Filmmaker, biologist feud over who invented shark barrier
News of a game-changing South African shark barrier has been marred by a dispute over who invented it.
The row involves some of the top names in white shark conservation, including Gansbaai diver and filmmaker Mike Rutzen, who famously free-dived with great whites for National Geographic. The SharkSafe barrier, comprising magnets arranged in submerged rods that mimic a kelp forest, has proved highly successful in deterring all kinds of sharks at a test site in Gansbaai and a new site in Reunion.
It was patented by Stellenbosch University last year after a six-year development project involving Rutzen and three other experts.
Now one of them, US conservation biologist Craig O'Connell, has threatened legal action after being excluded from the patent rights and a company set up to profit from them.
In a widely shared Facebook post, O'Connell expresses outrage that the shark shield has been deployed in Reunion without his knowledge.
"I am a bit shocked because as the principal investigator I was unaware of this deployment," O'Connell said. "The original SharkSafe barrier was invented by myself while in Bimini, Bahamas, during my internship at the Bimini Biological Field Station, and then I brought it to SA and formed a collaboration to test it on large sharks.
"The team from the University of Stellenbosch is deploying my invention without my permission or knowledge and it is quite sad to learn about it from the press!" he writes.
O'Connell also expresses concern at claims that the barrier is 100% safe. "Sharks are complex animals, so to also be misquoting the barrier to be '100% effective' is not sensible and is an indication of their lack of familiarity of various SharkSafe barrier results and studies."
O'Connell is a global research leader in the field of electrosensory stimuli in the marine environment. His collaboration with Stellenbosch University stemmed from discussions with Rutzen in 2011. This week he said he was consulting lawyers but declined to comment further.
Stellenbosch University denied any wrongdoing and insisted O'Connell had been aware of its intention to commercialise any invention stemming from the collaboration, which involved R1m seed funding.
"Since Mr Rutzen and Dr O'Connell were not employed by the university, upfront negotiations took place to ensure that they both understood that any invention resulting from the research would belong to the university, and that they would receive a portion of any benefits received from successful commercialisation of the shark barrier," the university said in a statement.
"There are numerous benefits to the inventors. These include the fact that the university bears the not-insubstantial costs of obtaining patent protection for the invention and assists in [its] commercialisation."
The university said it had obtained legal advice confirming it had followed the correct procedure. "These findings were communicated to Dr O'Connell through his attorney. There was no substantive reply."
O'Connell had "alienated himself from his fellow researchers" and had therefore been excluded from the company set up to take the invention to market, the university said.
Sarah Waries, CEO of the Shark Spotters non-profit organisation, said she was aware of the intellectual property dispute and shared concern about alleged claims of the barrier's 100% efficacy.
"Making those claims is a little bit dangerous. No shark mitigation is 100% safe," Waries said.