When a San Diego County shark researcher shadowed by a documentary filmmaking team came to the Farallon Islands last fall to catch, tag and release as many as 10 great white sharks using controversial handling methods shunned by most of his peers, he bungled the expedition, which had been covertly facilitated by officials with the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. As word of the project leaked out, observers took watch from nearby vessels and witnessed as the research crew snagged their first shark in the throat with a hook the size of a U-lock. The sharks can weigh as much as two tons, their bulk supported amply in the sea; onboard, they risk internal injury without the water’s buoyancy to protect their internal organs and possible pups. After a second shark was caught and tagged days later, authorities temporarily revoked the scientist’s permission to keep fishing.
But last Thursday, Dr. Michael Domeier and a rep from his National Geographic film crew returned to the Bay Area with a visit to Point Reyes Station, where he spoke before the Gulf of the Farallones’ 13-member sanctuary advisory council, volunteer stakeholders who last year had been uninformed of the research project until days before it began. In a 30-minute presentation, Domeier attempted to assuage panel members’ concerns that his innovative research technique could do more harm than good to the federally protected animals. Domeier detailed the positive results of his work in attaching smart position or temperature transmitting (SPOT) tags to great whites, most of which he has handled in Mexican Pacific waters. The method has added substantially to the collective knowledge of white shark behavior and migratory patterns, he said.
James Moskito, vice-president of Shark Diving International, a local cage-diving tourist outfit, challenged Domeier on his involvement in a multi-episode National Geographic series about his expeditions, which have been permitted by state and federal authorities. The series is yet to be produced and is scheduled to air in 2011.
“We need to reevaluate the way we issue research permits,” Moskito said. “They should be issued for research, not for reality TV series.”
As advisory council members voiced doubts about the health of the shark released last Oct. 29 with most of a huge hook lodged in its esophagus, the 10-year veteran in white shark research gave the best answer he knew.
“The bottom line is we’ve done this 20-something times, and all the sharks are fine,” Domeier said.
Though Domeier has said he has no plans to return to the Farallon Islands this year, his permit allows him to catch eight more white sharks before it expires on Sept. 15.