Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks - Juliet Eilperin (2011)
Chapter 5. THE SHARK SLEUTHS
If it’s cool, and rare, and unusual, and nobody else has it, I want it. I don’t care if it’s illegal, I want it. I don’t care what it does to the animal, I want it. I don’t care if it’s bad for the environment, I want it.
—Lisa Nichols, Fish and Wildlife special agent, describing the mentality of a wildlife collector
At the moment our shark obsession is alive and well, and it’s created a conundrum: sharks are desirable because they are dangerous, but many people want to keep these fearsome animals as pets. Most people might think of aquariums as a hobby for young kids whose parents dutifully bring home an array of aquatic species (goldfish, turtles) only to see them expire within a matter of weeks—or even days—after suffering under inexpert care. But there are plenty of adults who devote a serious amount of time to buying and selling plants and animals that can be displayed in private homes or commercial establishments. An array of Web sites now serve this industry, where aquarium aficionados can log in, chat about their hobby, and order fish via the Internet. But if you are not immersed in this world, it’s hard to break into these online communities, especially if you’re looking for the seedier aspects of wildlife trafficking. Online chats generally take place in a code that is impenetrable to outsiders, and members interested in criminal activity send e-mails to users offline, so they can arrange for the transfer of goods undetected by the authorities.
We like seeing sharks, as long as they’re contained. The British conceptual artist Damien Hirst made the link between sharks and humans’ mortality when he put a freshly killed tiger shark in his piece The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living in 1991; a decade later the piece fetched $8 million at auction. (The shark had decayed over time because it was not floating in formaldehyde, and Hirst ordered a new shark killed to replace it.) The hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen, who now owns the artwork and paid for its restoration, told The New York Times he “liked the whole fear factor” of the piece. “I grew up in the generation of ‘Jaws.’ I knew it was the piece of the 90’s.”1 In September 2008, Hirst created a second piece with a dead tiger shark, titled The Kingdom, which sold at Sotheby’s for more than $14 million, more than 30 percent above its asking price.2
Such exorbitant art sales are rare. But the preoccupation with sharks as pets is much more widespread and has provided a powerful financial incentive for plundering, a subterranean network that robs the natural world of some of its most prized residents. The international trade in wild animals, sharks among them, amounts to roughly $6 billion a year.3 And while much of the time these acts go unpunished, sometimes the perpetrators get busted. Whether it’s using old-fashioned undercover work or high-tech genetic analysis, government officials and academics have begun collaborating to track the illicit trade in sharks worldwide. In doing so, they have also discovered aspects of sharks’ movements, lineage, and behavior that were unimaginable just a few decades ago.
At least one site, www.sharkwrangler.com, gives a decent glimpse into the world of online shark trading. Like other men who make their living off sharks, Ken Moran appeals to consumers by tapping into their fear and fascination, assuring them he can handle the creatures they could never envision approaching. “Ken Moran, the shark wrangler, hunts, collects and transports large predator sharks for use in the aquarium industry,” his site states. “He was drawn to sharks as a child with the release of Jaws. Gripped by its ability to tap the primal public fear of sharks, he became fascinated with the ocean’s apex predators. Instead of fearing these powerful animals, he works confidently and carefully with them.” The site gives a long list of sharks he has “handled” (it does not specify which he has put in aquariums and which he has worked with in the wild), including nine-foot-long bull sharks, nine-foot-long sand tiger sharks, ten-foot-long hammerheads, and fifteen-foot-long tiger sharks. While he makes a point of saying he is “NO cowboy” when it comes to sharks, he also goes to great lengths to point out how risky his profession can be. In the case of a fifteen-foot tiger shark, the site notes in brackets, “This size animal is not a hold in your arms specimen!”
In reality, of course, Moran and other dealers make more of their living off smaller, bottom-dwelling sharks that can live in a glass tank. Leopard sharks, which are easily found off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Baja California, Mexico, are the sorts of sharks that most people see in aquariums—and are tempted to take home. Tan, with dark spots, the fish are physically striking and less demanding to maintain than other shark species. Rather than needing to constantly swim in order to breathe, like some species, they’re fine spending much of their time resting at the bottom of the sea, or in a tank. Spanning just ten inches when they’re born, they reach up to six or seven feet, and they can live as long as a quarter of a century. However, these sharks often die early in captivity.
While the illegal shark trade can be profitable, it poses risks both in and out of the water. For more than a decade Kevin Thompson—pastor of the Bay Area Family Church, a branch of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, in San Leandro, California—managed to pull it off, peddling leopard sharks on California’s central coast. That was before Roy Torres of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started looking for him.
Torres, the son of Mexican immigrants, grew up in Imperial Beach, California, the most southwesterly city in the United States. Imperial Beach once held the title of “eighth funkiest town in the U.S.,” a fact Torres relates with pride as he’s navigating San Francisco’s streets in his blue Dodge truck. His career philosophy combines hard-nosed law enforcement with an emotional attachment to animals, especially those of the sea. “I believe what we’re doing is so important, enforcing the laws the people of the United States, through their representatives, have passed, to protect the places where they love, their fellow creatures,” he explains as he drives on a surveillance mission. “It’s kind of a deep thing with me.”
In 2003, an NOAA smuggling expert in Miami spotted an online ad for a baby leopard shark and started making inquiries, eventually handing off the case to Torres. Torres and his colleagues had been checking out sites in Las Vegas to see whether establishments such as Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino—which now boasts a Shark Reef exhibit that, according to its Web site, houses “over 2,000 animals in 1.6 million gallons of seawater”—were housing illegal leopard sharks. The casinos were clean, but the agents found leopard sharks less than thirty-six inches long—a violation of California law, since citizens cannot possess, take, sell, or buy leopard sharks that small—being sold in places as far away as Georgia. “There’s not a leopard shark in Georgia,” Torres says, adding that finding the fish for sale so far away from its natural habitat raised an automatic question within NOAA’s offices.
