In fact, he believes the great white population may be stable or even on the rise despite the heavy bycatch mortality.

“We’re going to win this one, we’re going to win this one,” he chanted, prompting a round of applause from his transfixed audience.

In a seamless but complex narrative loaded with the vocabulary of marketing, branding and TV, he went on to tell how he had found a commercial fishing boat in Costa Rica in 2007 that had a heavy hydraulic lift, which made him wonder if he could use it to tag a great white shark — something scientists had told him had never been done before. That was why so little was known about the life cycles of great whites, including where they migrated, mated or gave birth.

Naming the ship Ocearch, and setting out to create a “mega brand” that could be used to “pour the world’s oceans into peoples’ lives on a scale unseen since Cousteau,” he used the ship in 2008 to prove that a mature, female great white shark could be captured, tagged, released and tracked.

There was more applause after he showed a video clip of that first capture, the goal of which was “to create access to large sharks for scientists.”

“We have been tracking this shark, I think it’s Kimmel” — each tagged shark gets a name — “for almost eight years, three full reproductive cycles. We saw her mate, travel, gestate, give birth, return, mate travel, gestate …”

Growing up “chasing fish and frogs around the woods” of Louisiana, Mr. Fischer always was “super passionate” about recreational fishing, he said. But he studied international business at Indiana University and the National University of Singapore and, when he was 29, “the company I worked for was sold.”

That left him wondering what to do with his life. Living at the time in Southern California, and “alarmed by how disconnected people were from the ocean,” he set out to launch a “massive centrist ocean movement” by developing his first TV series on ESPN, “Offshore Adventures,” which ran for 188 episodes from 1999 to 2008.

But TV has its limits. “You cannot change the future of the ocean on a fisherman’s story,” said Mr. Fischer.

Ocearch, a non-profit charitable organization, allows him to “do good and do good business at the same time,” he said. “It seemed like a fuller journey to me.”

One of the reasons Ocearch has come to the waters off Long Island is the work of the Long Island Shark Collaboration, coordinated by Southampton High School marine science teacher Greg Metzger, who attended Saturday’s talk.

The collaborative tagged a juvenile great white in the ocean off Southampton in 2015 and contacted Ocearch about the catch. It was the first time a great white had been tagged in the Atlantic.

Mr. Fischer expects to spend several weeks in late summer off Long Island for several years to come, not only to capture and tag sharks but to expand his networks of followers and his donor base. Tagging along the East Coast, he said, would be “transformational” for the Ocearch mission because of the potential audience.

“It’s just as important to have a land plan as an ocean plan,” he said.

“It is your resource and it should be looked after by you all,” Mr. Fischer added. “We just have the privilege of being servants for you so that you all can work in maintaining one of the really truly special treasures in the world, which is a birthing site for the great balance-keeper of the North Atlantic, our North Atlantic white shark.”

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