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'Bittersweet': Mixed emotions for shark scientist who tags newborn great white

Emma Houpt, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 14 Feb 2023, 8:50AM
The shark was tagged off Matakana Island. Photo / Supplied
The shark was tagged off Matakana Island. Photo / Supplied

'Bittersweet': Mixed emotions for shark scientist who tags newborn great white

Emma Houpt, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 14 Feb 2023, 8:50AM

Riley Elliott has tagged a “beautiful, novel, rare” newborn great white shark as part of his tracking project.

However, it has been a “bittersweet” week for the shark scientist who on the same day found out another had its tag ripped off by a fishing line.

Elliott, from Tairua, tagged another great white last Thursday off Matakana Island. He had been on the water for about six hours that day when suddenly the “beautiful, novel, rare” newborn swam up to his boat.

This was the second baby spotted in the region but the first to be tagged, he said.

“I turned around and there was a baby great white right there. It’s like seeing a unicorn and is incredibly novel in the sense that it reflects this is not only a nursery ground but a pupping ground.”

Elliott said the shark was less than a year old and was one of a handful to be tagged and seen alive.

The shark had been named “Swaj” by the sponsor to help “reverse the Jaws mentality” associated with great whites.

Elliott received a Department of Conservation permit in June to track and satellite-tag 20 great white sharks, with the project allowing people to see where the animals are travelling through a live app.

The project is driven by funding and support from the public and is hosted by the Sustainable Ocean Society - a non-profit established by Elliott and a group of his friends.

But that same day he received the unfortunate news that Takami - the second shark tagged on December 5 - had its satellite tag ripped off by a fishing line.

Two fishermen had deployed a longline about 300m offshore at a beach near Matatā, he said.

They reported Takami interacted with the line - either for its bait or a fish that was hooked. The shark got hooked, panicked and became entangled.

He said Takami managed to break free but its tag got snagged on the longline which the fishermen reeled in.

“There was a big ball of nylon all tangled up and in the middle of that was my tag.”

He said it was an “honest mistake” and the fishermen - who had been following the app - felt really bad.

“It is not their fault at all.”

 “It was so bittersweet because I’d spent an entire week down in Bowentown trying to find great whites to get this fourth tag out.”

The tag was being couriered to Elliot so he could redeploy it on another great white.

Elliott described it “as good as a bad scenario could be” with Takami surviving the ordeal. But despite this, he was “gutted” her movements could no longer be followed on the app.

“Losing a tag like this is definitely an annoying setback.

“That’s a whole lot of information that [was] lost about that shark. And that was a whole week of work, accommodation, food, petrol, and stress.

He said on average it was taking about a week to tag one great white which was largely due to the weather “playing havoc on the distribution of animals”. Sea life had been pushed out of Tauranga Harbour because of poor water quality, he said.

This situation served as a reminder of great whites’ vulnerability and the “danger they face daily through fishing practices,” he said.

“The moral of this story is that Takami got very lucky - if it were a set net she would be dead.”

He said this interaction only proved the “validity” of this study which aimed to find out more about their habitat and reduce adverse interactions.

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