It’s Shark Week, and we couldn’t think of a better person to geek out over it with than Dr. Jimmy White. Jimmy’s a marine biologist and conservationist, as well as a photographer for National Geographic, an expedition leader, and an all-around adventurer and badass. We sat down with him to pick his brain about all things sharks.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What is it about sharks that piques your interest?
I think it’s the first time you see them in the water. I remember having this fascination with sharks for as long as I can remember, watching movies and videos and old VHS tapes and National Geographic when I was a kid. But the first time you’re in the water and you see the way a shark moves through the it, completely streamlined: it’s supposed to be exactly where it is, doing exactly what it’s doing. You’re swimming around and you’re trying to catch your breath and move slowly and do all the things, and here’s this animal that’s the pinnacle of 400 million years of evolution. We think about four or five different species, but there’s 480 different species of sharks. And they’re all winning in their habitat in their own way. They’ve all found a different way to survive.
“This is in French Polynesia where it’s one of the largest protected areas for sharks on the planet. We’re swimming with tawny nurse sharks that come into a local Divemaster there. Originally it started out that they had fishing gear in one of the mouths of a shark they call ‘Machello.’ The Divemaster removed the fishing gear from the mouth of the shark and it didn’t leave for five days. And so after five days he threw it some fish frames and now there’s like twelve different tawny nurse sharks that come there pretty much daily." —Jimmy White
You mentioned how there are so many more species than most of us are aware of; in your view, what are some of the more uniquely fascinating ones?
We see sharks in the mind’s eye and we think of things like bull sharks, tigers, hammerheads, and of course great whites—and they should be at the forefront of our minds because of the ecological issues that they have—but there are other sharks out there that are doing incredible things. Things like oceanic whitetips: these are large, charismatic megafauna, they’re super inquisitive, they’re probably responsible for more drownings by sailors than any other species. They roam the open ocean, and one of the problems with roaming the open ocean is that they are at the mercy of the tragedy of the commons. You go 200 nautical miles off the coast of the US or Australia or any country and you’re in international waters, and there’s no real regulation for fishing fleets. These animals exploit the open ocean; they’re basically living in a marine desert. They’re voyaging across these huge amounts of ocean trying to find anything to eat, and they’re at the mercy of particularly longlining fleets. In the South Pacific we’ve had estimates of 50 million plus longline hooks going into the environment. We don’t see these animals unless we’re on the fishing boat; we don’t have any idea about how many are being fished or what sizes unless we’re on those boats. Oceanic whitetips are just as formidable as something like a bull shark, but they’re living in an area where we just don’t know.
And then there’s other really weird-looking things like narrow sawfish and small-toothed sawfish, and these are absolutely dinosaurs. They’re growing to 12-16 feet, they’ve got these massive rostrum noses like a huge baseball bat with teeth on the outside, and they swim up in the shallows and they raise these things backwards and forwards and they stun fish and eat them. These fish are absolutely designed to be caught in gill nets and so they’ve been decimated throughout the world. The only places you can really see them now are in Florida and in northern waters of Queensland and Western Australia. Everywhere else they’re pretty much gone.
“This is a tiger shark, and this was on a film shoot for the BBC. And so here you can see we’ve got a cradle around it to protect it from the side of the ship so it’s not having to be restrained with ropes, and we’ve put a satellite tag onto its back; one of these animals swam back to New Caledonia from here, covering huge, huge distances. We can also take blood and measure lactate levels; different species have different tolerances to stress. Bull sharks and tiger sharks have very, very, very low stress levels; like they’re basically Rastafarian. A hammerhead would be like three cups of coffee and some Adderall; like they’re just off the chart with anxiety.” —Jimmy White
What sort of things do you only learn by being right there on those fishing boats in person?
In 2008, I got made an offer I couldn’t refuse. A researcher at the James Cook University offered me a job to be a fisher’s observer, which is not a glamorous job. You’re living on a fishing boat and you’re collecting data that could potentially financially impede the fishermen. A real-world example would be like you’re a traffic cop in the passenger seat. And it’s not just you and the driver in the car, you’re in a minivan with seven of his best friends and you’re in the Nevada desert. And they go five miles over the speed limit, then ten, then fifteen, and they’re looking at you like, “You gonna write me a ticket?” ‘Cause there’s seven guys in the back and you’re in the Nevada desert, so you write that ticket if you want to. It’s a super dangerous job, and it’s probably the highest mortality rate of any science. They’re moving now towards remote sensing and using cameras and satellites ‘cause it is really dangerous to be on those boats.
