Cape Town 20-07-09 - Shark Cage Diving with the shark spotters - A two and a half meter Great White breaches off Seal Island Picture Brenton Geach

A row has broken out over a US documentary-maker who is funding shark research in South Africa to the tune of $2 million (R15.6m) in return for being able to film scientists at work on his specially modified vessel.

Chris Fischer, who made the Shark Men series for the National Geographic Channel, filmed scientists tagging great whites in Mossel Bay last month and will be filming them in False Bay later this month.

The scientists use Fischer’s boat, which has a platform that can be submerged and raised to bring the sharks on board.

Critics say both the lifting of sharks and the tagging is harmful and have launched an online petition calling on the authorities to stop Fischer working in False Bay.

But 30 SA scientists and 16 universities and research institutions support the project, and say the data they can collect about several species of sharks with this kind of funding is enormous, and crucial in order to manage shark populations, many of which are under threat. The project has been passed by the ethics committee.

The petition, which started in California, states: “Tagging has already proven to be damaging to sharks while the data gathered has been poor. Research should be conducted for the basis of research and not on the basis of a TV show.”

It calls for the Department of Environment to cancel the False Bay permit. It has been signed by some South Africans, including Chris Fallows, who runs a cage-diving operation in False Bay.

Fallows wrote: “With over 250 great whites already bearing telemetric tags in SA, many of which have caused open wounds, how much more ‘scientific’ value is this made-for-TV project going to yield?”

Fischer, the founder of his organisation OCEARCH, said in a telephone interview yesterday that those against the project were “an emotional, vocal, minority”.

“There are a few people like that who follow me around the world. We stay research-focused and research-driven. In SA, you don’t know where your sharks go. If we don’t help local scientists, it won’t be long before they disappear to the shark fin mafia,” Fischer said.

All the research done on his vessel has to be made public and not “hoarded for the scientists’ future career”.

Mike Meyer of the Department of Environment’s Oceans and Coast branch, will be part of the shark research on Fischer’s vessel in False Bay.

“This is a huge collaborative project with virtually every single shark researcher in the country involved. We have 18 different projects and 16 institutions involved, and the data we get will be a huge step forward for shark research,” Meyer said. A vet will be on board the vessel at all times.

Mossel Bay shark research Ryan Johnson said of Fischer, “He is making a documentary, but said he would do it only if he got full support from the shark scientist community. He is putting in a lot of money, and his vessel is designed to pick up large sharks so scientists can get access to them for 15 minutes.”

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Cape Times