Some bookmakers warn that you will sleep with the fish. But a gambler wanted you to bet on them.
Last Wednesday, MyBookie, an online sportsbook, invited players to place bets on the summer migration patterns of nine great white sharks. The company’s website showed odds on various aspects of each shark’s travel itinerary, using data gleaned from Ocearch, a nonprofit organization that has been tracking animal movements for years. An interactive map on the Ocearch website monitors shark migration in near real-time, giving players ample forage for betting, similar, perhaps, to a virtual horse race run entirely at sea.
With most public sports out of order due to the coronavirus pandemic, the betting market has been thin in recent months. Betting on sharks could give players a chance, and some conservationists wonder if it could lead to positive pressure for the often evil big targets. But others worry about the ethical implications of merging these two disparate activities, and a tumultuous week of talks reveals that MyBookie may have ruined its first foray into shark speculation.
In an interview, Chris Fischer, the founder of Ocearch, said he was unaware of what MyBookie was doing until he read a Forbes article about the event. Although representatives of MyBookie had contacted the nonprofit via Facebook earlier this month, a formal meeting on a collaboration had not yet taken place when the virtual bookmaker debuted the event, without the permission or knowledge of Ocearch.
Fischer said that Ocearch staff members asked MyBookie to suspend the site on Wednesday afternoon, just hours after it went live. The two organizations are now negotiating, and it is unclear whether the (now defunct) shark betting effort will resume.
Mr. Fischer emphasized that while he believed that MyBookie mishandled this event, he was not ready to dismiss the general idea that gaming and wildlife conservation could safely intersect.
“At first, I thought, we can’t be doing science and gambling at the same time,” said Fischer. “But this is totally out of the box. If you are thoughtful, you ask, “How might this manifest?”
The wildlife on the trail has been gambled in the past. In 2015 William Hill, an English bookmaker, joined forces with the British Trust for Ornithology to organize a betting market on the spring migration of 17 common cuckoos. As part of the partnership, the bookmaker made a donation of £ 1,000 to the birdwatching organization, and in a 2015 interview with Audubon, a spokesman for William Hill said the bets were intended to raise awareness of the biology and behavior of the cuckoo.
Another online bookmaker, who is no longer in business, opted for the 2007 Great Turtle Race, a conservation event that followed satellite-tagged leatherback turtles as they “ran” from Costa Rica to the feeding south of the Galapagos Islands, said David Strauss of MyBookie’s. Head bets. (Mr. Strauss is his professional name; he asked that his real name not be used out of concern for his safety.)
Since most sports became calm due to the blockade, Mr. Strauss was inspired by the events of 2007 and began searching the Internet for other tracked species. A group of sharks sailing the Atlantic coast of North America, he reasoned, could provide a fun alternative to betting on professional table tennis or who would play the penguin in the upcoming Batman movie.
“Without running sports, we have had to be more creative than usual,” he said. “The shark is a good animal for this: it follows some of the same migration patterns, so you can set probabilities for it. We know where it will go, but we don’t know when it will get there. “
Although perhaps best known for their smiles, great white sharks are a fairly cosmopolitan group. Some embark on seasonal trips that span thousands of miles, likely in search of food-rich real estate and companions. But much is still unknown about the sharks’ stays, gaps that groups like Ocearch are trying to fill. Since its founding in 2007, the organization has equipped more than 100 great white sharks with tags that pinpoint their location to researchers whenever beasts break the water’s surface.
Melissa Cristina Márquez, a shark scientist and founder of the Fins United Initiative, said in an email that a betting campaign like MyBookie’s, while unconventional, could be a new way for the public to interact with sharks.
Others saw additional benefits for such a team. It could lead to an especially positive result if MyBookie “offered donations to shark researchers,” who work in a field that often needs more financial support, said Jasmin Graham, a marine biologist at Mote Marine Laboratory.
Strauss said he intended for MyBookie to offer Ocearch’s financial sponsorship, although he did not believe that shark betting, if resumed, would generate a lot of profit for his own company. “We don’t expect to make a million dollars here,” he said.
But Catherine Macdonald, a shark researcher at the University of Miami, is not so sure about the trick.
“There is not necessarily a single correct way to worry” about sharks, he said. But in an era in which franchises like “Jaws” and “Sharknado” still dominate the public understanding of great whites, the game could end up reinforcing the association between sharks and entertainment, perhaps “cheapening” the importance of animals.
In the hundreds of millions of years that they have traveled the oceans, sharks have become linchpins that hold entire marine ecosystems together. “They have huge impacts,” said Graham. “They don’t get much respect for all the work they do.”
Shark life should be seen as more than “a gambling game,” said Dr. Macdonald. Even well-intentioned gambling could saddle animals with a reputation that overshadows the “evolutionary wonders” that they are.
It remains to be seen whether or not MyBookie poses that particular risk. In an interview Thursday, Strauss said he expected the event to resume the following day, two days after the interruption. (As of June 23, the company’s shark betting site is still down.) Fischer emphasizes that Ocearch will need much more time to assess whether the MyBookie proposal is good for your organization and for the animals it seeks to protect.
“We have never dabbled in this space,” Fischer said. But he noted that the Ocearch brand had been “hijacked” before, including an instance in which a foreign company put several of the non-profit organization’s tagged sharks for paid adoptions. Any contender for the Ocearch partnership requires “a little research,” he said.
Even if Ocearch doesn’t end up working with MyBookie, the idea of choosing sharks for the gaming sphere is “interesting,” added Fischer. “It would have been much more interesting if I had known who they were before doing it.”