Farallon Feud 

When scientists at the national marine sanctuary tried to kill Lawrence Groth's ecotourism business, the captain bit back. That's when things really got mean.

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Anderson recalls the meeting differently. "The whole premise was inappropriate to start with. They wanted to work with us exclusively to have us show them where the sharks are," he says. Groth, the biologist notes, wanted an exclusive arrangement in an effort to stave off competition from would-be rivals. Anderson bristled at the proposal. "The reality is we don't need their money or their resources," he says. "We don't need their boat or their clientele. Everything came with a price. They are completely hollow people."

Five months after that meeting, Anderson and Pyle made a formal request to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), the federal agency that manages the sanctuary waters, asking officials to closely regulate cage diving and ban the use of decoys for commercial operations. Such changes would in effect shut Groth down. Indeed, this seemed to be the intent, since the researchers believed the captain was interfering with shark behavior.

Groth felt betrayed. "They just don't want anyone else out there," he huffs. "They consider it their island. They had no real explanation of how we were interfering with their research. On the contrary, they are the ones interfering with the sharks."

His livelihood threatened, the captain bit back. He filed a complaint with the California Department of Fish and Game, the agency charged with enforcing state laws protecting great whites, in which he claimed to have seen the researchers running over sharks more than once in their effort to get footage. His complaint was backed up by a videotape shot from the deck of the Patriot.

Anderson and Pyle say they have never hit a shark in all their years of pulling up on feeding events, but they admit that sharks may inadvertently hit the boat. The problem, Groth points out, is that even with the best intentions it's hard to avoid the sharks, which is one of the reasons the captain says he stays at least one hundred feet away from the feeding events. The ocean current is moving the boat, the carcass, and the sharks as they battle for their food. Groth has also videotaped the researchers pursuing sharks as they swim away from the group with food, and claims he's witnessed the animals pursued to the point where they drop the prey and swim away.

Anderson admits he's followed sharks that are carrying prey but says he backs off if it ever looks like he's affecting their ability to feed. He also points out that because his sixteen-foot Whaler is smaller than most of the white sharks found at the Farallones, it has no impact on the feedings.

Peter Klimley would argue otherwise. A respected shark researcher and adjunct associate professor of wildlife conservation biology at UC Davis, he has worked with Pyle and Anderson in the past and has some serious reservations about their data-gathering approach.

In Klimley's view, the best data-gathering techniques are those with the least impact on the animal. He's talking about remote sensors and radio tags, which are different from the type used by Anderson and Pyle. With this equipment, scientists can track the sharks as they move through a specific area, monitoring the animals' activity without interacting with them. It creates a much more accurate picture of their behavior, says the scientist. "If you get the boat near a shark feeding event, you are affecting the whole combat of how food is apportioned," Klimley says. "Any time you study an animal, you have an impact. If you drive the boat in there you are suddenly intruding.

"Often sharks will splash water at the boat," he continues, referring to one of the ways sharks determine hierarchy during feedings. "You become a rival shark, and that shark might not finish off the carcass because you are there."

Neither Groth nor his rivals, however, have been winners in the game of complaint and counter-complaint. California Fish and Game conducted an informal investigation in response to Groth's filing, but it has taken no action. Dennis Davenport, the patrol captain with the agency's Fort Bragg marine region, says he wasn't able to determine, based on Groth's tapes, whether Pyle or Anderson had indeed harmed any sharks with their boat. NOAA, likewise, has shelved the researchers' request, opting instead to take up the cage-diving issue in its overall sanctuary management plan, which the federal agency expects to complete in 2004.

Nevertheless, Anderson and Pyle may wish they'd let sleeping sharks lie. When Groth and Douglas began looking into what, exactly, the researchers were doing on the island, they uncovered behavior that pointed to a degree of hypocrisy in the scientists' attitudes toward ecotourism and possibly violated agreements with the federal government.

Any marine biologist can tell you that shark research is no way to make a killing. Klimley, a respected figure in his field, scrapes by from grant to grant. And Bill Sydeman, director of the marine sciences division of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, says the entire yearly budget for Pyle's seasonal research program is just $15,000. Anderson funds his own work by giving talks and selling his footage of the sharks. The difference comes out of his own pocket from the money he earns the rest of the year working on a trail-building crew at the Point Reyes National Seashore and leading natural history trips for the Oceanic Society.

The point is that no one is getting rich here. The payoff for the scientists is that they have what amounts to a permanent appointment to run the nation's top white-shark research site. The island they live on rent-free anywhere from one to eight months of the year is a national wildlife refuge and the waters around it a national marine sanctuary. Their longtime status on the island makes them de facto stewards of a protected public resource.

Yet Anderson, in apparent violation of his sanctuary permit, has profited from his exclusive access to the islands. Likewise, the Bird Observatory, which operates both on and off the Farallones, uses its gatekeeper status to raise money for its various programs. What makes this questionable is that the refuge is totally off-limits to the public, and the federal government deems it wholly inappropriate for anyone to pay in exchange for a trip to Southeast Farallon Island.


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