I saw and killed everything I loved for a year. You’ve grown up and you’ve loved these animals, you’ve studied them, you want to be a marine biologist, and now you want to do a PhD. And all of a sudden you’re putting out nets, you’re catching animals, you’re using large knives and you’re butchering them on the ship. What you start to realize really, really quickly is that nobody in between all the stakeholder groups actually knows what the other person’s doing. The green conservation groups have never been on these fishing boats and they haven’t worked like the fishermen have, and the fishermen can’t have conversations with them because there’s no mutual understanding. In many respects the fishermen were just as conservation-minded—particularly on the Great Barrier Reef—as the conservationists. They don’t want to catch endangered species ‘cause it’s bad for business and they’ll lose their net. They want to catch things that are sustainable, that they can make money off year round. It’s this real disconnect between like, “Oh, I can’t talk to you because you’re a fisherman, I can’t talk to you because you’re a conservationist,” and they’re usually trying to get the same thing. So what I learned very, very quickly was where all the bodies were buried: you know what the researchers know, you know what the green groups want, and all of a sudden you’re the only person in the room that’s also been on the commercial fishing boats. You put the nets in the water, you pull the sharks up, you cut them up, you do all the things, and now you can see all the pieces on the board. I think it was invaluable for me as a conservation biologist and someone who’s working in fisheries to actually see what the realities of fishing were.
It also makes you think about how much do you care. There’s many, many, many, many, many people who wanna take a photo and stick it up on social media and then brand themselves as shark ambassadors and conservation-minded people. Which is great; you want public motivation to push toward conservation. But if you scratch the surface, like, “What are you prepared to do for that animal?” That’s always my question. It’s like, “Okay, cool, you’ve taken a nice photo and you look good in the water with it. Great. Are you prepared to give up nine years of your life and earn below minimum wage and study it and tell us exactly what’s going on?” Not everyone has to do that; there’s an argument that if you have a big social media following maybe you can do more good. The question I have is what have you actually done, and what’s your actual understanding of the fishery? And so that’s where I was lucky. I got to see and do things that nobody else had done, and I had the scientific and conservation backgrounds to marry that knowledge together with what I wanted to do in the fishery.
“This was for my PhD, out in front of a place called ‘Crocodile Creek.’ It’s a shallow embayment in North Queensland with crocodiles and box jellyfish. We were trying to put acoustic transmitters inside the shark, but the shark was too big for the boat. And so what we did was we jumped into the water, pulled it out of the net, and then I—almost like I was proposing—got down on one knee in the water, put the shark across my knee and then we did the surgery right there in the water.” —Jimmy White
Are there any sharks you haven’t yet had the opportunity to study directly but that you’d like to?
Yeah, absolutely: oceanic whitetips. I’m working on some methods that we can look at to start surveying them in the South Pacific. They’ve had some management come through the fishery, which means we shouldn’t be seeing them caught as frequently in that area. There are great examples of line-catch mitigation from Australia and also from South Georgia and Antarctica. You can put in a turtle reduction device which stops things like turtles and sharks going into the net. It costs you nothing, and the value of your product goes up because it’s not damaged and you need less people on the boat to handle all the big animals. And we save turtles. The same thing with seabirds: if you bait your longlines at night and put sinkers on them—they dive too quickly for the seabirds to grab them—you can almost reduce albatross mortality to zero. What we’re doing in the South Pacific in the fisheries now is taking wire off the tracers to the hooks and then using nylon tracers, so that when the shark bites the bait it will bite through the nylon monofilament. And then it’s free, and it’s not being retained by the fishery. So what we should start seeing now is oceanic whitetips in the South Pacific hopefully increasing in numbers. But they’re cryptic, they’re an open ocean species, and I’m working on ways to study them from Easter Island to Tahiti, and then from Tahiti up to Hawaii.
