White sharks are listed for protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS). The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN, Category VU A1cd+2cd) recognized white sharks as particularly vulnerable due to rapid stock declines. The lack of basic information about this species, including population dynamics, is arguably one of the biggest obstacles with regard to its conservation management.
The first real and substantive research on the Great White Sharks only started in South Africa in 1998, after the South African government decided to keep the species closed to commercial fishing. All legitimate research in South Africa is done by the Department of Environmental Affairs: Branch – Oceans and Coasts, Republic of South Africa, one of the leaders in Great White Shark research worldwide. They are all under the guidance of the top predator team of the Department of Environmental Affairs, led by Dr. Herman Oosthuizen and Michael Meÿer.
Shark Diving Unlimited has been wholly supporting all the legitimate research in South Africa authorized by the Department of Environmental Affairs since 1998.
This is the basis of all research done. The aim of this identification program is to document all the individual animals, their arrival times, size and gender. The best way to identify and document the sharks is by taking photos of the animal’s dorsal fins as the rare of the dorsal fin proved to work as a fingerprint: a unique feature that allow to permanently distinguish each individual.
The photos are then stored in a central database to constantly monitor the white sharks visiting the area of Gansbaai.
Mike Rutzen and his team, along with Sara Andreotti, have been working on this project since 2009. To date they have identified roughly 400 animals. In order for this program to work successfully it needs to be done accurately and on a continuous basis by motivated conservationists.
The method used to accurately identify and categorize the individual sharks was presented in the Southern African Shark and Ray Research Meeting (February 2011), see the poster of the congress here.
Genetic Research: DNA Sampling Program
Genetic techniques are a relatively new way to study these animals and are very cost effective. This program started in 2000, jointly run with Australia to compare DNA of sharks between the two continents to establish whether they are the same sharks (see the article published by Pardini et al. 2001 in Nature).
Since then Shark Diving Unlimited utilized all their skills and equipment to take the Department of Environmental Affairs: Branch – Oceans and Coasts, Republic of South Africa, out to sea once a month to conduct DNA sampling.
To collect a DNA sample we need to take a skin biopsy from the white sharks with a sterilized biopsy sampler at the end of a 2m long pole (see the video here and the Genetic Research Photogallery)
In 2011 MSc Sara Andreotti (Marine Biologist) started her PhD project at Stellenbosch University of South Africa in cooperation with the Department of Environmental Affairs (Research Permit RES2011/55; RES2012/38 and RES2013/41) to identify individual great white sharks using a combined morphological and genetic approach.
PhD title: “Evolutionary behavioural genetics and population structure of the Great White Shark, Charcharodon charcharias L.” See the details in Stellenbosch University website http://academic.sun.ac.za/botzoo/andreotti/
The results obtained in 2001 by Pardini et al. showed the necessity of a more comprehensive genetic work, to better assess the population structure and health of white sharks in South Africa, for this reason the genetic project was extended to the entire South African coastline. The field work for Sara’s Project has been fully sponsored since the beginning by Michael Rutzen and Shark Diving Unlimited.
Thanks to the photo-identification program we can avoid to sample the same sharks twice. From the beginning of the Project thanks to the effort and support of Shark Diving Unlimited team roughly 200 individual sharks were sampled around South African coastline.
The results of this extensive work will help to comprehensively study the ecology, movement and life history of individual members of this species (see an article upon the first sampling trip on the West Coast on Stellenbosch University website: http://blogs.sun.ac.za/news/2012/02/16/wanted-help-with-great-white-shark-sightings/ ).
Shark Barrier Project
From 2011 Shark Diving Unlimited sponsored the field work of the PhD student Craig P. O’ Connell (Marine Biologist) from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth providing the materials and the logistic support for his work.
At this project, authorized by the Department of Environmental Affairs of South Africa (Res Permit RES2012/74), are cooperating from South Africa Prof. C.A. Matthee (Stellenbosch University) Sara Andreotti (PhD student, Stellenbosch University) and Michael Rutzen as field work supervisor.
The aim of this project is to find an alternative solution to anti-sharks nets to protect both beach goers and sharks of our coastline.
See the article published in Ocean and Coastal Management with the first results here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2012.11.006 .
Craig is going to come back to South Africa in winter 2013 to carry on with the project.
Check out Craig’ s video of the field work:
Michael Rutzen (1970) is well known as one of the few people in the world who free dive with great white sharks. He started free diving with white sharks since 1998, moving toward documentaries and international conferences a worldwide campaign for an effective conservation plan for white sharks (see Michael’s conservation projects and achievements here).
Thanks to his extensive knowledge on white sharks behaviour he could give substantial field support for all the authorized research project running through the Marine and Coastal Management of South Africa since 1998, helping the researches to take biopsy samples, tag the sharks (for pop-up and acoustic tagging) or to dive in extreme condition to change acoustic tag receivers.
Currently he is the field supervisor of two PhD Project and two Master Project in cooperation with the University of Stellenbosch, guiding and helping the researchers to understand a complex and elitary species such as white sharks thanks to his observations and experience.
Sara Andreotti (1983), following her passion for the sea obtain in 2008 the master in Marine Biology at the Trieste University (Italy), graduated magna cum laude. She started to work on the sea since the age of sixteen, as a naturalistic guide for the Natural Marine Reserve of Miramare (Trieste, Italy) and since 2007 she’s working on white sharks.
The lucky encounter with Michael Rutzen allowed her to work from Shark Diving Unlimited cage diving boat since April 2009, to build, in cooperation with Oceans and Coasts of South Africa, the White Shark Photo Identification Database to study the species population dynamics.
Since February 2011 she is working at her PhD Project “Evolutionary behavioural genetics and population structure of the great white shark Carcharodon carcharias” at Stellenbosch University (Evolutionary Genomics Group) under the supervision of Prof. Conrad A. Matthee. The work includes (1) white sharks photo identification (2) morphometric and population dynamic data collection (3) biopsy samples collection in team with Michael Rutzen and (4) laboratory component for the genetic analyses.
Craig O’ Connell
Craig O’Connell (1984) is a Ph.D. Candidate from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Currently, he is studying the effects of electrosensory stimuli (e.g. electropositive metals and permanent magnets) on the feeding and swimming behaviors of several elasmobranch species. With success in preliminary studies, he is now assessing the efficacy of permanent magnets to deter predatory elasmobranch species away from beach/anti-shark nets. This research includes: (1) extensive field research with relevant sharks species, including the bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas), tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier), great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna mokarran) and the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) , (2) the development of a new barrier technology which may be used to replace the detrimental beach/anti-shark nets in South Africa, (3) video analysis techniques to permit the accurate observation of shark behaviour in reference to the barrier, (4) laboratory and field components which aim to determine what or if any biological and/or environmental stimuli impact barrier efficacy, and (5) the establishment of collaborations with the South African and Bahamian Governments, as a means to be permitted to conduct this research within their waters.
What we want to achieve with all our research projects is an international active management program for the white sharks. Protect our oceans through a better understanding of the ecology dynamics is the only way to make the difference for our planet.