At the same time, other federal agents were becoming curious about what was happening in their respective jurisdictions. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent based in San Diego, Lisa Nichols, got a tip that a group was taking leopard sharks at night from San Francisco Bay. Then Nichols got a call from Dave Kirby, a Fish and Wildlife special agent in Chicago who had noticed that small sharks were starting to appear in pet stores in Illinois and in other parts of the Midwest. While a small percentage of marine ornamental fish can be raised from fish farming, more than 90 percent are caught in the wild. In the case of sharks, all specimens come from the sea—so any aquarium’s gain is the ocean’s loss.
Given the broad scope of any illegal animal-smuggling operation, Torres worked by tapping into law-enforcement authorities across the globe. Over the course of three years his team pulled in help from the U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Fish Health Inspectorate and the Dutch General Inspection Service, along with Fish and Wildlife special agents from Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New York, Texas, and Wisconsin. But when it comes to trading in marine ornamental fish in America, there are just three major commercial centers: Los Angeles, Miami, and Tampa. In the case of Kevin Thompson and the Unification Church, Miami was where their operation started to unravel.
Torres approached the probe with the same sort of strategy used to crack other criminal conspiracies: nab a low-level participant who is likely to turn on his or her superiors when exposed to legal scrutiny. Ricky Hindra, an aquarium dealer based in Miami, was the first to talk. Hindra suspected that his leopard shark supplier was two-timing him by peddling his animals to another dealer, and decided to engage in Dumpster diving to prove his suspicions were justified. During one of his trash raids he came up with a cardboard air bill from his Los Angeles supplier, showing a shipment from San Francisco to Miami on American Airlines. At the time Hindra didn’t know the significance of his find, and shoved the document into his office files. But when Torres spotted it, he used it to track down the shipper through the airline: it was Kevin Thompson.
That one air bill, however, was not enough to bust the pastor and his disciples. State and federal agents began learning how Thompson worked, how he recruited young men with low self-esteem, housed and fed them free of charge, and encouraged them to join his flock. The recruits served as the pastor’s fishing crew, while his top lieutenants handled the business side of the operation. Initially, Thompson and his adherents stuck to commercial fishing, but given the rough waters and declining fish stocks off the California coast, the business didn’t exactly thrive. One day, an associate of Thompson’s, John Newberry, spotted an ad for leopard sharks in a trade magazine and realized they could make money off something that they had already been catching by accident and tossing back into the water. At that point, in 1991, catching leopard sharks was legal, but just a few years later the state banned the practice and the group faced a choice: give up their cash cow, or go underground.
They chose the latter. They weren’t exactly slick about it, openly touting their business in faxes. In an August 15, 2006, plea agreement, the pet trader Ira Gass recounted, “Newberry solicited me via facsimile to buy sharks. I told Newberry that he should not widely distribute his facsimile solicitations because it was illegal to sell the sharks and he could get into trouble for doing so.”4
Thompson was also comfortable discussing his pet store supply ring with his congregation, inside the walls of his church. Moon denied knowledge of Thompson’s activities once he and five associates were indicted, but the pastor told his flock that Moon—who calls himself King of the Ocean—was well aware of the illicit shark business. According to an audiotape of a 2003 sermon Thompson delivered titled “Lessons from the Sharks,” which was first reported in the East Bay Express, the minister told his congregation their leader backed the plan. “When I had the chance to tell our founder Reverend Moon about it … he told me, you know, ‘You need twenty boats out there fishing!’ ” he said. “He had this big plan drawn out, you know.”
Thompson and his cohorts also liked to amuse themselves with the captured fish, as he playfully described in the same sermon. “We usually do diving competitions—throw them up by the tail and see if they land, you know, nose first into the water,” he told the audience. “Usually they do belly flops.”5
But one of the young men within the pastor’s circle, Brandon Olivia, didn’t embrace this illicit game plan. The entire enterprise disheartened Olivia, who decided to move across the country to a different Unification Church outpost in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Once Torres learned about Olivia and his disillusionment, he knew he could crack the case.
Olivia found work at True World Foods, the King of the Ocean’s commercial seafood operation based in Gloucester, which helps ensure the church’s place as one of the nation’s largest sushi wholesalers. Torres knew he would have to conduct a cold interview: once Olivia had a hint of what was coming, he might take off instead of ratting out his former mentor. So the agent contacted the Massachusetts environmental police, who were able to track down Olivia’s commercial fishing license. Local authorities made up a story about how there was a problem with Olivia’s license, and one afternoon Torres and a state officer showed up at the True World Foods seafood processing plant. Olivia was on the floor, and the three men headed outside to the parking lot to talk fish. They perched on the hood of Torres’s rental car as traffic whizzed by on a nearby road.
Torres started the conversation in a low-key way, inquiring politely about Thompson’s fishing ventures. Olivia prattled on about the various legal fish they caught: halibut, salmon, and other species.
After listening for a while, Torres got to the heart of the matter. “Can you tell me about the leopard sharks?”
Olivia got quiet. “Oh, you know about that?” he asked tentatively.
“Yeah,” the agent replied. “I need you to tell me the truth about the operation.”
That was when Olivia began to cry. In the end he told the officers everything he knew: about how Thompson and his cohorts targeted pregnant female sharks, egged on by escalating profits, even though they knew they were breaking the law. He confided how the entire business made him question his faith in the church. After initially demanding that Torres turn off his tape recorder, he agreed to tell the whole story again while it was rolling. “That was the last nail,” Torres says now.
Torres soon discovered Thompson took full advantage of the Unification Church’s resources in carrying out his trade, though it’s unclear whether Moon explicitly condoned the poaching. The fact that the church—formally known as the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity—has such a big seafood wholesale business made it even easier for the shark smugglers to operate. Thompson maintained three of the church’s fishing boats on True World’s lot and kept the juvenile sharks he and his allies had taken from the wild in tanks on the sushi distributor’s property.
Newberry, the pastor’s number two, told prosecutors and the court that Thompson used all the Unification tools at his disposal and funneled the profits back into his house of worship. “He directed me and other Church members to catch, store, ship and sell the sharks. We fished for the sharks using Church vessels and stored the sharks at a facility located in San Leandro, California, owned by a business associated with the Church,” he declared in his August 2, 2006, plea agreement. “I understand that monies made from selling the sharks were used to maintain Church boats which were used by Church members for ministry related activities in the Church’s ‘Ocean Church.’ The monies were also used to finance living expenses of members of the Ocean Church.”6
Torres can no longer talk about what the Unification Church did, or didn’t do, when it came to Thompson’s illegal enterprise. The church entered into a nonprosecution agreement with the U.S. district attorney in Oakland in which it agreed to pay $500,000.