“That’s a great hammerhead being fishery tagged on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. That was caught as part of my PhD. Those animals are really large; that’s a six-meter boat and that’s probably getting close to a four-meter animal. They come in December to January, pup in the near-shore waters of the Great Barrier Reef, have all their babies and then they swim back out to the deeper water. The biggest danger with tagging hammerheads is them rubbing their eyes against the boat; the reason that photo looks so good is I’m holding my whole body weight away to make sure that eye never touches the boat.” —Jimmy White
What questions remain about sharks and their lives that you hope to answer in your lifetime?
The biggest question for any species is, “What are we gonna do?” The sharks are fine. The sharks are fine, the tigers are fine, the elephants are fine, isopods are fine, orangutans can be fine too. The question is always, “What are we gonna do? How are we going to persist in this world, on this planet?” We’re at a really interesting point in time now where we can see direct actions between what we’ve done and where we’re going. That’s really, really good for us, and it’s not great for the species around us. The planet, as in Planet Earth, will be just fine with or without us. We have very little effect on the planet as a system, but the biosphere—where we live, where we breathe, where we need fresh water—that’s where we can do some damage. And when you start looking at species that aren’t charismatic, that aren’t fluffy, that don’t necessarily have that same connection to us: how do you treat them? How do you walk through the world and treat them? And the equivalent is you go to dinner with your friends and you’re super nice to the people at your table, but you’re horrible to the busboy and you don’t tip the waiter. We have the same thing with species. So, it’s not okay to have killer whales in captivity; is okay to have sharks? I dunno. Is it okay to kill cattle in feedlots, but we don’t want to shoot Bambi? Each person has ethics over what they’re prepared to do.
Especially now with multimedia and social media the tide of public perception can push very, very quickly if something is not correct. Like fisheries in the open ocean, for instance, or handling of animals in feedlots. We’ve got to then make sure that we have to have the right information. The danger for all of us is if we don’t have the information from scientists and researchers and we don’t understand it but we proclaim it publicly, we take away all of our potential good and all of the good of anyone who looks or talks like us as well. ‘Cause you can start people saying, “I did a book on sharks and you got this wrong and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” If you do wanna do good, sometimes the best way to do that is by not being vocal about things you don’t know about.
There are sharks that—and this is not nice to say—there are sharks that live quickly. They grow very quickly. They are sexually mature in a year or two. They are fantastic to eat and they are in the most sustainably managed fisheries on the planet. There are other species in the 470 plus of sharks that have life histories which are longer-lived than you or I, they reproduce later, they have a higher conservation value than a tiger, or an elephant, but we catch them in fisheries. And it wouldn’t be acceptable to catch an elephant in a longliner’s bycatch. We would rationally say that’s not okay. And the same thing for a tiger; it wouldn’t be excusable. But for a dusky shark, which has the same life history—the maturing rate, having fewer number of pups, higher mortality—we catch them as bycatch. So really the question is always, “Where are our collective heads at?”
"The French Polynesian tawny nurse sharks eat shellfish and fish that are in the seabed. The way their mouth structure is, they can’t actually eat you or bite you, really." —Jimmy White
What are some perhaps unexpected or lesser known ways in which shark conservation can be impacted, for good or bad?
The number one is unintended consequences. Unintended consequences are: you have a shark species like sawfish that you deem to be no longer able to be taken by a fishery. Which is ethically a good thing, that we don’t want to kill them. But the thing about making them “no take” is that they disappear from the fishery’s statistics. The fishermen don’t want to report when they catch them, you don’t know how many are being caught and where, and all of a sudden you’re protecting this species but you have no way to know what’s happened on the fishing boats because there’s no accountability anymore. ‘Cause there’s a fear that if I report that I catch sawfish, it might come back later to hurt me as a fisherman. Another example of that is for hammerheads. If you say hammerheads can’t be caught in gill nets, the only way to ensure that is to remove all the gill nets. You can’t have a gill net in the water and say to the fishermen, “You can’t catch a hammerhead,” because if a hammerhead swims anywhere near it it will get caught. And what happens is the fisherman sees it, knows they can’t keep it, rolls it out of the net, and the animal’s dead. It never touches the deck of the boat, it wasn’t landed, it’s not processed, it’ll never be in a fishery’s statistics. But you and I in ten or fifteen years are gonna go, “Where are all the sawfish and hammerheads?” We made them endangered species, we told them they couldn’t catch them, and yet there’s none to see. So that’s the big one, unintended consequences of really good intentions.
