Researchers tag first male great white in North Atlantic

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OFF NANTUCKET, Mass. (WPRI) — As soon as the 700-pound, 10-foot-long giant took the bait, the Ocearch fishing crew knew it was different from the dozens of other sharks they’ve snagged and tagged over the years.

Ocearch Expedition Leader Chris Fischer had been waiting for this moment for about five years and it finally came in early October, about 15 miles off Nantucket, in 23 feet of water during slack tide.

“And then boom! We got eaten,” Fischer said, referring to the fish-stuffed rubber seal that was used as bait. “And it was on hard and fast. That’s really different than the females. Sometimes we’ll play cat and mouse with them for hours before they pick up a bait. And this [male] just came in hot.”

As Ocearch does with every shark, this one was “walked” around in the water for about 20 minutes or so to calm it down. Then, it was guided onto a platform and lifted out of the water for a series of tests and procedures.

Two electronic tracking tags were attached to the body and a third was implanted.

With sea water pumped into the shark’s mouth and soaked towels protecting it from the sun, several crew members moved quickly to take swab samples from its fins and skin, record vital signs, and draw blood samples that were tested in the on-board lab.

According to crew member Fernanda Ubatuba, blood work determined that despite the struggle on the hook and the platform, there were no chemical signs of physical stress.

“That’s really important because you put on all those tags,” Ubatuba explained. “You want that shark to swim off really healthy to give us years of information and data.”

The key finding of this expedition was more obvious than what was determined by swabs and blood samples: the shark was a male.

The crew and guests on the ship clapped as Fischer teared up while announcing the shark would be named George after a key Ocearch supporter.

“I’d been trying to name a mature male white shark after my father since 2012,” said Fischer. “He’s done so much to help this [nonprofit] operation stay alive. That’s impossible for me to explain.”

Fischer named a 4,000-pound female tagged in 2012 after his mom, Mary Lee.

Fischer said the electronic pings from George, Mary Lee, and the dozens of other tagged females may lead to the discovery of a shark breeding area.

“It’s priceless data that we’ve never had before and now that we can attract a mature male we can overlap his tracks with a female’s,” he said. “It’s the best chance of finding the mating site because for the most part they’re sexually segregated all year. The males and the females don’t live together.”

A short time after George was set free, with the hook barely wet again, a second great white was on the line. This one, a female that would be named Yeti.

Like George, she was “walked” around, towed on to the platform, tested, and set up with tracking devices.

Fishing Master Brett McBride is the last one to touch the shark, wading in the water with the carnivore. As they squirm into a full swim, McBride calmly grabs their tail fins and steers the giants to freedom.

“I’m in a position where I can do my little part to give back,” McBride said, insisting he is safe and not fearful as he wades with the sharks. “Certainly not a big adrenaline rush or anything. It’s mostly I have a lot of weight on my shoulders to make sure it all goes smooth and the shark gets let go alive and healthy.”

Ocearch is collecting data to help restore the great white population. The theory is the food chain will be healthier with the shark controlling the creatures that consume the fish humans catch and eat.

“If we can put this data together, we can manage our white sharks toward abundance,” Fischer added. “The great white will control manta rays, and other species that eat what we eat. And there’ll be lots of fish for our kids to eat.”

Among the shark’s prey that some believe is out of control is the seal. A record number of harbor seals was counted this year in Narragansett Bay, home now to about 600 of the mammals.

But the grey seal population appears to be growing even faster.

“So, as the white shark recovers, it will impact the behavior of the seal and it will help the seal numbers,” Fischer said. “But you’re going to see seal numbers rise all the way from here down through the eastern seaboard because their historic range is much much bigger than it is. It’s just now recovering.”

Crocker Snow is among the members of the Seal Abatement Coalition, also known as SAC. He pointed to Muskegut Island, only miles from where George and Yeti were caught. SAC believes the small island off Nantucket and other areas near Cape Cod are overrun by grey seals.

Commercial fishing crews claim the mammals that weigh up to 700 pounds are depleting their catch.

Another concern, according to Snow, is disease. He said one in five young seals is infected with avian flu from drinking the water on Muskegut Island.

“To find traces of avian flu in 20 percent or more of the Muskegut pups is something that people at MIT, people at Woods Hole are more concerned about,” said Snow.

The seal has been guarded by the Marine Mammal Protection Act since the early 1970s, but SAC is pushing for at least a dialog about how to manage this booming population. A symposium on the seal population is planned for early next month in Nantucket.

While the seal population appears to be growing relatively quickly, Fischer said the same cannot be said for great whites, who have an 18-month gestation period and do not mate until they’re 20 years old.

“When you have a seal population that’s increasing by 50 percent a year and we have to go 20 years just to get more mature white sharks to chase those seals around,” Fischer said. “It’s going to take a long time for the shark to control its prey.”