Jaws Breaker

Sharks are tweeting their location—to save their lives, not yours

December 30, 2013
December 30, 2013

Right now there’s a potentially deadly tiger shark cruising the ocean 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) off a popular surf beach in Scarborough, Western Australia. How do I know that? The shark tweeted its location. A radio transmitter embedded in the shark’s stomach transmitted its coordinates to the state government’s Shark Monitoring Network, which passed it on to the Twitter feed of the Surf Life Saving Western Australia (SLSWA).

The shark is one of 326 tiger sharks, great whites sharks, and whaler sharks tweeting their movements to surfers and beach-goers in the state of Western Australia. And that just might save the ocean’s top predator from the planet’s top predator—us.

In response to a fatal shark attack on a surfer in November, the Western Australian state government is considering allowing a shark cull, despite the fact that humans already kill an estimated 100 million sharks annually. (On the other hand, there were about seven human fatalities worldwide attributed to sharks in 2012.) Conservationists hope tweeting sharks’ location and providing other information about their whereabouts will help avoid fatal encounters and undercut calls for a cull.

The SLSWA Twitter feed also reports other sightings of sharks that aren’t tagged. For instance, earlier today, a medical helicopter spotted a 2m-long (6.5 feet) shark 10m (30 feet) off Marybrook, a beach town in the southwestern corner of the state. An hour earlier, the helicopter tracked a slightly larger tiger shark 150m (500 feet) off a nearby beach, which lifeguards promptly closed.

The state Department of Fisheries has installed 320 receivers on the seabed off the Western Australia coast to monitor the movements of tagged sharks—including 136 great whites. The monitoring network also includes 20 satellite receivers that keep tabs on the sharks. The radio tags researchers insert into sharks they catch last for about 10 years.

South Africa uses a low-tech system to prevent human run-ins with sharks, according to Blair Ranford, a surfer and member of Western Australians for Shark Conservation. A system of shark spotters stand on cliffs to monitor the ocean; when a shark is sighted, a siren is sounded and flags placed on the beach. “There is no hysteria, no mass panic, and no media campaign pushing for culls,” Ranford wrote in a blog post after the November fatality in Western Australia. “People watch the flags and when a shark is sighted leave the water. When the all clear is given they go back in. Something so simple.”

Sharks move fast but the Twitter feed is speedy as well. Once the monitoring network detects a tagged shark, a tweet is broadcast within two minutes. It’s one thing to follow, another to listen.

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