This shark week, let’s cut through the drama and focus on the facts. Sharks strike fear into the hearts of many swimmers, but the number of fatalities does not really justify this anxiety. Just over four fatal shark attacks occur each year on average. Meanwhile, some 100 million sharks die at the hands of human beings.
As apex predators, sharks are among the most important creatures in the sea. “No sharks, no ocean,” marine biologist Chris Fischer told Digital Trends. Fischer heads Ocearch, a nonprofit organization that supports expeditions to tag and track white sharks, while open sourcing the data — including real-time tracking pings – online. The group just completed a Kickstarter campaign, crowdsourcing $154,702 for its next expedition.
For years, Ocearch has been studying sharks while educating the public about the predator’s importance. Over time, as the team reached milestones, its mission has evolved along with its experience. A decade ago, no one was able to safely and consistently catch, tag, and release great white sharks. “Our primary objective at the time was to capture a 4,000-pound female, do about 12 research projects on her in 15 minutes, and let her go alive,” Fischer said.
The team “cracked the code” to catch and release in 2007 and set off on a new objective: locate the great whites’ mating and birthing grounds.
Great whites don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re 26 and 33 years old for males and females, respectively. Until that time, the juvenile sharks hang around their birthplace, where they’re susceptible to getting caught in nets. By tracking females, Ocearch is able to pinpoint birthing sites, locate juveniles, and help protect them from nets until they’ve mature enough to swim out of danger. “When we discover the nurseries or birthing periods, we then have the capacity to know … we shouldn’t be gill-netting these waters during that time,” Fischer said.
The Ocearch goal in that regard is to allow commercial fisherman to operate and protect the sharks’ movement. These two forces need to work in harmony, said Fischer, to facilitate sustainability and a return to abundance.
The organization receives much of its funding from socially responsible corporate sponsors, but turned to Kickstarter to take the democratization of science and ocean exploration one step further. “As we began to open source things our community exploded,” Fischer said. “And we wanted to make a space that was by the people and for the people … Build an enterprise that goes beyond any one person to serve the oceans, scientists, sharks, and future generations.”
Fischer and his team realized that all those people consuming Ocearch’s open-source content may jump at the chance to help fund the expeditions. And they were right — nearly 1,500 pledged $154,702, which will help fund about half of this summer’s expedition around Long Island.
During that expedition, Fischer hopes to tag a shark pup or two in order to locate the nursery of the North Atlantic white shark and determine how they migrate through those waters. “From there, we’d have the data set to integrate with on-going commercial activities, so that the fisherman could provide food that people want to eat, but also know when the white sharks are moving through,” Fischer said. “Then we can balance that in an economic and conservation-oriented way.”
Fischer and the Ocearch crew will set off on the monthlong Long Island expedition in August.