Katherine J. Wu
Some bookies warn that you’ll sleep with the fishes. But one oddsmaker wanted you to bet on them instead.
Last Wednesday, MyBookie, an online sportsbook, invited gamblers to place wagers on the summer migration patterns of nine great white sharks. The company’s website displayed odds on various aspects of each shark’s travel itinerary, using data mined from Ocearch, a nonprofit that’s been tracking the animals’ movements for years. An interactive map on Ocearch’s website monitors shark migration in near-real time, providing gamblers ample fodder for wagers — akin, perhaps, to a virtual horse race, conducted entirely at sea.
With most public sports out of commission because of the coronavirus pandemic, the betting market has been thin in recent months. Wagering on sharks could give gamblers an outlet, and some conservationists wonder if it might result in positive press for oft-maligned great whites. But others worry about the ethical implications of merging these two disparate pursuits — and a tumultuous week of conversations reveals that MyBookie might have bungled its first foray into shark speculating.
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. Though MyBookie representatives had contacted the nonprofit via Facebook early this month, a formal meeting about a collaboration had yet to occur when the virtual sportsbook debuted the event, without Ocearch’s permission or knowledge.
Mr. Fischer said that staff members at Ocearch asked MyBookie to suspend the site on Wednesday afternoon, just hours after it had gone live. The two organizations are now negotiating, and it’s unclear whether the (now defunct) shark betting endeavor will resume.
Mr. Fischer stressed that while he believed MyBookie mishandled this event, he was not ready to dismiss the general idea that gambling and wildlife conservation might safely intersect.
“At first, I thought, we can’t be doing science and gambling at the same time,” Mr. Fischer said. “But this is totally out of the box. If you’re thoughtful, you ask, ‘How could this manifest?’”
Wayfaring fauna have been the subjects of wagers in the past. In 2015, William Hill, an English bookmaker, joined forces with the British Trust for Ornithology to host a betting market on the spring migration of 17 common cuckoos. As part of the partnership, the bookmaker made a 1,000 pound donation to the birding organization, and in a 2015 interview with Audubon, a spokesman for William Hill said the wagers were intended to raise awareness about cuckoo biology and behavior.
Another online bookmaker, which is no longer in business, placed odds on 2007’s Great Turtle Race, a conservation event that followed satellite-tagged leatherbacks as they “raced” from Costa Rica to feeding areas south of the Galápagos Islands, said David Strauss, MyBookie’s head oddsmaker. (Mr. Strauss is his professional name; he asked that his real name not be used out of concern for his safety.)
With most sports left in a lull from the lockdown, Mr. Strauss took inspiration from 2007’s events, and began to trawl the internet for other tracked species. A cadre of sharks cruising off North America’s Atlantic coast, he reasoned, might provide a fun alternative to betting on pro table tennis or who would play the Penguin in the next Batman movie.
“With no sports running, we’ve had to get more creative than usual,” he said. “The shark is a good animal for this — it follows some of the same migratory patterns, so you can set odds on it. We kind of know where it’s going to go, but we don’t know when it’s going to get there.”
Though perhaps best known for their toothsome smiles, great white sharks are a fairly cosmopolitan bunch. Some embark on seasonal journeys that stretch for thousands of miles, likely in search of real estate rich in food and mates. But much about the sharks’ sojourns remains unknown — gaps that groups like Ocearch are trying to fill. Since its founding in 2007, the organization has outfitted more than 100 great white sharks with tags that ping their location to researchers whenever the beasts break the water’s surface.
Melissa Cristina Márquez, a shark scientist and founder of 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 engage with sharks.
Others saw additional benefits to such a team-up. It could lead to an especially positive outcome if MyBookie “offered donations to shark researchers,” who work in a field that is often in need of more financial support, said Jasmin Graham, a marine biologist at Mote Marine Laboratory.
Mr. Strauss said that he had intended for MyBookie to offer Ocearch financial sponsorship, though he didn’t think shark betting — if it resumed — would pull in much profit for his own company. “We’re not hoping to make a million dollars here,” he said.
But Catherine Macdonald, a shark researcher at the University of Miami, isn’t so sure about the gimmick.
“There isn’t necessarily only one right way to care” about sharks, she said. But in an era in which franchises like “Jaws” and “Sharknado” still predominate the public’s conception of great whites, gambling could end up reinforcing the association between sharks and entertainment, perhaps “cheapening” the animals’ significance.
In the hundreds of million years that they have traveled the oceans, sharks have become linchpins that hold entire marine ecosystems together. “They have huge impacts,” Ms. Graham said. “They don’t get a lot of respect for all the work they do.”
Sharks’ lives should be seen as more than “a betting game,” Dr. Macdonald said. Even well-intentioned wagers could saddle the animals with a reputation that eclipses the “evolutionary marvels” they are.
Whether or not MyBookie poses that particular risk remains to be seen. In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Strauss said he hoped the event would be back up and running by the next day, two days after being put on hiatus. (As of June 23, the company’s shark betting site is still dormant.) Mr. Fischer stresses that Ocearch will need much more time to assess if MyBookie’s proposal is good for his organization as well as the animals it seeks to protect.
“We’ve never dabbled in this space,” Mr. Fischer said. But he noted that Ocearch’s brand had been “hijacked” before, including one instance in which a foreign company put several of the nonprofit’s tagged sharks up for paid adoptions. Any contenders for Ocearch partnership require “a fair bit of vetting,” he said.
Even if Ocearch doesn’t end up working with MyBookie, the idea of optioning sharks for the gamblesphere is “interesting,” Mr. Fischer added. “It would have been much more interesting if I had known who they were before they did it.”