Fair warning to shark lovers: you’re going to have mixed emotions about this story. As University of Florida shark expert George Burgess tells PEOPLE, it’s a “bad news for the shark, good news for science” situation.
According to the Taiwan English News, a 4.7 meter (approximately 15.5-foot) female great white shark was accidentally caught off the northeast shores of Taiwan on March 20. An early report in LiveScience stated that the young female was carrying 14 pups (i.e. baby sharks), and that she was most likely a “bycatch” of local fishermen. Burgess, Director Emeritus of the Florida Program for Shark Research and Curator Emeritus of International Shark Attack File, later confirmed to PEOPLE there was actually a record-breaking 15 babies at final count.
“Fifteen pups blows the previous record out of the water, which is 12,” says Burgess. “It’s the largest number ever and it’s important to the great white shark, because it means their reproductive capacity is higher than we may have given them credit for. So that’s a good thing.”
Burgess believes the mama shark probably got trapped in a “set net.” In this method of fishing, the net acts like a giant corral, oftentimes ensnaring larger animals who are not meant to be caught and causing mortalities. Some, like dolphins, may be able to jump out of the net and escape. Sadly, this gal and her almost-but-not-quite full-term litter were D.O.A.
“White sharks around the world are considered a vulnerable species. They have threatened or endangered species status in most countries, as well as internationally in terms of trade and that sort of thing. In most areas of the world, they can’t be brought to the docks if they’re captured and you can’t go fishing specifically for them,” says Burgess. “In some areas you’re allowed to fish for them and release them alive.”
Great White shark populations are threatened worldwide, and the species is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN. In the U.S. white sharks cannot be landed period.
“If you landed one at a dock here, you’d be subject to arrest and prosecution. I don’t know the exact laws in Taiwan, but presumably they’re allowed to bring the animal in for sale, which they did. It’s possible it was done illegally to [make money], I don’t know, but the reality is that’s a controversy that occurs in fisheries around the world,” says Burgess. “If you have a species that’s illegal to capture and it’s dead, do you just throw it back overboard and essentially waste the animal, or do you bring it in and parse it for its value? The problem is when people bring things in that they have actually gone out to catch, when it was alive but they said it was dead. There’s always that question when there’s a big pay day involved.”
Taiwan English News reports the shark was sold by auction for approximately NT$58,500 (U.S. $1,898.90).
However, not being allowed to bring great whites to shore makes gathering information about them really tough for scientists. Great whites are so big and strong, they’re very rarely caught. For this reason, it’s quite difficult for scientists to get ahold of white shark materials to examine, even just for basic biological data — including information on reproduction. Gathering data on questions about the length of gestation, number of pups per litter and how many pups are born over a lifetime help scientists develop a model that allows them to predict shark populations. In fact, only 18 pregnant great white sharks have ever been recorded says Burgess.
“That’s why I say it’s a tragedy for the shark but a bonus for the scientists. While this girl gave up her life and those of her pups, and even though we didn’t have a scientist sitting at the dock there doing all the things we’d like to, we’ve been able to piece together through an observer and correspondent in Taiwan some information, more than we’ve gotten through newspapers,” says Burgess.
This mama shark weighed in at 1170 kg, or 2,579 lbs., well over a ton gutted (without intestines, stomach and reproductive tract). The gestation period of a great white is probably about 18 months, and pups are born when embryos reach around 4 ft. in length. Because it’s so rare to catch a pregnant female — and they may abort pups in a struggle when caught — scientists are still guessing about some of this data; it’s nearly impossible to get a close look at a live, pregnant great white.
“Surprisingly, here we have the largest of predatory sharks, and you’d think by now we know a lot about the great white shark — a high profile animal [that’s] conservation dependent: its fate is in our hands. You’d think we know everything there is to know, but in fact our knowledge level of this particular species is not very good,” Burgess tells PEOPLE. “As an apex predator at the top of the food chain, there are whole lot less of them than other fish. If you catch them, even unintentionally, you could push them over the [endangered] edge. Plus, with such a long wait to get to sexual maturity, it means the number of young produced by a female in her lifetime is very low compared to other species.”
Great whites don’t breed in captivity, and only one aquarium — Monterey Bay Aquarium — has ever had members of the species in captivity for any period of time. They’ve had two attempts at putting the smallest great whites they could find in captivity and in both cases it did not lead to success, says Burgess.
“The animals just beat their noses into the tanks trying to get out; they’re not used to the barriers and the walls of the tank. In both cases they had to quickly release the animals.”
Finally, the learning lesson from this particular great white capture is that even though scientists are excited to get the information, it further underscores their concern for the shark as a species and its future in our seas.
“We simply can’t be killing these creatures, even if it’s in ones and twos, because their populations are so low, they really can’t stand much additional pressure,” Burgess tells PEOPLE. “It’s incumbent upon us humans to reduce the fishing mortality and let the great white go about its normal life, with its natural mortality. Many shark species are in the same boat.”