Shark research group Ocearch starts three-week expedition off province’s coast

by Keith Corcoran

  • <p>KEITH CORCORAN, PHOTO</p><p>Ocearch crews, in Lunenburg on September 19, prepare for their Nova Scotia expedition. The organization opened their vessel to tours on the day.</p>
  • <p>KEITH CORCORAN, PHOTO</p><p>Ocearch&#8217;s chief scientist Dr. Robert Hueter, left, and organization founder and expedition leader Chris Fischer spoke to <em>LighthouseNOW</em> about the expedition.</p>

If not for the travels of Lydia, George and Hilton, chances are the renowned non-profit great white shark research organization Ocearch wouldn't be considering a trek to Bluenose country.

They are here - Ocearch, that is - having followed the multi-year migratory tracks of its previously tagged predators, and are in the midst of their first expedition off the coast of Nova Scotia. Ocearch hopes to gather information during its three-week trip, including perusing the Atlantic Ocean near Lunenburg County's Cross Island, which they hope zeroes in on the mating site of the North Atlantic white shark.

Expedition leader and Ocearch founder Chris Fischer said the organization's 33rd expedition hopes to answer a multitude of questions. "Just tagging the shark is about one-fifteenth of what we do. It's what everyone engages in," he told LighthouseNOW in an interview September 19 in Lunenburg. "We're trying to figure out where the shark is, which is what the tag tells you, but [also] what is it doing, where it is, is it mating, is it foraging, is it birthing, is it gestating?

"If you don't know what it's doing where it is, you can't manage it."

The Ocearch team of scientists and fishermen set out September 20 after a series of outreach and education events during previous days in Halifax and Lunenburg. The expedition wraps up October 13.

"Our best guess is and place to start is Cross Island because of where Hilton spent the majority of his time last year."

Hilton, tagged by Ocearch last year, is a mature male white shark and is arguably the most famous fish on Twitter with a handle that has 46,000 followers.

Fischer said circumstances will dictate where the team's vessel will go. "We will start moving if we don't see animals out here in the first week."

Shark pups prefer warmer water, so Ocearch doesn't expect to find any on this trip but it's not out of the realm of possibilities to discover, capture, tag and release a mature female who may reveal a nursery via a real-time tracking. "The holy grail of the science is finding the pups," Fischer said.

Ocearch attaches satellite and acoustic tags, which can transmit signals for up to five and 10 years each respectively. The sharks are measured and samples for data are taken. To learn the full process, check out ocearch.org on the internet.

Fischer and Dr. Robert Hueter, the chief scientist for the Nova Scotia expedition, are encouraged with recent news that a Bedford Institute of Oceanography researcher successfully tagged a white shark off Southwest Nova Scotia in the days leading up to their trek. Look for Ocearch to have different tactics.

"When we capture a shark we'll have a team of researchers around it doing ... research projects on every animal," Fischer said. "We'll use multiple different types of tags so it's a much more comprehensive look at the animal's life so we can try to solve the puzzle of its life quickly; where is it mating, where is it giving birth, where are the babies, how are they moving through the nursery; so we can manage the sharks and move them toward abundance ..."

Fischer said the Fisheries and Oceans Canada researcher in question was invited to be one of the lead scientists on the Nova Scotia expedition but she declined. A government spokesman told LighthouseNOW the researcher is "focusing on her own research at this time."

Said Hueter to LighthouseNOW: "This is a major multidisciplinary, multi-institutional approach ... we have 15 different research projects ranging from genetics to blood physiology to what the animals are eating and parasites - you name it - and, of course, tagging. Those projects are being led by 26 different scientists coming through 16 different Canadian and US institutions. This is big science on Ocearch and we take our science very seriously here."

The federal government issued permits and licencing allowing Ocearch to conduct operations in Canada.

It wouldn't take many great white sharks encounters to spell success for the Ocearch expedition.

"Let's put it this way, the Cuban cigars will come out with just one," Hueter said with a laugh.

"These are the very apex top predators of the ocean; the lions of the sea," he said. "You're never going to find dozens of animals in a place like this but if we get one I think it would be reasonable ... for me, hopefully, one would be exciting."

Fischer said if "a few" white sharks are caught on the trip, it would lead to Ocearch asking for permits to return in at least three years time.

Ocearch shares its findings with the science community, which has published the information in scientific journals used to influence decision-makers.

The organization will live-stream while at sea on the expedition, giving the public a chance to watch if and when they catch a shark.

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