How a great white shark tagging project in Canada ran into headwinds

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans was prepared to veto an expedition to tag great white sharks off Nova Scotia last year because of concerns over the scientific value of the mission, CBC News has learned.

Records released to CBC News through access-to-information laws reveal tension, conflict and confusion as DFO evaluated the tagging program proposed by Florida-based shark researchers Ocearch in 2018.

Alain Vézina, DFO’s Maritime region science director, initially recommended against granting Ocearch the foreign fishing vessel research licence needed to operate in Canadian waters.

“This research activity will not contribute to the Canadian scientific community,” Vézina wrote on May 23, 2018.

“Canadian collaborators do not see the benefit of working with Ocearch, even though they have contacted all major Atlantic universities (Dalhousie, Memorial, Acadia, etc), DFO, non-profits … Ocean Tracking Network over the last two years.”

Vézina’s objections were part of a lengthy internal discussion on Ocearch’s first expedition in Canadian waters.

The non-profit research organization applied to tag 20 great white sharks off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in September and October 2018.

The process also involved a Seattle lobbying firm and the U.S. State Department.

The organization eventually got permission for its 2018 cruise where it captured and released seven great white sharks, all in Mahone Bay, N.S.

It has received permission to return to Canada this fall, including a permit to tag great white sharks inside St. Anns Bank, a marine protected area off Cape Breton.

This year, the evaluation was free of the drama and uncertainty that accompanied the inaugural expedition.

How Ocearch tags great white sharks

Ocearch uses chum and a trailing seal decoy to attract sharks and a hook and line to catch them. It removes the shark from the water for up to 20 minutes to bolt a satellite positioning tag onto its dorsal fin.

Ocearch says its approach, which covers the shark’s eyes and hoses water through the gills, is actually safer than attaching tags with a harpoon.

It says blood samples taken immediately after capture and just prior to release show the sharks are not stressed.

In addition to taking multiple samples during the procedure, Ocearch also attaches acoustic tags.

However, the smart position and temperature tracking tags are the star of the show, allowing the public to follow the sharks on Ocearch’s shark tracker website and Twitter.

It also names the sharks it tags and gives them Twitter accounts.

In order to get into Canada, Ocearch needed two types of permits.

By May 1, 2018, it obtained Species at Risk Act licences allowing it to capture the endangered species off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

The project ran into headwinds over the foreign fishing vessel research licence required to operate in Canadian waters.

‘This cruise will not be approved’

That is when Vézina stepped in.

He questioned whether Ocearch was duplicating a great white shark tagging program run by DFO scientists.

DFO does not use chum, capture or remove the shark from the water, but uses a harpoon to attach an acoustic tag.

While Vézina said the main tag type Ocearch uses is great for tracking, it provides “no information on habitat use — as needed for [Species at Risk Act] research questions. Canadian scientists will not have access to the research data.”

Throughout the vetting process, Ocearch defended the validity of its science and data sharing.

Still, Vézina’s misgivings rippled through the department, especially the licensing division, with one official asking: “Vézina DOES NOT APPROVE. What do we do with this?”

The day after Vézina’s May 23 email, which concluded, “I cannot recommend approval at this time,” Charlene Cleveland, DFO’s licence services officer, nixed the tagging operation.

“This cruise will not be approved, due to concerns from Science and Resource Management.”

It was a temporary decision.

Canada eventually issued the foreign fishing vessel permit in June with conditions,  written by DFO, requiring Ocearch to copy and turn over all data collected during tagging and provide the department a final report.

Those conditions were met, according to DFO.

U.S. government, lobbyist pushed for expedition

Ocearch science director Robert Hueter was in constant contact with Canadian officials in 2018, urging approval and defending the credibility of Ocearch and its methods.

The American researchers enlisted a Seattle-based lobbying firm, Galvanize Partners, which in turn pushed the U.S. State Department to secure Canadian permission for the expedition.

As required by Canadian rules, the U.S. State Department submitted the application for Ocearch’s foreign fishing vessel research licence.

State Department official Allison Reed expressed frustration at the length of time Canada was taking, telling lobbyist Celes Eckerman: “We’ve not encountered this situation in the time I’ve been covering these applications.”

Reed later wrote to a Canadian counterpart at Global Affairs Canada.

“I believe we have submitted all required information you need for this [marine science research] cruise.”

More issues arose once the Ocearch team and its specially outfitted ship arrived in Lunenburg, N.S., in September.

DFO was concerned about chumming off Hirtles Beach, outside Lunenburg, and moved the fishing further from shore.

Ocearch successfully lobbied to amend its permit to allow it to tag sharks along the entire Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia to include Cape Breton.

Expedition never left Mahone Bay

In the end, the expedition never left Mahone Bay.

A second amendment it wanted generated far more discussion within DFO and open conflict with Ocearch.

DFO initially refused an Ocearch request to allow it to put satellite tags on sharks that were smaller than the 3.5-metre minimum.

Department biologists pointed to research showing great white shark dorsal fins are vulnerable to permanent damage if those tags are attached to sharks that have not matured.

The size requirement forced Ocearch to release a just under-the-line great white shark captured off Lunenburg in October without a satellite tracking tag.

“I know the fin on that animal was plenty large enough and nearing the end of its growth not to worry about the effects of a SPOT tag,” Hueter wrote to species-at-risk biologist Jennifer MacDonald.

“I question the DFO scientists who called for the 3.5 minimum and challenge them to provide concrete evidence this restriction is anything but arbitrary.”

Hueter said the restriction “greatly hampers our knowledge and severely curtails our engagement with the public who follow this work on Shark Tracker. We’ll be forced to explain to the public why we’re not SPOT tagging the other large sharks,” he said in an email to MacDonald.

In response, MacDonald notified her boss: “There is some uncertainty with the supporting data and there are a number of broader considerations related to support from DFO science and risk of Ocearch publicly objecting to the results.”

In the end, the permit was amended to allow Ocearch to attach satellite tags on three smaller sharks. The others had to be greater than 3.5 metres or have calcified claspers — an indicator of maturity in males.

Smoother sailing in 2019

This year, DFO has issued the necessary permits to Ocearch for a Canadian cruise from Sept. 13 to Oct. 4, which will begin in Sydney and work south to Lunenburg.

Vézina said the process has been much smoother this year with expectations laid out ahead of time in discussions.

He said what happened in 2018 was “a vigorous internal debate in a department that deals with difficult issues.”

DFO said Ocearch declined to give it permission to release the 2019 permits, meaning they will be released only after an application under access to information laws.

Ocearch sent CBC News a statement saying “we found DFO’s handling of our permits completely professional, extremely thorough, and conducted with the best interests of Canadian science and marine conservation in mind.”

It said Ocearch found collaborators in Canada and the United States for its 2018 Nova Scotia expedition.

“While these applications were under review, Ocearch reached out repeatedly to the Canadian scientific community to invite participation and collaboration in this study. In the end we had several Canadian scientists participate in the 2018 expedition, including from DFO, from Environment and Climate Change Canada, and from the University of Windsor.”

It said the trip provided data for 16 distinct research projects involving 25 principal investigators at 18 research institutions in North America.

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