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Great White to Be Freed

Researchers say the young female shark, caught off Ventura, refuses to eat.

August 03, 2003|Holly J. Wolcott | Times Staff Writer

A young great white shark captured last week outside Ventura Harbor has refused to feed and will be released, researchers said Saturday.

The 1-year-old female, now housed in a 5-million-gallon pen north of Malibu, will be let go Monday or Tuesday. Attempts have been made to feed her mackerel, sardines and salmon filets.

Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers have been studying the 77-pound shark in the underwater pen to determine whether it could be publicly displayed. Past efforts worldwide have failed within three weeks, primarily because the predators won't eat in captivity, researchers said.

"We haven't learned all that we need to in order to have full confidence that she would have survived at the aquarium," Ken Peterson, an aquarium spokesman, said Saturday. "We're not in a rush and not trying to get a white shark just to get it. We don't want to bring it back to the aquarium only to fail."

Despite not eating, the shark has been swimming around the pen and appears very responsive and in good shape, Peterson said. Successfully holding the shark in the pen and getting it to eat were two of several critical benchmarks researchers needed to achieve before it could be moved to the aquarium.

Peterson said researchers considered their five days with the shark a success because it marked the first time they have had one in captivity since starting a three-year, $1.2-million shark-research project in 2002.

"We were lucky to get this one because it came so late in our field season," Peterson said.

After retrieving the shark from a commercial halibut fisherman's gill net -- it became snagged there -- researchers were able to attach an electronic monitor on the shark so data on water temperature surrounding the shark as well as ocean depths and latitude and longitude could be recorded. The device will detach in 60 days, Peterson said.

The only time a great white shark lasted longer than a few days in captivity was more than 40 years ago when researchers cared for one in Australia, Peterson said. The shark fed at least once during its three weeks of captivity but was killed by aquarium workers after being deemed too aggressive, he said.

Researchers hope they can someday bring a great white shark to live in the million-gallon Outer Bay exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, together with giant bluefin tuna and other open-ocean species. There are more than 400 known species of sharks, with great white sharks vital to the health of ocean ecosystems. Sometimes known as "man-eaters," their numbers are in decline because they are slow to reproduce and their fearsome reputation has made them a popular target of trophy hunters.

Aquarium officials believe a great white shark display would help change the predator's reputation.

"Visitor studies have established that the experience of seeing live animals in an aquarium can have a significant and lasting impact on people," said Cynthia Vernon, the aquarium's vice president of conservation programs. "If we can succeed in exhibiting a white shark, we can raise awareness of the threats they face."

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