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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Over the years, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed documentary crews to film on and around the island. The one or two lucky organizations a year that are allowed to spend the night do not pay for the privilege, except to reimburse the Bird Observatory for the cost of the stay, generally $90 a day per person, including food that is shuttled to the island by boat. Anderson, however, has made money as a private consultant for film crews on the island. For example, he took in $1,500 for assisting on a National Geographic shoot. In addition, through his work at the Farallones, Anderson owns what is likely the most extensive library of white shark footage ever assembled. With quality material hard to come by, there's a significant market for this research product -- and he charges $40 per second of film. While the researcher says he's never sold more than a minute or two of footage to any one production company, two minutes of footage would fetch close to $5,000, half of his annual budget for the shark season. And that money went directly to Anderson.

These sales, in fact, appear to be in direct violation of Anderson's agreement with the federal government. His US Fish and Wildlife permit that allows him to be on the island states: "data, including photographic and video film, will not be used for commercial purposes. Products may be provided at cost for the use of others and will not be sold for profit."

The peeved Captain Groth brought these issues and a number of other complaints to Fish and Wildlife, which conducted its own informal investigation into Pyle and Anderson's activities. Joelle Buffa, the Fish and Wildlife refuge manager who signed off on Anderson's permit and conducted the investigation, says she takes the permit clause to mean Anderson can cover his expenses by selling footage.

That may be a creative reading of the clause, but in any case she has no way of knowing how much money Anderson has made off the videos. The researcher wasn't required to notify anyone when he sold footage, says Buffa, nor was he asked to submit any financial statements for review in all his years on the island -- until Groth complained in 2001 about the sales of footage. Anderson has done nothing wrong, Buffa says, but she also notes that he is no longer allowed to sell his tapes.

Groth also complained to Fish and Wildlife about Pyle's relationship with the Shark Trust, a British nonprofit that has helped raise money for Pyle's shark research over the years. It currently has an adopt-a-shark program whose proceeds are forwarded to the Bird Observatory and earmarked for shark research.

According to Clive James, the trust's director, his organization ran an advertisement in its newsletter in late 1999 or early 2000 offering to let people visit the Farallones to participate in research with Pyle. They could live on Southeast Farallon Island like the other volunteers, share in the chores, and participate in research. The catch? They had to donate money to buy satellite tags. Through the ad, two people with biology backgrounds ended up paying $4,000 to $5,000 each for the privilege of spending a week on the island. The Shark Trust then forwarded this money to the observatory.

No "volunteer" has paid to be on the island since, and Pyle says he didn't consider the arrangement problematic at the time. But access to the Farallones is highly restricted. Interns and volunteers apply each year, and many are rejected, despite their strong science qualifications. The public has no opportunity to set foot on the island, and only one journalist a year can spend the night there. (Buffa of Fish and Wildlife told this paper not to bother applying, since she would certainly turn down the request.)

Did the Point Reyes Bird Observatory sell access to the Farallones? Pyle says no. "Two biologists wanted to come out and buy tags," he says. "One was not dependent on the other." Sydeman also claims there was no problem: "The way it came about was not inappropriate. People applied like anyone would apply. There was no policy where it says if you give money you can go out to the island." Still, the implication was that you had to pay to be considered.

In 2001, a subsequent offer from the Shark Trust again raised eyebrows. In an effort to bring in more money for research, James says, he posted an ad on his organization's Web site. Four to eight tourists a year, it promised, could spend a week at the Farallones assisting Pyle with his research. The fee: $11,700 a head.

The offer was essentially an expansion of the program that had brought the first two visitors to the island the previous year. Despite the ad's language -- "Peter Pyle ... has confirmed a once-in-a-lifetime offer" -- it was posted without Pyle's knowledge, James says. Pyle also insists he knew nothing about it, even though the ad included specific dates for the visits.

Both the Bird Observatory and Fish and Wildlife ordered the trust to remove the ad. But while Buffa considered the offer extremely problematic, she says her investigation uncovered no inappropriate behavior on Pyle's part.

Charging tourists to accompany scientists at work in the field is not an unusual arrangement. Earthwatch Institute, a nonprofit founded in 1971, sends thousands of people each year on what could be called "research vacations." In exchange for a fee that supports the scientist's work, the ecotourist gets to spend two weeks documenting bat diversity in Malaysia ($1,800 plus travel expenses), monitoring coral reefs in the Indian Ocean ($1,900), excavating unexplored Mayan ruins in Guatemala ($2,000), or partaking in any of a host of other projects.

But putting aside the substantially higher price of the Shark Trust's offer, this method of fund-raising isn't considered kosher in a restricted refuge like the Farallones. "We do not allow people to pay money to get on the refuge," Buffa says pointedly. Volunteers and interns on the island usually have at least an undergraduate biology degree and six months of field research experience, and they must also be willing to do chores such as cleaning the toilets and cooking.

The earlier donor-volunteers fit the criteria, Buffa explains, because they had adequate science backgrounds, while those who answered the second ad, she felt, may not have been adequately qualified. In retrospect, Sydeman admits that even the first batch of people who paid to visit the island may not have been the best idea. It might appear, he concedes, as though the Bird Observatory was selling access. Pyle now concurs with this opinion.


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