YOU’RE TAGGED: Dr Paul Butcher performs surgery on a white pointer to insert an acoustic tag. So far researchers have tagged 14 sharks off the NSW North Coast. Photo: Contributed
YOU’RE TAGGED: Dr Paul Butcher performs surgery on a white pointer to insert an acoustic tag. So far researchers have tagged 14 sharks off the NSW North Coast. Photo: Contributed

Meet Dr Butcher; the Clarence's very own shark tagger

IT'S a long time since Paul Butcher played in the waves at Minnie Water and Wooli beaches in blissful ignorance on family holidays.

Now sporting the title Dr Paul Butcher, he will spend a lot of the next five years putting tags on some of the ocean's biggest predators and developing tracking technology aimed keeping beach authorities aware of shark presence off popular beaches.

The Grafton 18-year-old, who won a premier league cricket title with Easts in 1995-96, has long since morphed into a marine scientist working with the Fisheries Department in Coffs Harbour.

"I did a four-year degree with the University of New England and a PhD with the National Marine Science Centre and began working with Fisheries in 2004," he said.

Ever since the shark attack emergency began on the North Coast earlier this year, Dr Butcher has been in the thick of the research program. Largely this has involved catching and tagging sharks so scientists can locate them easily and monitor their movements.

"We use a method any keen fisherman would use," he said. "We throw bit of rope with a wire trace on, baited with a mullet in front of the shark.

"We play them and often finish a little bit further out to sea, but after 20 minutes we have them alongside the boat in a sling.

"We put on a dorsal mounted satellite tag and an internal acoustic tag. All up it takes 15 minutes for each animal."

The researchers couple traditional fishing methods with some aerial spotting to take the hit and miss element out of the chase.

"We normally spot them in the wave zone and the deeper contours about 75m offshore and head out there in a small boat," Dr Butcher said.

"It's a bit of a myth you can't chase sharks in a small boat. The one we use is six, six-and-a-half metres long.

"Once we hook up it's a bit of controlled chaos, but we've got a tried and tested technique which works."

Dr Butcher said the research team had tagged 14 sharks so far and the data the tagged animals have revealed had already forced a change of approach.

"When we first went up to the Ballina, Lennox and Evans Head area locals thought there were five to seven sharks hanging around," he said.

"What we found was lot more sharks were there, but it wasn't the same sharks. Different sharks were swimming in and out of the area.

"Over the past eight weeks we've tagged 14 and we've been able to follow their movements.

"Some have gone north and are now up around Noosa and others have headed south.

"A couple are now down in the nursery area off Hawks Nest in the Port Stephens area."

Dr Butcher said the sharks on the North Coast were in closer than normal and he linked that to the presence of bait fish.

"The extra bait fish bring in their predators and the bigger predators, like sharks follow them in," he said. "Once the bait fish disappear, it's likely the sharks will go too."

Dr Butcher said the shark research had been rewarding and satisfying.

He described the great white sharks the researchers encountered as juveniles and sub-adults.

"Like most sharks, they're predators. In human terms they're teenagers," he said. "Like teenagers, they're just trying things out. Taste testing if you like."



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