Thompson and all five of his co-defendants did not get off so easily. After being indicted, they all pleaded guilty under the Lacey Act, which prohibits the interstate sale of wildlife taken in violation of state laws. The pastor admitted that between 1992 and 2003, he had led other church members in a scheme to illegally catch and sell leopard sharks to aquarium dealers in the United States and Europe: in return he was sentenced to pay a $100,000 fine and serve a year and one day in prison. While they sold some of the leopard sharks locally, according to their guilty pleas, the poachers shipped most of them out of the Oakland and San Francisco airports, selling them for prices ranging between $9 and $75 each. In a pet store, leopard sharks can fetch as much as $240 for a single animal.
During the time the criminal ring was operating, authorities estimate, Thompson and his associates—all of them church members—took as many as 25,000 baby leopard sharks out of San Francisco Bay and sold them for profit. They sold the sharks far and wide: in their indictment federal authorities accused the ring of selling 465 juveniles to companies in Miami; Chicago; Houston; Romulus, Michigan; Milford, Connecticut; and overseas in Britain and Holland.
The successful prosecution ultimately yielded a payoff for the region’s wildlife: authorities established a $1.5 million partnership between the federal government and private foundations in order to restore habitat for sharks and other animals living in San Francisco Bay. The shark smugglers’ $410,000 in fines, combined with a $500,000 contribution by the Unification Church and $600,000 from an environmental group and three foundations, provided the money for the fund. While the money is still in the process of being spent, it will help to restore 630 acres of tidal habitat for endangered species and 230 acres of pond habitat in an area called Eden Landing Ponds. The money will also help create a seasonal loop trail, a raised walkway, and a kayak launch, so people can visit the area and view wildlife without damaging the habitat.
A few of the smugglers’ sharks managed to make it out alive. Officials from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Chicago’s John G. Shedd Aquarium, and the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, California, all helped care for the thirty-six baby leopard sharks state and federal agents had confiscated during the course of the investigation. While seven died because they were in such poor condition when they were recaptured, aquarium officials returned twenty-five of them to the ocean and kept four of them on exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The ones kept on display have microchips implanted in them, a precautionary measure officials took in case they needed to bring them into court as evidence against the shark traffickers. Agents called the effort Operation Finding Leo.
While the sting ended in success, Fish and Wildlife’s Lisa Nichols is still fuming over the minister’s hypocrisy. During the search of Thompson’s house, agents came across large amounts of religious education materials that promoted the importance of ethics, she recalls, and the disconnect between Thompson’s preaching and his criminal activities rankled her.
“When someone’s the pastor of a church, and they consistently preach about being moral and ethical, and you have literature in your house that says you’re a good family man, you’re ethical and moral, and then you think, ‘We’re going to sell this animal to make money,’ it doesn’t matter what you use that money for. It doesn’t matter if you spend it on kids, and taking them to sea to learn about the ocean,” she says. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
On the other hand, Nichols has spent enough time dealing with wildlife traffickers to know why leopard sharks proved to be such a big seller before federal authorities cracked down on the trade. Nichols saw the creatures in California’s fast-food restaurants and casinos, to say nothing of the pet shops that she would visit from time to time.
When it comes to the wildlife collector’s mentality, Nichols explains, “if it’s cool, and rare, and unusual, and nobody else has it, I want it. I don’t care if it’s illegal, I want it. I don’t care what it does to the animal, I want it. I don’t care if it’s bad for the environment, I want it.”
Globalization has only boosted wildlife trafficking, as electronic commerce has made it easier to connect buyers and sellers worldwide. It’s taking sharks out of the sea, one transaction at a time.
While Torres catches his suspects by chasing their colleagues down across the country and tracking their activities through secretive documents, Mahmood Shivji nails his in the confines of his lab. Shivji is a calm man with a confident air, the kind of academic who revels in getting a bunch of shark fins or frozen fish from a restaurant thrown on his laboratory table and telling you exactly which species they represent and why it matters. An Indian raised in Kenya, Shivji now makes his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he directs the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University. Nova Southeastern is, in many ways, America’s school of the future. Founded in 1964, it now ranks as the largest independent institution of higher learning not only in Florida but in the entire Southeast. The school took off in the 1980s when its leaders decided to seize upon emerging computer technology and make online and distance learning a central part of its mission. It now has more than twenty-six thousand students, many of whom spend much of their time learning online.
As part of the school’s transformation, university officials decided in 2005 to jettison their traditional mascot, the Knight (as in shining armor), for the Shark. For a school that lacked a distinctive image for decades, adopting this marine mascot has given it a sense of place, as well as a connection to some of its academic pursuits. “It has been the greatest thing we’ve done,” says Nova Southeastern’s president, Ray Ferrero Jr. While that may sound like an overstatement, Ferrero is serious, given the school’s historic lack of identity. The campus’s university center has a 250-foot-high mural featuring seventeen different shark species, and students—who suggested the switch in the first place—have embraced the new standard-bearer with enthusiasm. The change suits the school, which boasts classroom outposts on the Atlantic.
While Nova Southeastern’s main campus is right in the middle of Fort Lauderdale’s suburban sprawl, Shivji’s lab is by the sea. His workplace in Dania Beach is distinctly less glamorous than the university’s newer grounds: some of his researchers work in what amounts to a converted trailer. But Shivji’s students seems unfazed by these details.
A plant geneticist by training, Shivji hadn’t planned to work on sharks at the outset of his career. Shortly after arriving at Nova Southeastern, he happened to read a story in a local newspaper that detailed how authorities had difficulty keeping track of how many quantities of different sharks were being landed in the U.S. fishery because the animals looked so similar. Imagine a pile of gray logs: that’s what sharks look like once you’ve cut off their heads, tails, and fins. Since they’re so difficult to distinguish by the time they land on the dock, government officials often have no way of determining which imperiled species might have been hooked in a given catch.
“I didn’t know anything about sharks at the time,” Shivji recalls. “I thought to myself, as a scientist, ‘That’s not a complex question if you look at the DNA.’ ” He called up Lisa Natanson, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist based in Narragansett at the time, and asked whether she’d be willing to share some of her shark samples with him. Natanson complied, and Shivji’s career headed in an entirely different direction.
Shivji set about developing diagnostic, species-specific “primers”: short single-strand pieces of DNA that will bond only with DNA from specific shark species when put through a machine that makes copies of DNA using a chemical process called a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. Shivji describes it as “a diagnostic fingerprint.” He now has species-specific primers for thirty-two different kinds of sharks, which he provides to others for free.
Shivji’s work has produced scientific breakthroughs, defining new species and forcing researchers to rethink some of their basic preconceptions about sharks. Demian Chapman pursued his doctoral work under Shivji, and the two collaborated on the revolutionary paper that confirmed a virgin shark birth in the Omaha zoo. In 2002, Shivji collaborated with three other scientists to prove that skates and rays, which were long thought to have evolved from sharks, actually belong to an ancient sister lineage.
But Shivji does not devote the bulk of his time to publishing academic papers. He’s a pragmatist who’s invested in producing concrete policy outcomes, which is why he’s spent his time developing so many easy-to-use DNA tests. When law-enforcement officials are sorting through a passel of sharks that have just been unloaded on a dock, they’re hoping to get an instant answer about whether the boat has brought in illegal goods. To do that, they need a test that can deliver a verdict quickly. While he describes his original motivation for studying sharks as academic—“I was looking at this from a science perspective; we can likely solve this problem through genetics”—Shivji takes pleasure in the fact that his innovations have translated so readily to the practical. In one study, he traced scalloped hammerhead shark fins on the Hong Kong fin market all the way back to their geographic origin in the western Atlantic, where they’re classified as endangered.7
“It’s infrequent that academic research makes a practical impact as quickly as this has,” he observes. After all, other researchers don’t have federal agents showing up at their lab with, say, moldy suitcases a woman from Ecuador tried to smuggle in through Miami, asking them to take a look. It turned out the luggage was stuffed with dried shark fins, sea horses, and fish swim bladders. Shivji wonders what the smuggler was thinking at the time. “You look at these suitcases bulging, and they smell. How would anyone imagine they would get by customs?” he ponders. But shark fins are light, easy to pack, and not likely to break in transit, making them ideal for smuggling across borders.
Many scientists work under the assumption they have years to produce a final result, and can spend significant sums toward achieving that end, but Shivji recognizes that law-enforcement officers in the developing world face both budgetary and time pressures when they’re trying to analyze illicit goods. “In most parts of the world, they don’t have the resources to do DNA sequencing. It’s not something a resource-poor country can have their fishery managers do.”
Shivji’s analysis has already spread to developing countries. South African law-enforcement officials have asked Shivji’s lab to conduct an analysis of confiscated fins, as has a Palau-based conservation group. An intergovernmental group representing Southeast Asian countries, SEAFDEC, asked him to determine if a group of fins they nabbed included any from the three shark species protected under international law. While none of the fins they sent to the lab violated the law, the group was impressed enough to dispatch one of its experts to learn forensic techniques at Shivji’s lab in the spring of 2008.
Even law-enforcement officers in richer countries see the advantages of using rapid genetic tests to identify shark species. Before Shivji developed his form of analysis, NOAA agents would have to ship samples of confiscated shark meat packed in dry ice to the NOAA lab in Charleston, South Carolina. Often, it would take as long as a month for scientists there to conduct a test of the fatty lipids contained in the meat and make a positive identification. Shivji requires just a small section of a fin—the amount equivalent to the graphite tip of a pencil—and he and his colleagues can deliver a verdict within four hours. During peak times of operation, the lab can analyze eighty to a hundred samples in a single workday.
In the process of his experimentation, Shivji has become a shark forensics specialist, working with law-enforcement authorities and researchers alike to analyze dead sharks. And that, in turn, has led to more shark busts.
Even shriveled shark samples can yield some significant results. In 2003, officials from NOAA and New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation were touring a seafood warehouse in New York City’s Navy Yard on a routine inspection concerning black sea bass caught in North Carolina. Jim Cassin, an NOAA special agent based in New York at the time, and his two colleagues noticed the warehouse had a large number of shark fins in storage, along with a fairly elaborate fin-drying operation. Then they spotted a massive fin from a basking shark—a species that is strictly controlled under international trade laws—stretching more than three feet high.
“It’s giant, there’s no denying it,” Cassin recalls. “We saw it almost immediately, but we tried not to let on we had noticed.” In addition, they saw a huge nylon sack of fins that said “porbeagle” on the outside, signaling the fins came from a legally fished shark species, with a label on the inside reading blanco, or white, in Spanish. That, the agents suspected, meant the fins came from great whites, another one of the three internationally protected shark species.
After raising the issue with the business’s owner, Marc Agger, who downplayed the matter, the agents kept the conversation light and took off. A week later they were back, with a search warrant, which enabled them to confiscate the bag and bring it to Shivji’s lab for testing. The lab determined that more than 230 pounds of the fins came from species that are prohibited from harvest, including basking and dusky sharks. The bag that first alerted authorities contained twenty-one sets of fins taken from great whites.
On August 1, 2006, the Brooklyn-based Agger Fish Corporation agreed to pay $750,000 to settle the case, a rare win in the realm of shark fin smuggling. The seafood dealer agreed not to contest that it bought shark meat and fins without a federal permit, failed to report most of those purchases to federal authorities, and possessed fins from seven shark species that are prohibited under federal law. In addition to the federal penalty, Agger Fish had to forfeit nearly a thousand pounds of dried shark fins, including the prohibited species catch worth roughly $80,000. To this day, Cassin isn’t sure whether Agger was deliberately flouting the law or just too lazy to check which species of shark fins he had stored in his warehouse. But he adds, “He was in that industry. He should have been making the effort.”
