Safer Waters for Sharks

Safer Waters for Sharks

Masters of the underwater universe for millions of years, the much-persecuted shark may finally have a fighting chance thanks to friends in surprising places.

By Alisa Opar
Published: July-August 2013

Yet kill tournaments live on. Dozens of competitions with names like Mako/Thresher Mania on Long Island hand out hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes each year and send the message that the only good shark is a dead one. 

To help change public attitudes, brothers Sean and Brooks Paxton dreamed up the idea of transforming kill tournaments into a spectator sport. They fished with their grandfather on Chesapeake Bay whenever their family--a band--wasn't on the road. "We saw Jaws and wanted to get closer to sharks," says Sean, explaining their fascination with the apex predators. Combining their entertainment industry experience and a practical conservation ethic, they launched Think Out Loud Productions, which organizes events that support science, education, and sustainability.

While some of the 50 Ultimate Shark Challenge participants, mostly the younger ones, have only ever practiced catch-and-release, others have had to come around to the sport. Take fishing guide Bucky Dennis. In 2006 he landed a record-setting, 1,280-pound, 14.5-foot hammerhead in Boca Grande Pass. During the five or so hours it took to reel her in, she towed the fishing boat 12 miles. He donated the carcass to the Mote Marine Laboratory (which doesn't encourage killing sharks), where a necropsy revealed one reason she was so big: She was pregnant with 55 pups, all dead.

"Catching a world-record shark helped my business, but I got a lot of flack for killing it, too," says Dennis, 43. "Now I live-release everything I catch. I want sharks to come back and keep healthy."

Tracking sharks in the vast ocean isn't as easy as, say, following caribou migrations or even the routes of migratory birds that summer, winter, and stop over in huge numbers. To gain some insight into their movements, for the past half-century biologists have been tagging sharks, as ornithologists have long done with birds. Hueter's team alone has tagged more than 20,000 since the 1980s. NOAA estimates that more than 221,000 sharks of 52 species have been tagged in Atlantic waters. About six percent have been recaptured, allowing biologists to make inferences about which species occupy a given area, and revealing that while some species appear to stick close to home, others, like blue sharks, travel thousands of miles. One sand shark was recaptured nearly 28 years after it had first been caught.

Yet conventional tagging doesn't provide enough of the hard data needed to convince policy makers to put protections in place. New devices that allow scientists to spy on the secret lives of sharks remotely are starting to fill the gap.

In the Ultimate Shark Challenge, anglers affix conventional tags to every shark they catch longer than five feet. But if they bring up a species scientists want to follow closely--say, a hammerhead or a tiger shark--they alert the science boat. It speeds over so the researchers can attach a satellite tag as quickly as possible. Stress and strain cause a buildup of lactic acid--too much, and the shark might swim off only to die hours or days later.

Satellite tags record data, including depth and location, for months, then pop off, float to the surface, and beam the information directly to scientists' computers. They're providing a wealth of information. For example, great white sharks undertake 6,200-mile round-trip transoceanic migrations. Whale sharks dive more than a half-mile deep, likely in search of food. Basking sharks don't hibernate, as long thought, but head south for the winter. Moving forward, combining satellite tags with other cutting-edge technology could uncover even more secrets. Mote biologists have actually pinpointed when two nurse sharks were mating; devices called accelerometers (used in Wii remote controls) showed that the female was upside down beneath the male, indicating that they were making whoopee. Pairing the technologies could provide data on when and where mating takes place.

Neil Hammerschlag, a marine ecologist at the University of Miami, is collaborating on a game-changing tag. Currently in the prototype stage, it beams information every few seconds with the help of a solar-powered battery, and could last for years or even decades. If successful, it should provide unprecedented information about life cycles and identify nurseries and hunting grounds--all critical for meaningful policy and management. "You can't protect these animals wherever they go," says Hammerschlag, who has done extensive tagging. "But you can have a big impact if you protect areas where they aggregate to feed or give birth."

Oceans cover more than two-thirds of the planet, but less than 1 percent is currently protected. Hammerschlag is optimistic that marine protected areas based on sound science and with strict regulations will continue to develop, albeit slowly. "It's working for birds," he says. "Some birds make 10,000-kilometer migrations between breeding and overwintering habitats, but protecting small patches that are critical works."


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Alisa Opar

Alisa Opar is the articles editor at Audubon magazine. Follow her on Twitter @alisaopar.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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