Photograph by Sarah Phelan
Swimming With Sharks: Sean Van Sommeran's Pelagic Shark Research Foundation isn't feeling too chummy toward UCSC right now.
Publish or perish. That, as every professor and grad student knows, is
the mantra that ups the blood pressure in the corridors of academe.
But what about
people who don't have college degrees but have become experts in their
field? Are they to be mocked just because they don't have a Ph.D.? And
do they risk being ripped off if they share what they know with those
who do have mortarboard-wearing aspirations?
That, in a nutshell, sums up the fears of local resident Sean Van Sommeran,
who's been grokking sharks ever since he was 12 years old and the
fishing boat he was riding on rolled past a big blood slick near Año Nuevo.
"I saw a white shark thrashing on the water surface with an seal in its mouth. It was the mid-'70s, and I'd just seen Jaws and read the book," says Van Sommeran of the obsession that led him to found the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation,
an independent research, education and advocacy group based in Santa
Cruz. The foundation has tagged almost 100 great whites off Año Nuevo
Island in the past 12 years--experiences you'd think would earn him an
But at first, says
Van Sommeran, his ego was satisfied by just working in a field that he
likens to a "vast desert of ignorance about sharks." His attitude
shifted two years ago, when UCSC grad student Scott Davis, who was also PSRF's director of research
at the time, apparently incorporated--but did not credit--some of
PSRF's data about the movement and behavioral patterns of great whites
off the central California coast into a paper that Nature published in 2002.
Titled "Expanded Niche for White Sharks," the paper rocked the science
community with the news that the world's largest-known predatory shark
is primarily oceanic or "pelagic" and only visits the mainland coast on
a seasonal basis (a revelation that made Nüz vow never to venture into
the ocean dressed like a seal between the months of October and
February, which is when great whites apparently cruise the Cruz in
search of fat-wrapped bundles of seal).
Determined to get
the credit he believes he deserves for his part in this trailblazing
project, which involved tagging great whites with satellite trackers,
Van Sommeran took the matter to court--and finally recovered missing
data and funds and a letter of apology and admission from Davis in
But while that
battle is over, the greater war is still on, according to Van Sommeran,
who is pursuing a published erratum/correction from Nature, while his blood still boils over some "additional background detail" that was supplied to Nature
on Stanford University's Tuna Research and Conservation Center
letterhead, shortly after Van Sommeran complained he should have been
listed as a contributor/co-author of the "Expanded Niche" article.
Sommeran] has no college degree and has a reputation within the
academic community of misrepresenting and exaggerating his role in
research projects where he has been a paid assistant for driving a
boat. His income is derived from donations to his foundation and
welfare checks. He does not publish research papers," states the
letter, which claims to be from both UCSC professor Burney Le Boeuf and
Stanford researcher Barbara Block.
Says a clearly
irate Van Sommeran, "I have no college degree--so kill me! They don't
teach what I do. Le Boeuf had never seen a shark until I showed him
one. I rarely have time to get involved in projects that I did not
initiate myself, and when I first said I thought great whites were
primarily pelagic after seeing several of them with harpoon lanyards
and other offshore commercial fishing debris about their bodies, the
academics mocked me for not having any empirical data."
As of presstime,
Le Boeuf had not returned Nüz's calls seeking comment, but Block
emailed us to say that the expanded article was a "brief communication
and not a letter, which technically is a different style of
publication," and that "acknowledgments and joint first authors" were
not allowed. "
The good news, according to Block, is that Nature has updated its policy since then. As for the letter to Nature
on Block's letterhead, Block says Le Boeuf, who was Davis' adviser,
drafted the letter in response to Van Sommeran's allegations, and that
as senior author she submitted his comments with her signature on
behalf of the research team.
"If Burney's letter was incorrect, then I believe he should respond,
and he most likely believed his student," she says. "That is the
position most professors would take for any student."
Sommeran is likening himself to "a sherpa, who carries all the stuff up
to the top of the mountain, then is asked to get out of the way while
the guys with altitude sickness take all the credit--only this time
we're talking about sharks and sea sickness."
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