Paul Raymond, an NOAA special agent based in the Southeast who has worked with Shivji on nearly two dozen cases, calls the professor’s DNA analysis “a great asset.” Nearly a decade ago, when the United States imposed anti-shark-finning laws, Raymond went down to watch Victor Chang, a shark fin dealer in Daytona Beach, practice his trade. He brought along an ichthyologist to help him distinguish among the species that fishermen had hauled in and were offering up to Chang that day.
As Chang sorted the different fins according to their value, Raymond wondered why the dealer sitting before him seemed more capable of enforcing the law than he was. Chang knew how to distinguish among shark species because his livelihood depended on paying the right price for a given fish. Raymond, on the other hand, was suddenly saddled with the burden of making the same distinctions in order to determine if someone had violated the law—but he lacked the knowledge required to make such a judgment. Chang would deal them out like a deck of cards. “This is silky shark, this is dusky, sandbar, sandbar,” Raymond remembers. “He’d just squat down and sort them out, and write up an invoice and pay the fishermen. And I thought to myself, ‘He just did that, why can’t I? Because I’ve got these regulations to enforce.’ ” Now Shivji’s lab provides Raymond with the answers he needs.
Shivji’s students are also using their genetics knowledge to prove that shark populations are more genetically diverse than people might have thought, a finding that has serious implications for officials in charge of ensuring that species don’t go extinct. Jennifer Magnussen, for example, has developed a primer that in a single test will not only indicate if the shark in question is a sand tiger shark but also determine if that shark came from the northwest Atlantic—in which case it’s prohibited to harvest it. Another student, Christine Testerman, has found that porbeagle sharks in the Northern Hemisphere, which are in danger of being fished to extinction, are genetically distinct from those in the Southern Hemisphere. The upshot: you can’t just count on porbeagle sharks from the Southern Hemisphere repopulating the depleted sharks near the United States, because the two don’t interbreed. In the end, DNA doesn’t lie.
Just as law-enforcement authorities have become increasingly focused on tracking illegal shark dealing, so have more academics. The Stanford University marine biologist Stephen R. Palumbi is a more flamboyant character than Shivji—the small ponytail gathered at the back of his neck pegs him as a child of the 1960s, and he belongs to a rock band called Flagella, which performs songs about achieving conservation goals, fishing out the sea, and slime. But Palumbi, who directs Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, California, is just as committed to cracking the genetic code that helps determine the path of the global shark fin trade. A few years ago, he doled out an assignment to a bunch of graduate and undergraduate students: after giving each of the students $25, he instructed them to make a day trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown and buy dried shark fins in one of the many apothecary and grocery stores there. With most of the fins costing between $250 and $500 a pound, the students could afford a fin measuring between eight and ten inches. The stores, in many ways, mirror their Hong Kong and mainland China counterparts, as glass jars of grayish fins stacked next to one another on the floor compete for customers’ attention with dried ginseng and mushrooms, while delicate white feathered shark fins selling for nearly twice the price occupy a place of prestige high up on the wall.
A baby boomer with an irreverent sense of humor, Palumbi combines a geeky passion for technology with keen understanding of pop culture. It’s not enough to send his disciples out into the world to see sharks strung up to dry; he wants to film the expedition and post it on the Web, and to use their finds to help construct an elaborate DNA database. Palumbi’s Web site features “Short Attention Span Science Theater”—short video clips that bring viewers along for the ride as he and his students investigate Chinese apothecaries or test whether “Pacific red snapper” is really a fish species. It isn’t, and in fact is a made-up name that markets use to peddle an array of different, less desirable fish.
While Shivji, in Palumbi’s words, is invested in creating “a set of tools that give you an instant answer,” so to speak, Palumbi takes a little more of a long-term, ivory-tower view of things. Palumbi is working up a hundred different protocols for a hundred different species: “a discovery-based tool versus a positive test tool.” In other words, Palumbi is trying to give academic researchers a way to identify every single shark fin with laser-like precision so they can chart their evolutionary path as well as whether they’re being illegally traded; Shivji is pushing to ensure the cops can nab a wrongdoer on the spot.
Palumbi is looking to broaden the academy’s understanding of how sharks have evolved, as well as construct a detailed and comprehensive chart of what makes each shark species distinct. He has pioneered similar genetic studies on whales and has used his findings to challenge the scientific assertions of pro-whaling forces. While he’s appalled at the paucity of data concerning sharks worldwide—“We didn’t have the global database that would say, ‘This is what these fins are’ ”—he admits that what he’s doing, at the moment, amounts to an academic exercise.
“Right now there isn’t any money in it. Is anyone going to pay me to do this? I don’t think so,” he acknowledges, comfortably ensconced in his sunny office, a stone’s throw away from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “At this point the case for doing this is not quite obvious to everyone.”
Sitting in front of his office computer, he plugs a specific genetic sequence into it: sure enough, 1,146 bases begin to stream across the screen. The computer program he’s using takes sixty-three taxa and scans their family trees, to see where the shark in question fits into the evolutionary path. This sort of letter crunching can provide a lens into all sorts of groundbreaking scientific findings: what shark populations looked like before humans started hunting them in earnest, for example, and whether they’re poised to adapt quickly to the earth’s changing environment.
Palumbi is fairly confident of the answer: they’re not, because sharks evolve so slowly. While they’ve survived for millions of years, he explains, they’ve done so by sticking to a similar genetic formula.
“They have relatively little ability to adapt evolutionarily,” Palumbi says. Unlike some marine organisms that can change quickly in the face of intense environmental pressures, sharks have historically adapted “on 40- to 60-, or 100-million-year timescales.”
The genetic codes make it clear: just because sharks have survived for hundreds of millions of years doesn’t mean they’re well positioned to weather the most recent challenge to their existence.
One group of scientists, who are drawing on both Shivji’s and Palumbi’s work, have a grand vision of DNA mapping that will ultimately capture the most significant species on earth: they call it the Consortium for the Barcode of Life. A few years ago, only a handful of researchers were trying to assemble the genetic sequences of animals large and small. Now hundreds of them work on the project: they have already collected at least 300,000 records for 30,000 different species.
