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New Zealand’s Great Whites Tagged for First Time

18 April 2005

New Zealand’s Great Whites Tagged for First Time

Data Gathered Will Enable Researchers to Follow Elusive Sharks Through Habitat

Wellington, NEW ZEALAND (April 15, 2005) For the first time, great white sharks in New Zealand waters have been fitted with satellite tags, which will allow researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) to follow these fish as they move through their aquatic environment.

Working in the Chatham Islands—located to the east of New Zealand’s North and South Islands—the team has fitted four sharks with pop-up archival tags, devices that collect detailed information about the depth, temperature, and light levels of water through which the animals travel. After a few months, the tags detach from the sharks on pre-determined dates and float to the ocean surface, where they broadcast their data to scientists via satellite.

“The Chatham Islands are definitely an important spot for white sharks, and if we obtain sufficient financial support we are likely to develop an incredibly important and successful research project,” said WCS scientist Dr. Ramón Bonfil, who has tagged more than 40 great white sharks in South Africa over the past few years. The research team, comprising scientists from WCS, DOC, and NIWA, is currently seeking funding for the project’s core activities; the overall budget for this 3-year project is approximately $580,000.

Specifically, researchers hope to gain key scientific information on the ecology of great white sharks in New Zealand waters as well as ascertain threats to the survival of this long-lived, slowly reproducing species. In addition to using remote sensing technology, the scientists will employ genetic methodologies to determine if New Zealand’s great whites are interrelated to other populations. Once collected, these data will be integrated into national policy initiatives for the protection and management of the species.

“An important first step in the conservation and management of any species is to identify critical habitats and migration routes,” said Clinton Duffy of the New Zealand Department of Conservation. “White sharks are difficult to study due to their naturally low abundance, large size and mobility. This technology provides us with a window into their lives for the first time.”

Great white sharks recently received a significant boost in protection on an international level from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which now lists the species on Appendix II, which greatly limits trade in great white body parts and products across international boundaries. Great whites are also fully protected in several countries, including the U.S., South Africa, Namibia, Australia, and Malta. New Zealand currently has no legislation to protect the species in its waters.

Reaching some six-and-a-half meters in length (21 feet), the great white shark is a member of the mackerel shark family, an assemblage of sharks that includes the mako and the porbeagle. Traditionally, the great white was considered by the scientific community to be the most aggressive and dangerous of all shark species. This assumption was elevated to the public level by Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film “Jaws.”

Since then, field studies on the species have revealed that the great white shark is rarely a man-eater. Most attacks occur when great whites confuse humans with their preferred prey—sea lions, seals and other marine mammals. In fact, great white sharks, along with many other shark species, are now thought to be endangered by a combination of game fishing and commercial harvests for fins, which are highly sought in Asia’s fish markets for shark fin soup. There are no exact figures on regional or worldwide populations of great whites.


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