Personifying Predators

Why Getting To Know Your Local Great White Shark Is Good For Conservation

As you read this sentence, there is a sixteen foot, three thousand four hundred and fifty six pound shark swimming off the coast of New England. Her name is Mary Lee and she’s a great white.

Mary Lee was first caught and tagged on September 17th of last year. Ever since she’s been leaving a digital trail of bread crumbs, allowing us to follow her every move from Jacksonville Beach Florida to just off Cape Cod. Her travels have awed viewers and surprised scientists, never before has the behavior and migratory pattern of a great white shark been so closely monitored. This data will provide policy makers with the necessary information to protect great whites, a step which will ideally help move them from their current ‘threatened’ status.

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Mary Lee ≈ 10 miles off Long Island – Credit OCEARCH

Chris Fischer and his team at Ocearch lead the research on MaryLee. A diverse group of marine scientists and professional fisherman, they began catching great whites along the East Coast this fall. Their previous work focused on tagging sharks of the same species off the cape of South Africa, where they followed more than 15 individuals with names ranging from Oprah to Louis Antonio. The publicity their research has received recently, from CBS television interviews to NYTimes write-ups, is quite astonishing, but has it truly benefited the conservation of great whites? Critics of Mr. Fischer’s work would say no, especially those who view their methods as overly invasive and unnecessary given the effectiveness of harpoon tagging devices. While these concerns are valid, the value of this research comes from its overwhelming ability to inspire and educate hundreds of thousands of viewers. Influential tracking projects like the alpha-female wolf 832F of Yellowstone Park have shown similar results – people earn to connect with and understand the lives of these iconic predators. This investment is crucial as it not only builds the funds, but also the public knowledge necessary to protect the livelihoods of these threatened species.

Mary Lee's tagging. Credit Ocearch
Mary Lee’s tagging. Credit Ocearch

The story of Mary Lee is unique in its ability to spark widespread public interest. If properly guided, similar ‘outreach’ centered projects can have enormous impacts on raising awareness and support for the protection of threatened species like the great white. As Emily Anthes wrote this week in her Op-Ed piece Tracking the Pack, “Learning about the personalities and life histories of individual animals can prompt affection for these creatures, even if we never meet them.” This affection builds investment and engages citizens in research, moving us all to better understand and connect with the species we live so, often unknowingly, close to.

Interested in more Mary Lee? Find some extra resources linked here.

Cape Cod Tagging Video of capture & tagging of sharks like Mary Lee.
East Cost RoadTrip. See Mary Lee’s path and current location.
“Blowing our minds” Mr. Fischer discusses the data their gatheing from US great whites Mary Lee and Genie.
Tagging Slideshow. Photos of Ocearch’s most recent trip off Nantucket.
#GreatWhites. Follow Mary Lee (unofficially) on Twitter.