David Schindel, the consortium’s executive secretary, describes it as “a sort of telephone directory of well-identified specimens” that will allow scientists to quickly determine what species they’re examining. To ensure that it’s a universal genetic marker, they are constructing these codes from the same mitochondrial gene regardless of the species: cytochrome oxidase 1, also known as CO-1. Using this specific marker, which is located on the gene that serves as the powerhouse of the cell, allows researchers to distinguish among even closely related sharks with a high degree of precision: Robert D. Ward, a scientist at CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research in Hobart, Tasmania, along with two collaborators, examined 945 specimens from 210 Australian shark species and distinguished them with 99 percent accuracy.8
To assemble this barcode directory, researchers are—in some cases—lifting samples from plant and animal relics that have been lingering on dusty natural history museum shelves for decades. “It’s pretty remarkable how durable the DNA in specimens is proving to be,” Schindel says. “We’re using insect legs that are fifty, sometimes a hundred years old.”
Robert Hanner, a biology professor at Canada’s University of Guelph, coordinates the Fish Barcode of Life campaign, a subset of the overall barcode campaign. While the prospect of cataloging all the fish in the sea seems daunting—there are thirty thousand known fish species, and the number continues to rise—Hanner appears confident he’s up to the task. (And, as Schindel points out, they try to keep the project in perspective: “We’re not trying to do all species in all places.”) In order to do their work, Hanner asks for five specimens per species, across a shark’s geographic range. When it comes to elasmobranchs, which include skates and rays as well as sharks, the group has analyzed 6,074 specimens from 573 species, which means they’ve created barcodes for a little more than half of all known elasmobranchs. Many sharks are particularly easy to differentiate genetically because they developed so long ago, allowing them plenty of time to accumulate genetic mutations that distinguish one species from another.
“These are the early days,” Hanner cautions, adding that once it’s complete, it will represent “the biggest communal database for the molecular diagnostics of fish in the world.”
Assembling a global barcode for sharks and other fish, he suggests, will give researchers a quick fix on whether they’ve stumbled on something new. Ultimately, these scientists hope, researchers can venture out with a handheld DNA sequencer to assess what they’re encountering in the wild. “The value of barcoding is it can tell you very clearly, is this a match with something in your database, or is it an unknown?” Hanner says.
No such DNA sequencer exists as yet: Hanner believes private companies will be happy to develop it once they’re confident enough barcodes exist to make it financially worth their while. “It’s not until we develop the Yellow Pages so every species has a lookup number that these big companies are going to get interested enough to throw investment dollars at it,” he argues. “People will say, ‘This is a market opportunity that needs to be looked at.’ ”
In the meantime, however, Hanner and his colleagues have a long stretch of letter crunching ahead of them.
DNA analysis isn’t used just to solve criminal and taxonomic mysteries, however. Shivji and Demian Chapman—his talented former student—have employed it to explain one of the most puzzling shark appearances in years. How sharks mate and give birth is one of the biggest remaining mysteries about them; genetics provides one of the few solid clues to understanding shark reproduction.
On the afternoon of December 14, 2001, aquarium employees at Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, found themselves confronted with an inexplicable sight: a baby shark had suddenly materialized in their tank overnight. The day before the zoo had three bonnethead sharks: all of them were four-year-old females that had spent all but the first six months in captivity. These sharks had not reached sexual maturity, and there wasn’t any male for them to mate with in the tank. So the zookeepers puzzled over how one of them could have produced an offspring. Was it a prank, even though there was no sign of entry? Could one of the sharks have stored sperm for more than three years, which would have been an unprecedented act since this sperm has traditionally lasted for just six months inside a shark’s womb? Within twenty-four hours a stingray living in the tank had killed the baby female, severely rupturing its liver, so aquarium officials took the shark’s body out to preserve it, and wrote off the incident.
Over the years, however, other zoos experienced mysterious births similar to Henry Doorly’s. In Detroit’s Belle Isle Aquarium, a baby shark had appeared out of nowhere, and researchers reported similar findings from other institutions. These scattered reports of virgin births intrigued Chapman, who at the time was pursuing his Ph.D. at Nova Southeastern University under Shivji’s tutelage. Chapman wondered whether these unexplained appearances meant that sharks, like some birds and reptiles, were capable of parthenogenesis, or asexual reproduction. In 2006, Chapman called officials at Henry Doorly and asked them to send him small samples from the baby shark’s fin and from the three female adults. Then, working with scientists at Queen’s University in Belfast, where he was putting in a short stint, he conducted a blind test of the four sharks’ genetic makeup. Chapman, an ebullient New Zealander by birth, engaged in a bit of good-natured wagering with his colleagues on the final outcome of his hypothesis. “We were bidding pints of Guinness on what it was going to be,” he recalls now.
Within a matter of weeks the doctoral candidate had his answer: the baby shark (nickname: Jesus, despite being female) had exactly half as much genetic variation as one of the captive female sharks, meaning the shark had inherited an exact replica of its mother’s genes rather than getting half its genes from one parent and the other half from its father. The female shark had produced the baby on her own. After making the discovery, Chapman literally ran across the room in his lab to look at Irish scientific textbooks that detailed some of the instances where this has occurred in other species, such as rattlesnakes and the Komodo dragon. When an egg is formed in one of these creatures, the animal also creates three polar bodies, a form of waste material that is genetically identical to the egg. Most of the time, these polar bodies are eventually discarded. But in the case of parthenogenesis, one of the polar bodies fuses with the egg, forming an embryo with half the genetic variability of its mother.
Chapman, who is now an assistant professor at Stony Brook University working at the school’s Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, collaborated with Shivji and a Henry Doorly scientist to confirm the bonnethead’s virgin birth, and subsequently identified another such birth at a second aquarium with an entirely different species of shark. He sees this capacity for parthenogenesis as both an asset and a liability. On the one hand, it highlights how resilient sharks can be in the most unforgiving of environments, whether they are isolated in captivity or in the wild, if fishing has decimated their numbers to the point where few mating partners remain. “It just goes to show, life will find a way,” says Chapman, who published his findings along with Shivji and another colleague in the British journal Biology Letters. On the other hand, genetic variability is essential to a species’ survival, so sharks produced through a virgin birth don’t add as much to a population as normal offspring; a shark with half the genetic diversity of its parent will be less prepared to compete.
“Biodiversity is based on genetic diversity,” Chapman explains. “Genetic diversity is like lottery tickets: you don’t know which one will win out in the future. The more diversity they have, the more chances they have to win, and the chance to survive for the next thousands and millions of years.”
