It’s early morning, and there’s a familiar South Florida coastal scene—fishing boats softly bobbing on the horizon. We’re on one of those, the Sea Siren, with a shark research team from Nova Southeastern University and a group of citizen scientists. Today we won’t be casting for dinner or trophy mounts, however. We are fishing for sharks in order to save them.
Thanks to growing public fascination from newsrooms to classrooms, shark-tagging research is arguably the coolest trend in marine science and ecotourism. Research organizations will charge citizen scientists, adventurers, tourists and aspiring marine researchers anywhere from hundreds of dollars to $10,000 per person to get close enough to a shark to put their name on it, sort of.
First, though, you have to catch one.
On this outing we’re using drum lines to snag our sharks. We bait thick circle hooks with even thicker, oily, bloody chunks of bonito. Don’t be timid. Getting bait under your fingernails only builds your sea cred. We attach bait and buoy lines to 50-pound weights resembling chess pawns and sink them to Davy Jones’s locker. Then we wait. A quartet of bottlenose dolphins playfully swims past us. We wait some more. Later, a curious green turtle cruises by. And we wait some more. So far it’s just like fishing.
When it’s time to see what’s on the hook, it’s also time to man up. It’s a workout. You’re pulling a 50-pound weight sunk 100-feet deep, with a feisty shark fighting at the other end of the line. Your personal trainer will be impressed.
You forget the strain and sweat as a silver shadow draws nearer from below. A striped tiger shark maybe? A mysterious hammerhead? Anticipation builds. This one is a Caribbean reef shark. Everybody crowds the stern to take photos. But there’s no time for voyeurism. There’s science to conduct.
Measurements are recorded with a tape measure. Snipping off a small piece of the dorsal for a DNA test, I’m surprised by the texture of the shark’s skin, similar to fine san paper. The teeth look like quartz triangles and are razor sharp. We clip an ID tag on the dorsal and set the shark free. It’s a choreographed, precise process, like a Formula One pit stop.
On open-ocean expeditions, a satellite or pop-up tag is attached to the fin of pelagic tigers, makos and great white sharks to collect extensive data sets. These transmitters plus satellite time can cost as much as $5,000, hence the higher price to join the crew. In some cases the tagged shark is named after the benefactor.
Shark-tagging data is revolutionizing science and conservation. We are learning much about different shark species and how they migrate. All this matters—a lot—in the race to save sharks.
Insatiable global shark consumption is decimating shark populations. Depending on whose figures you believe, anywhere from 50 million to 100 million sharks are killed every year—the vast majority to produce the cartilage-based noodles for shark fin soup, a delicacy in China.
Scores of the 500 or so species of sharks in the planet’s oceans are in trouble. Just to the south of us in the Florida Keys, for example, the lemon shark population in one study was fished out of existence years ago.
Remove sharks from the ocean and you remove the apex predator from the food chain, risking imbalances that could collapse ocean ecosystems and threaten human seafood diets and economies, too.
To reverse the apocalyptic trend, two things are needed: knowledge about sharks and public awareness of the impending disaster. