Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Why we should love ocean killer: Kiwi expert

Kiwi expat's mission to conserve feared predator is set back by new attacks.

South Africa-based marine scientist Ryan Johnson has played a key role in some of the world's largest shark tracking conservation programmes.
South Africa-based marine scientist Ryan Johnson has played a key role in some of the world's largest shark tracking conservation programmes.

Ryan Johnson remembers sitting nervously on the side of a boat, swinging his legs over the rail, then quickly yanking them back.

It took about 10 minutes before he finally mustered the courage to get in the water.

The reluctance was understandable — lurking in the blue below him was a great white shark.

The introduction was made by the great white freediving pioneer Andre Hartman, who, having had a few too many beers the night before was a little slow in getting organised.

"So he told me to get in by myself," he told the Weekend Herald.

After gently sliding himself down between the boat motors and into the water, the shark simply cruised past and ignored him completely.

"I realised that like most people, I was brain-washed into believing they would attack and eat me," he said.

"After about one minute, my love and respect for them grew by orders of magnitude. That first time I swam with them changed me forever."

It fuelled a passion that has seen the former Mt Maunganui man become one of the world's leading shark scientists.

In July, the South Africa-based marine explorer and wildlife documentary filmmaker will return home to speak about his work at the New Zealand International Science Festival, held in Dunedin, and at Auckland Museum soon after during the school holidays.

For the past 15 years, Mr Johnson has been tracking great white sharks around the world, helping answer one of the biggest questions concerning great whites — their home range.

Mr Johnson was part of a satellite telemetry project that followed a great white dubbed Nicole from South Africa to Australia and back.

In 2005, he and colleagues launched the first major great white shark satellite tracking programme funded by the World Conservation Society.

The research was aimed at studying and understanding their movement, home range, habitat preference and swimming behaviour.

"This is vital on both the small scale and large scale — locally, it allows water users to make informed decisions on the likelihood of encountering a great white in the water, whilst on the larger scale home range data is vital to understand and mitigate the direct and indirect fishing threats to the species."

The team built a cradle, hooked great white sharks and pulled them into the cradle to attach satellite tags to their dorsal fin, while also placing pop-off archival tags on them.
"It was one of these pop-off archival tags that 'popped off' on the west coast of Australia and proved that Nicole had traversed between South Africa and Australia."

In that project, scientists were limited to working with sharks smaller than 4m in length, due to the size of the cradles.

Later in 2012, he was approached by OCEARCH, the largest shark-tracking research project in the world, to lead a scientific tracking project in South Africa.

Their logistics meant they could catch and attach satellite tags to sharks of all sizes.

"I saw the bigger potential of this research opportunity and opened the project up to all shark scientists in South Africa, and we ended up being able to collect data on between 12 and 18 projects during each capture of a shark," he said.

The team has tagged and tracked 50 sharks — 35 of them great whites.

"This work was exceptional to our past lessons and the data flowed in - it allowed us to map the home ranges of sharks, and is shedding light on reproduction migrations and so much more.

"Also, this data was fed onto the internet as it arrived, allowing every school child interested in sharks to follow the research and write school reports and projects along side us."

Presently, he is taking a break from active research, instead focusing on filming documentaries and developing stories about sharks and other marine predators.

"Some of these documentaries are pretty exciting and will hopefully resonate with audiences, but obviously the producers don't want to let the cat out of the bag just yet," he said.

"I realised that documentaries have an incredible power to disseminate the work of shark science and conservation efforts, and thus I see them as a powerful tool to increase the influence that researchers and conservationists have."

Great whites are classified as a vulnerable species, their numbers dwindling after years of being hunted for fins and teeth, or being caught as by catch by commercial fishers.

Because of the coverage they received on TV and through ecotourism, many people thought there were huge amounts of the sharks still on Earth.

"This however is incorrect, as an apex predator they are in fact very rare."

Population estimates from South Africa indicated local populations were only in the hundreds, rather than thousands or tens of thousands.

The impact of even catching a few sharks annually could be greater than their speed of recruitment into the population.

"Also they are incredibly easy to target if protection was removed - thus without protection, we would drive this population to extinction."

"In South Africa, the biggest threats to great whites were bather protection nets off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as the country's only legal fishery of the species."

"The unknown threats are from fisheries that don't target the sharks, but catch them and don't report them due to fear of prosecution," he said.

"Also, we know our great whites routinely cross into countries such as Mozambique, where no protection exists and the sharks are targeted for their fins - this could be a major threat that we cannot yet quantify."

By illustrating that South African populations of the sharks roamed across international boundaries consistently and predictably, it was clear that protection on a national scale was not enough to conserve the species.

But he said New Zealand had made strong progress in the conservation and management of sharks in recent years, and he hoped to encourage further research and assessment of our shark management regime.

"I think the western world is becoming very engaged and educated about the plight of all sharks," he said.

"The biggest misconception still exists in the East, where many of the population believe that eating shark fin soup is ecologically sustainable, or simply don't know or care."

Mr Johnson, who recently founded Oceans Campus, a mentoring programme for the next generation of wildlife experts and professionals, aims to expand existing marine research internships to act as a bridge between university study and real-world careers for young zoologists.

Spending school lunch times at the beach in Tauranga, he grew up dreaming of "becoming one of those marine biologists you read about in novels".

"Essentially you couldn't be more than a couple of hundred meters from the water at any time - the main beach we swam at was ironically called shark alley."

Mr Johnson was always interested in biology, then went to Otago University to study zoology, before spending his third year at Waikato University.

He began studying sharks after travelling to South Africa for his postgraduate research at University of Pretoria.

"There was a spate of shark attacks in 1998 in South Africa, and the government initiated a research project to determine if white shark cage diving was behind these attacks," he said.

"From this start in shark research it just carried on, as there were very few people interested in researching sharks at that stage, and most of the opportunities for new projects came my way.

"We started with acoustic telemetry, then progressed onto satellite telemetry, and when big projects such as the OCEARCH project presented itself I was given the opportunity to lead the scientific side."

Through his first-hand experience of the great white shark, his perception of it changed from the ocean's fiercest inhabitant to an incredibly majestic species whose persona was the "antithesis" to the human-hunting killer from Jaws.

The largest great white he has been in the water measured 4.5m.

"It was wonderful that she simply tolerated me in the water with her for about 40 minutes. An animal that could easy kill and devour me chose not to ... I was not on her diet."

Every shark attack had a major impact on shark conservation efforts.

"Public discourse reverts back to the man-eater sharks of the Jaws mythology, and diverts away from the real issue of over exploitation of sharks to supply the shark fin trade," he said.

"It is significantly harder to engender a conservation spirit in a species that is feared and loathed. We conserve what we love, we love what we know, and we know what we are taught.

"If people are taught that sharks are man-eaters, then they will know them as man eaters, and why would people love and want to conserve man eaters?"


For the past 15 years, Mr Johnson has been tracking great white sharks around the world, helping answer one of the biggest questions concerning great whites - their home range.
For the past 15 years, Mr Johnson has been tracking great white sharks around the world, helping answer one of the biggest questions concerning great whites - their home range.

Great White Lies

They only live in cold water. False. They can live in the open ocean or near islands and continental coasts, in both frigid and tropical waters, and at depths from the surface to about 250 metres.

They attack humans regularly — and fatally. Wrong. Between 1876 and 2011, there were 263 unprovoked attacks on humans by great whites, 69 of them fatal. Such attacks are rare and fatal attacks are even rarer.

There are plenty of them in the ocean. False. Subjected to hunting for fins and teeth, or being caught as commercial bycatch, great whites are classified as a vulnerable species and their numbers are dwindling. Though accurate global numbers are unavailable, the 2010 Stanford University study estimated the world population as at lower than 3,500.

- NZ Herald

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