After Chapman and Shivji’s paper came out, a rush of aquariums started reporting suspected virgin births in a wide range of shark species. The Belle Isle Aquarium in Detroit examined the babies that a white spotted bamboo shark appeared to produce on its own, and determined the two daughters were born to a mother that had never engaged in intercourse. European aquariums have reported that a zebra shark and a whitetip reef shark may have produced offspring single-handedly. In one case, a shark held in a tank within a Texas classroom seems to have engaged in parthenogenesis.
Chapman and other researchers have been able to confirm that this phenomenon has occurred in at least one other instance besides in Omaha and Detroit: a nine-year-old female blacktip shark that had lived in Virginia Aquarium’s Norfolk Canyon Aquarium died during a physical exam while under sedation, and it turned out the shark had been carrying an embryo despite having been separated from male blacktip sharks for at least eight years. Chapman, Shivji, and the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center scientist Beth Firchau found that the shark, named Tidbit, had just reached sexual maturity and was carrying an embryo with no paternal DNA at the time of its death.9This finding also challenged the scientific assumption that smaller sharks might be more inclined to engage in parthenogenesis because these species live in more isolated habitats and therefore may have trouble encountering males: the blacktip shark is a large species that migrates across the ocean.
At this point, Chapman thinks researchers should start out with the assumption that anytime a female shark produces offspring in the absence of a male, it’s likely to be parthenogenesis: “This form of reproduction is more common and widespread than anybody realized.” And it may not be as disturbing a discovery as Chapman first feared: the two Belle Island Aquarium virgin births were alive and thriving more than five years later, showing no signs that they were any less healthy than sharks produced by two parents.
The revelation also underscores another, broader point about sharks: nearly everything about their reproductive and parenting life is weird.
Male and female sharks don’t intermingle frequently, according to scientific surveys. And researchers are beginning to learn that the nitty-gritty details surrounding when they do spend time with each other—to have sex—are harsh. These revelations highlight a central fact about sharks: they cannot be anthropomorphized the way some other creatures have been. They are vastly different from humans in how they behave, and won’t ever warm the hearts of the public the way penguins can.
For centuries humans have recounted only the most fleeting observations of interactions between male and female sharks. While Aristotle might have composed the first written record of shark sex in the Western world, a fur seal observer with the New Zealand Department of Conservation evoked a similar theme thousands of years later. After witnessing an incident in 1991, A. Strachan wrote, “I have unwittingly been fortunate to witness a mating [between two white sharks]. I had thought at the beginning they were fighting as one animal appeared to be attempting to grasp the other with its great mouth, making great gouges in its side.”10
Many scientists don’t like to talk about shark sex, because they worry it will only reinforce the popular perception that these creatures are brutish and unrelenting. But one day I coax Chapman to give me a lecture on the subject, despite his reluctance. We are sitting in an idyllic setting—out on a dock in Belize looking at the Caribbean—and there are dozens of other things he’d obviously rather discuss. But I’m after the facts, and he obliges me.
Shark sex is, as Chapman puts it politely, “very rough.” Some of this reflects simple mechanics: male sharks have a pair of reproductive organs called claspers, which they insert into a female shark’s reproductive opening, or cloaca. (No matter how sharks gestate their young, they need to engage in internal fertilization in order to produce their offspring.) These claspers, which harden as a male becomes sexually mature, have tiny hooks inside them, which allow them to hold the female alongside as they’re mating. On top of that, during courting among larger sharks the male is usually biting the female to keep her around. This stems from the fact that, with a few exceptions, the female is almost always resisting the male’s advances. Marine biologists have an easy time determining if a female has been mating in the recent past because her skin will be raw and possibly bleeding. Female sharks build up defenses, to the extent they can, to cope with such a brutal coupling. The skin of most mature female sharks is measurably thicker than that of their male counterparts, and the fact that females tend to be larger also helps them withstand the beating they take during sex. Smaller shark species often mate by intertwining their bodies rather than the male dominating the coupling, a slightly less violent form of courtship.
When mating season rolls around, female sharks—at least those that have been observed mating, a rare event in itself—tend to stay in shallow water. This is one of the few ways they can exercise any form of mate choice, since female sharks can resist being pinned down in shallow water. “If they stay in deep water, what’s waiting for them is a roaming band of males,” Chapman explains. “If she’s in shallow water, it’s difficult to roll her over; she will press her cloaca against the bottom. The key is to get her into deep water.”
Once a female is cornered by a group of males in deeper water, they will take turns inserting their claspers in her. Often, a male shark will bite a female in order to grip her during mating. The end result? When a nurse shark gives birth to a litter of fifty pups, Chapman says, “what you’ll see is there’s anywhere from two to seven fathers.” Lemon sharks exhibit the same phenomenon: a litter of twenty pups often boasts several male parents.
Of course, Chapman knows this, for the most part, from DNA analysis rather than from firsthand observation. Researchers rarely get to witness this mating—though nurse sharks are better observed than other species when it comes to intercourse—but advances in genetic testing have expanded our understanding of this ancient ritual. As Chapman notes, “You can actually use genetics to know what mating patterns they have.”
One scientist has, most likely, viewed more shark sex than any other researcher in the world: Jeffrey Carrier, a marine biologist at Albion College in Michigan who conducts his research in the Dry Tortugas, a protected marine reserve that lies seventy-eight miles away from Key West. The animals his team has observed over the past two decades have demonstrated an amazing degree of fidelity to this site: the females return every two years, while the males come each year, during June. “We pretty much know who’s dating whom,” he explains. He’s acquired this level of detail by watching more than a thousand shark mating attempts, a formidable record.
In 2000, Carrier co-authored a paper with the Mote Marine Laboratory scientist Harold L. “Wes” Pratt Jr. in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes with the deceptively bland title “A Review of Elasmobranch Reproductive Behavior with a Case Study on the Nurse Shark, Ginglymostoma cirratum.” It is the most definitive account of shark sex ever published, and it makes for fascinating reading.
