Ocean News

Some Lazy Plankton Fish and a Big Toothy One

1st September 2009

Well, by all accounts, the most exciting news of all is that this weekend I saw my first ever basking shark!

Three in fact, cruising lazily in the evening sun just beneath the cliffs of Gwennap Head in Cornwall for over an hour. Absolutely delightful, although I must point out they are perhaps not quite as lazy as first appearances might have you believe, as indicated by their apparent tendency to cross the pond. Quite chuffed, as you may have guessed, especially as I had gone all those years living in the UK without ever seeing one (admittedly, not by the sea…).

Something I most certainly did not see over the weekend, however, was a great white shark: something the UK tabloids seem to ‘confuse’ with basking sharks all too frequently. But, if you happened to pass through the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) in California over the weekend, then you may indeed have caught a glimpse of one of these enigmatic critters. As of August 26th, the MBA placed its fifth great white shark on display in their outer bay exhibit, remaining the only aquarium in the world to successfully display a white shark for more than 16 days.

Thus far the white sharks of MBA have attracted approximately 2 million visitors, and each has been successfully released and subsequently tracked, providing valuable information on their movements and behaviour. Additionally, the substantial sum of $1 million has been redirected into field studies of adult and juvenile white sharks by the MBA, an amount any researcher will appreciate as considerable for marine funding by any standard. Perhaps more importantly, these sharks may in fact act as ambassadors for their species, bringing people face to face with ‘Jaws’ in a far more accessible – and comfortable – manner than the cage diving industry, hopefully helping to dispel their unwarranted shroud of fear.

Despite the obvious undesirable situation of having a pelagic animal confined in captivity, no matter how large the MBA’s outer bay exhibit may be, given the aquarium’s track record of successful release it’s difficult to argue against the perceived benefits of education, awareness and substantial funding. However, unfortunately everything always resides in a hazy grey area, and just to make things difficult they’re never black and white. Presently the MBA offers a ‘dead or alive’ reward for incidentally caught white sharks ($300 and $2,000 respectively), which may or may not provide fisherman with incentive to ‘incidentally’ catch this legally protected species. Yet, in all likelihood, white shark catches may be sufficiently infrequent for these rewards to actually promote a targeted fishery, and the rewards scheme in theory encourages the reporting and release of large sharks.

Anyhow, that’s ample moral ponderings for the current post, for more on the white sharks of MBA you can check out an older post of mine discussing a similar issue for their last shark, as well as their comprehensive white shark research programme and webcam for the outer bay exhibit.

Some other news of significant conservation interest concerns the ‘grey nurse shark’ off the coast of Australia (also known as the raggedtooth or sand tiger shark, depending where you’re from…), the local population of which is now believed to consist of fewer than 500 individuals. Apparently government scientists in Oz are investigating using strong magnets either within or adjacent to fishing hooks to in theory act as a repellent. Given sharks are a sensitive bunch, the strong electrical field given off by the magnets is thought to induce sufficient discomfort to repel the shark and prevent it taking the hook, essentially preventing sharks being caught when fishing for other target species. A number of different shark repellents, in particular for application on tuna long-lining vessels to minimise bycatch, have been in development for some time at SharkDefense, a dedicated US-based company, several of which have very encouraging results.

I thought blogs were supposed to be brief!! I guess over time I’ll get all this down to a tee. Nevertheless, in the spirit of Pooh last week, I thought it may be worth ending on a lighter note. Keeping on the theme of goldfish, did you know that Ginger recently survived 13 hours out of her tank, and some goldfish can even be trained to tell the time? In other news, the existence of the Loch Ness monster has been unequivocally proven through an image discovered on Google Earth…