And the second one, which is really exciting, is the growth in technology and making it more accessible and cheaper. We can now survey the entire fishing fleet of the planet from anywhere on the world from a phone. And so you start using things like machine learning and satellites to say, “Okay, well, if this boat slows down or moves in this direction, we know that they are fishing.” We don’t need to see the boat. We can see it from the satellite a couple of kilometers above us. When the boat comes to shore and we board it, we know it’s been fishing illegally but there’s nothing on the boat for us to catch; we can’t see fins, we can’t see any protected species. And so when the fishery’s officers board it, there’s no evidence of illegal fishing. And you go back and look at the satellites now and you can see that they’ve actually met up with another ship outside the economic zone of the country, offloaded all the catch, and then they’re coming to shore to be boarded and refueled. And now with the technology, we can be there and we can see from the sky the offload. So we can prosecute both ships when they go back to port, and we can start to really manage the fishery in a global way.
The last thing—and this is the biggest one—the decrease in shark fin used in China comes down to two people. It’s not the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources), it’s not WWF (World Wildlife Fund), it’s not Sea Shepherd. Yao Ming and Jackie Chan, as Chinese men, stood up and said, “We, with our public office and public persona, no longer want this to happen.” Something really interesting happens in that space; people from within their own society are changing their perspectives. It hadn’t worked for two decades before, with Western cultures coming and saying to the Chinese, “You should stop eating shark fin.” It has to be bottom-up; within the community we say, “We’re not gonna do this.” And we see this on a small scale everywhere in the world, from Africa to North America. If the community agrees from the bottom person to the chief that we won’t fish in these areas, we’re gonna have our own marine park, it will work. If a third party comes in and says, “You have all this biodiversity, we should put a marine park here,” and there’s no buy-in from the community? You’ll never, never, ever, ever stop the poaching. Because it’s not poaching, right? It’s living. Shark fin is a double-header. You have it on your wedding night, and it does two things for you: it shows the entire community that you’re affluent, and it’s supposed to give you some virility. The nutritional content of a shark fin is about the same as your toenail; you could basically have a viagra and a sake and you’d be fine. And people now, instead of giving shark fin, are giving mobile phones. So you sit down at the wedding recital and there’s an iPhone 10: “Our status is that we can give you all thousand-dollar phones.” So you’re not flying in the face of the tradition, you’re just bringing the tradition into 2020, 2021 and beyond.
“That’s a tail of a 15-foot lemon shark and we were tail-roping it. We nearly sank the boat that night with that animal because to get it to the side of the boat we tied it off to the front of the anchor well and it towed us into the water like Jaws. The front of the boat went into the water, the engine was out of the water, and we were trying to cut the rope to get the animal free of the boat. It was a particularly comical moment. We had AM radio with classical Pavarotti, and where we were was an Air Force bombing range called ‘Rattlesnake Arms.’ So you’re at a bombing range where F-18s drop live ammunition, at night, listening to Pavarotti, getting towed through the water by a shark.” —Jimmy White
It’s really interesting to hear what the cutting edge is in all this.
There are satellites, using AI, that can work out where a fishing boat is somewhere off a marine park in Tahiti, and we can track it across the planet. We have satellite tags on sharks that don’t need to come to the surface to register to the satellite. They calibrate light during the day under water, they pop off the fin, come to the surface, and then they bounce all the information to the satellite and it goes straight to your computer. The technology for understanding the marine environment has never been better, and really it’s just various iterations of an iPhone in an underwater case bolted onto a fin or put into the shark itself.
So there are sharks out there swimming around with iPhones right now?
Like the equivalent. Here’s a great thing: how do you know when a shark eats? The second it leaves the boat you never see again, right? How do you know when it eats? Well you don’t, so what you do is you put an accelerometer on it so you know when it makes a burst of speed. Then you put a temperature gauge in its stomach, which means you do surgery on the shark in the water; you put the temperature gauge in and you sew it all back up like you’re the general surgeon. Then every time the temperature decreases you correlate that with an increase in speed: it’s rushed forward, it’s grabbed something, and then as it ingests it, the cold water decreases the temperature in the stomach. And now you know when it’s eating.