Here are some of the facts Pratt and Carrier have to offer: among male sharks (as well as skates and rays) “biting or holding by some means appears to be universal.” Female blue sharks—which produce young at a much higher rate than other sharks—seem to get the worst of it, since they “receive so much precopulatory biting that they often appear to be severely wounded while on the seasonal mating grounds.”
One of the best sections in Pratt and Carrier’s article is the chart they’ve constructed detailing the fish’s “courtship and mating behaviors.” When a nurse shark wants to demonstrate “acceptance,” for example, “female arches body towards male, ‘cups’ pelvic fins.” If it’s “avoidance” she’s after, then the shark opts for “ ‘lying on back’ the female rests motionless and rigid.” The sand tiger shark even engages in “stalking,” according to the scientists, but at least it’s not aimed at females. In this case, the sharks target other species within a captive environment, just to ensure that no other animal interferes with their chances of hooking up.
Carrier and his colleagues have studied their subjects’ intimate dating patterns through a device called Crittercam, whose name sums up its function quite nicely: you attach the camera to the critter, and when you retrieve the footage, you can see what it’s been doing. (Greg Marshall, the National Geographic scientist who invented Crittercam, actually did so after being inspired by watching a shark glide through the water in Belize with a small remora fish attached to its back. Remoras, which are sometimes nicknamed shark suckers, hitch rides on the large predators, and in exchange for getting some of a shark’s leftover food, they pick off some of the parasites that attach themselves to their host. Sharks show no signs that they’re even aware of the remoras’ presence, which is why scientists have modeled their video observation system on the tiny fish.) The Crittercam footage has captured the gang-bang phenomenon nurse sharks engage in, a process Carrier describes as “a cooperative venture, where one male is successful and the other males keep the female from leaving.” One of the most interesting aspects of this act is the fact that an implicit social order seems to determine who gets lucky.
“We think there’s a social overlay, a social hierarchy, in a way that’s startling,” Carrier says. As in the world of humans, lions, and other animal societies, it’s the dominant male nurse sharks that get the most play.
In the case of nurse sharks it’s the big, dark ones that reign supreme, according to Carrier and Pratt, which explains why females may shift from shallow to deeper water depending on the suitor. “The ‘refuging’ female is observed to retreat repeatedly from smaller, lighter colored males which are perhaps younger, weaker or inexperienced. The arrival of one of the larger, darker dominant males often elicits a response in the female to remain in the lagoon’s deeper water, or at least not to retreat when approached.”11
There is a nice inverse of this among hammerhead sharks, which gather in large schools each year to mate. Among that species, the dominant females occupy a prominent place in the center of these schools, pushing more submissive females to the periphery. The UC Davis professor Peter Klimley, who has swum with hammerhead sharks and filmed them while they’ve schooled, describes it as sort of a mix between the old television series Wild Kingdom and a traditional 1950s social mixer where young women are waiting for their male suitors to make the first move. On the one hand, the scars on the upper portion of female hammerheads’ bodies testify to the extent to which they fight each other over which sharks get to stay in the school’s inner sphere. “This is what happens a lot in the animal kingdom,” he says. “It takes one or two ritual combats to establish a hierarchy.” On the other hand, the male hammerheads that manage to get near the school push themselves into its center, casting aside the females on the periphery.
Once they make it in, moreover, male hammerheads perform elaborate moves to copulate with one of the dominant females. After pushing their way into the inner sanctum, they rotate their claspers so that they’re bent in half at a right angle and then throw their torso forward in what Klimley calls “a very sexual manner.” Other times, the sharks will conduct a corkscrew somersault. This acrobatic maneuver gives off flashes of light, which help attract attention.
While researchers know what happens when some sharks mate, that’s about where their understanding of shark sex ends. “That part’s not in doubt,” Carrier says of the mating attempts he’s witnessed. “We just don’t know what the hell’s happening afterwards.” After that point Carrier and his colleagues are no longer able to track the nurse sharks for months, until they return the following summer to repeat their courtship pattern once more.
But new technology now holds the promise of allowing scientists to move beyond what they’ve learned through Crittercam. Accelerometers—also known as acceleration data loggers—are the same motor-sensitive computer chips used in smart phones, iPods, and the Nintendo Wii, and they are providing unprecedented detail about how sharks move beneath the water. Accelerometer tags, which are a bit larger than AA batteries and are designed to fall off a shark’s dorsal fin, can detect every flick of the animal’s tail or tilt of its body. Nick Whitney, a postdoctoral scientist at Mote, worked with a team to fit four female nurse sharks with accelerometers in the Dry Tortugas and was able to document a range of mating behaviors, including thrashing, barrel rolls, and headstands. With any luck, Whitney and his colleagues will be able to attach the tags to more elusive species, such as hammerhead, sandbar, and bull sharks, in order to better grasp these animals’ mating patterns.
One thing researchers already understand is that the brutal competition that defines mating among sharks does not stop there. Once the eggs are fertilized, shark fetuses sometimes eat each other in utero, acting out the harshest form of sibling rivalry imaginable. To some extent this is merely an extension of the sort of competition for paternity that usually takes place outside the womb: Chapman has determined through genetic testing that while a sand tiger shark is often fertilized by multiple partners, during gestation the offspring of a single father will consume its half siblings in order to emerge as the sole survivor.
There is another upside to this embryonic cannibalism, or ovophagy, which occurs in both sand tiger and white sharks: it helps prepare young sharks for the difficult conditions they will face once they exit the womb. In the case of sand tiger litters only two babies emerge each time, one from each of the mother’s uteruses, since the surviving offspring has eaten everything from fertilized eggs to embryos inside the womb.
Chapman, who has examined sand tiger fetuses, describes them as having “big, wicked, nasty teeth” that help them devour their siblings while still in the womb. “They tear them to bits,” he relates, in a dispassionate voice. “A female sand tiger gives birth to a baby that’s already a meter long and an experienced killer.”
In many ways genetic testing has provided us with the most brutal truths about sharks. It reveals which sharks are being killed by humans and which are being killed by each other. It can be a tool to mete out justice or, in some instances, a reminder that they have evolved over millennia to suit their surroundings. And it hints at one of the most promising aspects of this sort of academic research: when it comes to sharks, the golden age of scientific discovery has just begun.