When California resident June Emerson snapped a photo of her children playing at the beach, she didn’t expect it to generate international news. Although the kids seem to be adorable, that isn’t what captured the attention of the media. In a wave behind them, you can see the outline of a large animal swimming by (or being “terrifying” and “creeping up on them,” as the Daily Mail called it).
Photo by June Emerson, snarky comments by yours truly
The media, including local, national, and international outlets, wasted no time in calling it a shark. However, as Jason Goldman wryly noted, “not all grey things with dorsal fins in the ocean are sharks.” This animal is almost certainly a dolphin. I asked a dozen shark scientists and a handful of dolphin scientists, and all quickly agreed that this is a dolphin.
As I’m no fan of merely appealing to authority (though I’ll trust someone with years of training over the painful to read comments on many of the news pieces), I’ll share with you how we can tell. First, let’s clean up and brighten the image. Since I am not a photoshop master, let’s borrow a cleaned up and enhanced image from KTLA.
Original image by June Emerson, enhancement by KTLA.
Even though the image is somewhat blurry (understandable, as June was trying to photograph her children and not the animal behind them,) there are still easily identifiable features that clearly show that this is not a great white shark, but a dolphin.
While the rest of the scientific and management community and I are grateful for the passionate support of many shark conservation advocates, passion is no substitute for knowledge and accuracy. Some conservation issues are a matter of opinion and can (and should) be reasonably be discussed by people with different views, but many others are a matter of fact. Presented here, in no particular order, are 13 incorrect statements and arguments commonly made by well-intentioned but uninformed shark conservation advocates, along with the reality of the situation.
1) “Shark finning” is synonymous and interchangeable with “the global shark fin trade.” Shark finning is a specific fishing method. It is not the only way to catch sharks, and it is not the only way to provide shark fins for the global fin trade. Stopping shark finning is a worthy goal (that has largely been accomplished already *) because it is a wasteful and brutal fishing method that complicates management, but stopping shark finning does not stop the global shark fin trade. Many people calling for a ban on finning really seem to want no shark fishing and no fin trade of any kind (a viewpoint I disagree with, but regardless, proper terminology matters). For more on the difference between shark fishing and shark finning, see this post from June 2012.
2) 100 million sharks a year are killed for their fins. The origin of this number is still debated, but it was popularized by Sharkwater. While we will likely never know exactly how many sharks are “killed for their fins”, the best scientific estimate of the scope of the fin trade we have comes from a 2006 paper by Dr. Shelley Clarke. She found that the fins of between 26 and 73 million sharks end up in the fin trade each year, with a simulation average of 38 million. Dr. Clarke wrote an essay for SeaWeb on the misuse of her work, which is worth a read.
3) 1 in 3 species of sharks face extinction. This one is actually relatively close to accurate, and can be fixed with the addition of just two words. An IUCN Shark Specialist Group report found that 1 in 3 species of “open ocean” sharks are Threatened with extinction (Threatened means Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered according to IUCN Red List standards). 1 in 6 species of shark, skate, ray, or chimera are Threatened- while still a troubling number indicative of a very bad situation, it’s half as bad as claimed by many advocates. Also, please note that I included skates and rays, which are similarly threatened but often ignored by conservation advocates (with one notable exception from 2012).
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a proposed shark cull in Western Australia and asked for your help to oppose it. By the end of the Support Our Sharks anti-cull campaign, the petition had almost 19,000 signatures from dedicated shark conservationists from around the world, including many of our readers. After some initial anti-shark coverage in the media, the Support Our Sharks team was able to utilize public pressure and expert opinion to change the tone. The result was some excellent pro-shark and pro-science stories (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here for examples).
In response to the media campaign waged by Support Our Sharks, Western Australia’s Department of Fisheries issued a press release today:
” the State Government did not support beach netting at this point in time…consideration of other strategies had ruled out a major cull of white sharks to reduce numbers.”
In other words, the cull of great whites and other sharks is no longer being considered by the Western Australian Government! Thanks for all your help, everyone, and congratulations to Support Our Sharks!
Great White Shark. Image courtesy animals.NationalGeographic.com
Last week, I wrote about three current shark conservation issues, including a proposed shark cull in Western Australia. Barbara Wueringer was able to deliver her letter to Western Australian government officials on Friday, and thanks to your help, it was signed by more than 100 scientists and conservationists from all over the world.
