photo by Elias Levy
Great white sharks are perhaps the ultimate in unpicky eaters.
On the West Coast, great whites may make a meal of sea otters (to otter fans’ dismay). On the Eastern Seaboard, where I live, seals occupy the prime spot on the sharks’ menu. But wherever they are, great whites are prone to try to eat just about anything. If you are roughly the size of a seal, dolphin or other marine mammal, there’s a chance a great white may try for a taste.
Which is why if I ever meet Katharine the Shark, or any of her buddies, at least one of us is apt to be having a very bad day.
Shark attacks on humans are vanishingly rare these days, despite a generation’s nightmares after reading “Jaws” or viewing the big-screen adaptation. The World Wildlife Fund reported that there were only five shark-related human deaths in 2017. Humans are much more dangerous to sharks, statistically, than the other way around. This is not to say that a great white is not a dangerous animal – it certainly is – but most of us are unlikely to ever encounter one in person.
Perhaps that is why great whites are gaining an online fan base. Katharine, who has nearly 57,000 Twitter followers as of this writing, is one of several sharks tracked by Ocearch, an agency that monitors marine life (and that runs Katharine’s Twitter account, along with several others). The agency uses social media techniques to raise awareness of and support for a variety of animals, including a species more often feared than fawned over.
Ocearch’s methods have drawn criticism from some scientists in the field. The agency’s founder, Chris Fischer, comes from a reality TV background, and his attention to publicity has made some academics leery of Ocearch’s methods. But even researchers who have criticized Fischer’s approach agree that we know much less about great white sharks than we do about many other creatures, creating challenges for conservation and species protection. Ocearch is attempting to do its part to remedy the situation by teaming up with fishermen to catch and tag more wild sharks and sharing the resulting data.
Whether the criticism of Ocearch is driven by good-faith disagreement over methodology or professional jealousy (or some combination of the two), the need to gather information on threatened marine species is indisputable. For a cautionary tale, we need only revisit the story of the North Atlantic right whale.
2017 was a bad year for right whales, and 2018 has been equally challenging, though for different reasons. Last year, 18 whales were confirmed to have died, a catastrophic number for a population estimated at only around 450 worldwide. So far in 2018, there are only three known deaths, all in U.S. waters and believed to involve either ship strikes or entanglements in fishing gear. But much more alarming, no known calves have arrived this year, after a sparse calving season in 2017, with only five calves observed. The death rate compared to the birth rate is worrying news for these whales, especially when only about half of right whale calves make it to adulthood.
While the situation is serious, not all of the news is bad. Right whales were plentiful in Cape Cod Bay during the April feeding season this year, and were more numerous than at any recent time in the Gulf of St. Lawrence – which seems to have displaced, at least for now, the more southerly Bay of Fundy as the whales’ preferred summer feeding grounds in Atlantic Canada. A new initiative in Canada to reduce fishing and shipping threats to the whales has seemed to pay off, as there were no fatalities at all in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year. While the whales are still critically endangered, scientists’ commitment to tracking them and taking steps to keep them out of danger are giving them a fighting chance. The whales cannot be tagged, however, because in the past tagging has occasionally led to infection, and the remaining population is too small to risk such outcomes; tracking is done mainly from the air.
At least some scientists believe that great white sharks, too, face declining numbers and population pressure, in part because all sharks are targets in the horrible finning trade. While great white sharks don’t face the imminent threat of extinction that right whales do, our lack of data means it is hard to be certain of their breeding and migration patterns. These sharks are crucial to the overall marine ecosystem. The more we know about them, the more confidently we will be able to say whether their population is stable or declining over time.
As with the whales, familiarity breeds public support. Regardless of whatever criticism other scientists have of the organization that tagged Katharine and made her a Twitter star, creatures that have a bad reputation among humans need all the help they can get to build support for conservation and management efforts. That applies to sharks as much as to bats, or to gray wolves in the decades prior to their recovery.
Lots of people enjoy tracking Katharine. As long as they do it from dry land via the internet, neither people nor shark are in any danger – and with luck, Katharine’s fellow sharks may even benefit in the long run.