How long has that been in use?
For a while, but no one talks about the different ways we understand how to do things. There are some guys in Hawaii that couldn’t keep up with tuna because they were moving too quickly. So they tagged the tuna and they put the receivers on tiger sharks because the tiger shark just follows the tuna all day. It’s like, “Why we would we go out and do it? We just use the tiger shark.” And now we do the same thing for seals: we can map under the sea ice in Antarctica. We never have to go near it. We use a satellite from NASA above it and we use a three-ton elephant seal under the ice with all the instruments we needed. And the best thing is, the seal works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s free and it feeds itself.
"This is the French Polynesian Divemaster's eldest daughter with the original tawny nurse shark Machello.”
Are there other forms of advocacy, comparable to the example you gave for China, that you’d like to see done for shark conservation?
This is gonna sound weird, but we don’t have a shark conservation issue. We have a human protein source issue. The impacts to sharks in terms of fishing and plastics and habitat degradation are a consequence of our need to find food, distribute that food equitably across as many people as we can, and then us polluting the environment through industrial processes or packaging. But we don’t really have a shark conservation issue. What do we want to eat? Where do we want to eat it from? And how much of it do we want? So, “What things do you want to see for sharks?” Well, I want to see us make better decisions. For us. Like, selfishly; for us. Not for them, not for orangutans, like … don’t eat palm oil, because (a) it’s not good for you, and (b) you don’t need the chocolate. And the orangutans will benefit too.
Is that something that you think people consistently misunderstand about shark conservation? That it ties back to us as much as it ties back to sharks?
Tying it back to us is really delicate. “What I’m gonna do is spend the next five minutes telling you all the things you do wrong as a human”: that’s not gonna be a great conversation, right? You don’t like having a boss do it, you don’t like having a partner do it, you don’t like having a friend do it. So getting up on a soapbox and sticking your finger in the collective chest of society and saying, “You all suck for eating Tim Tams,” or, “You all suck for eating Doritos,” is not a good idea, and it hasn’t worked. It really hasn’t worked. And what we’re seeing with climate now is the move towards renewable energy is being driven by a capital, profitable market, not by the need to save the planet. The need to save the planet is happening in consequence with corporations wanting to reduce their expenditure on energy. The US military wanting to not have people shot refueling diesel for operating bases, instead using solar installation. These things are happening because it’s a viable way to do things. Corporations are making money by being more green and being more ecologically minded.
I think we’re in a really, really exciting time where more and more people are engaged in conversations about themselves and the environment, and about the lives they wanna live and how they want to live them. It’s a really exciting time for conservation, because we already have this huge base of people doing great things and being very public about how they’re doing it. You have access to information to make great choices. And it’s not saying that you’re going to go 100% vegan tomorrow and live out in a yurt, but: we don’t use straws anymore. That’s a huge deal. Airlines not using single-use plastic is a huge deal. Yes, you’re still on a plane. Yes, you’re still burning aerofuel. But you are making these small accumulative choices. And I think that positive reinforcement is the way to go, and making it easier and easier for people to make good decisions is definitely the way to go.
You have this overwhelming interest in what’s going on around us, we have unlimited access to information. And everyday we get a little bit better at understanding the world; we have better tools, and we have more ability to communicate the findings. It’s a really interesting time. The only thing is, will we pull up from the mountain before we crash into it? Because the sharks, like the orangutans and the elephants, they don’t care. They’ve been here for 445 million years. If they all die out tomorrow, there’s no collective will of sharks that’s gonna like have a memorial and care. We’re the first species ever—ever—that can actually think about the future and change it. We’re not the first species to change the planet; there are many other species that have been able to change atmospheres and change the biosphere before. But we’re the first species that can actually change it and the future is a relative concept for us. That means it’s a really interesting experiment.
The takeaway is this: the question about shark conservation isn’t about sharks, it’s about what do we want to do as a species for the planet and for species we live next to.