Yesterday, however, another swimmer was killed by a shark in Western Australian waters. George Thomas Wainwright, 32, was a native of Texas who had been working on a boat in Australia. This attack, which is the third in the last two months, has resulted in renewed calls for a “shark cull”. The proposed plan would involve both an attempt to kill the specific shark responsible for killing Mr. Wainwright and a more general killing of all the sharks in the area. It is believed that the shark that killed Mr. Wainwright was a great white shark, also known as a “white pointer” in Australia.
There is a website floating around the interwebs entitled “So you want to be a marine biologist?” that most future marine biologists who came of age in the early 21st century have encountered. The sage page of advice is followed up with “So you want to be a marine biologist, the revenge“. Reading through these two essays, one might come to the conclusion that their author, Dr. Milton Love of the University of California, Santa Barbara, should compose a voluminous tome to the fishes of the Pacific coast. Which is exactly what he’s done. Welcome to Certainly More Than You Want to Know About The Fishes of The Pacific Coast: a postmodern experience.
Despite it’s self-aware title, this book is far more than just an exhaustive guide to the fishes of the Pacific, though it certainly is that. The highly detailed taxonomic descriptions are rich with humor and insight into the ecology, behavior, and physiology of, if not each species, than each genus or species complex. Interspersed among the taxa are descriptions of prominent Pacific researchers, anecdotes from a lifetime of work on the water, stories by people who lived, worked, and fished these species, and the occasional poem, song, or limerick. Somehow, these disparate units manage to complement each other in a way that makes you want to read what is essential a taxonomy textbook cover-to-cover.
Junior the Great White shark, before and (long) after being caught by Dr. Domeier's team. Image courtesy FijiSharkDiving.Blogspot.com
Several months ago, still photographs showing an injured great white shark surfaced. The shark in question was previously captured by a shark research team lead by Dr. Michael Domeier on the TV show “Shark Men” – and the capture of this shark didn’t go as planned. These still images were taken from a video, and in response to the ensuing controversy, Dr. Domeier’s team claimed that when the full video is viewed, you can see that the injury comes from another shark and not from capture injury. No clear sharkbite injuries are visible in the original still image.
I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the full video, which had been in the possession of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries pending an investigation.
Here, for the first time available to the public, is the full video from which the above images were taken.
Expedition Week 2011 starts tonight on the National Geographic Channel. This year, there are 13 premieres on seven straight nights, and they promise “extreme treks, new discoveries, and bold investigations” featuring topics as diverse as conservation, exotic human cultures, archaeology, geology, and maritime history. In other words, there’s plenty for science geeks like us to enjoy.
[Editor’s Notice – Comments have been suspended on this post. Please visit “Full video of injured shark shows numerous natural injuries” for an update on this controversy]
Last summer, I reviewed National Geographic’s “Expedition Great White” and interviewed the lead scientist. Several researchers and conservationists were concerned about the methods that Dr. Michael Domeier uses to study great white sharks, particularly after one shark was “foul hooked” through the gills. These methods (removing captured great white sharks from the water to study them using a forklift-like structure) make for excellent television, but may be harmful to the sharks. As I reported last year: Read More
Modern shark researchers have access to a variety of high-tech tools. Acoustic tags with noises specific to each individual shark signal a receiver (or network of receivers) every time the shark passes nearby. Some tags have three-dimensional accelerometers, allowing researchers to study the small scale movement patterns and behaviors of sharks. Others, which are placed in the stomach, measure pH before, during, and after digestion. The most advanced technology on the market, however, is undoubtedly the satellite tag.
Image from SurfThereNow.com
Last year, I was extremely critical of a Nicorette commercial that featured a man so distracted by thoughts of cigarettes that he didn’t realize a shark was chewing on his arm. This led to a spirited discussion about where sharks fit in to our popular culture, and resulted in more than a few people calling me overly sensitive. One person called me a member of the “apocalyptic legion of killjoys who battle against fun and innocent symbolism all over the world” (one of my standard comebacks is “I’ve been called worse” but I’m not sure if that’s true in this case).
Snickers recently unveiled a new commercial featuring sharks: