Kent Stannard has been fascinated by sharks for more than four decades. Growing up in Barwon Heads and living out the back of Blairgowrie for 23-odd years, this science-minded board-rider always knew there was ‘something’ watching him while surfing solo. We chat about his love of the great white shark, his not-for-profit organisation Tag For Life and his quest to find out as much as he can about these epic oceanic creatures to ensure their survival.
How did you start tagging sharks?
My father’s cousins built commercial vessels for the oil and gas industries, and my father’s family are from a farming background. That’s why I’ve always had a thing for wedge-tailed eagles too. I started working with the CSIRO back in the early 2000s. They had just developed tags for sharks to understand their behaviour and more about their habitat around the Australian coast. As a kid I was always fascinated with top-order predators. I began a marine science degree but gave it up to become a builder. Now I am involved in research, including the tagging of sharks, and make clothing (White Tag) in response to requests from hard-core ocean users to wear.
Tell us more about your relationship with CSIRO.
The CSIRO approached my family in the late ‘90s with their tagging technology. We’ve partnered with them on a number of occasions, but started out by placing tracking equipment, including underwater receivers, all over Bass Strait. Sharks are like a different sort of grey nomad and they keep moving. So far we’ve been involved with the tagging and monitoring of over 400 sharks from NSW through to South Australia, following their movement patterns and behaviour. There are two populations of white shark in Australia — the eastern population originating east of Wilsons Promontory and the western population stemming from somewhere west of Bass Strait. Bass Strait is the missing link to understanding more about the species. We need to follow where they go and what they are doing. It’s a combination of science and public safety.
Are there different types of tags?
Yes. There’s a satellite tag, which studies the shark’s movement patterns and identifies habitat critical to them. When the animal surfaces, the tag sends a signal to the satellite and records a position. The tag is designed to release from the shark’s dorsal fin after 18 months. It washes ashore and sends a GPS location where it is so we can collect it. Then there’s the acoustic tag, which is the size of a lipstick and has to be surgically implanted into the shark’s stomach cavity away from its organs. Each one has its own code and reports to an underwater receiver. They last for around 10 years and talk to the receiver telling it when the shark arrives in an area, how long it stays, and then when it leaves. This gives us important data, including feeding habits, behaviour and how they use an area.
Do the acoustic tags have any impact on other marine animals?
No. They are set at a certain kilohertz that doesn’t affect seals, dolphins or other sea creatures.
And what about the third type of tag?
That’s the pop-off tag, which is used on big sharks over 5m. We have to use a Hawaiian sling-type spear, which has a fork on the end of it. It penetrates the shark behind the dorsal fin and is ideal for monitoring the movement of large pregnant sharks to nursery areas. It is pre-programmed to pop off after a period of time, floating to the surface, and the data is then uploaded to the satellite. We also take a tissue sample from each of the sharks so we can map their DNA. We can then establish who their parents, siblings and relatives are.
How does Tag For Life raise money for shark research?
We are a not-for-profit organisation, so we raise money through philanthropic means. For example, we’ve received funding through the Ian Potter Foundation and Coast Care. We also have a woody-style caravan at the dog beach in Blairgowrie over summer that sells tea and coffee to try to raise some more bucks. Everything we do is with the aim of conserving and preserving sharks as well as achieving a safer coastal environment for surfers, swimmers, fishermen/women and divers. It’s all about creating the science and sharing the outcomes through education. It’s important to remember that humans are just visitors in the ocean, not the sharks.
Head to Tag For Life’s Facebook page @tagforlife to know more about this amazing research.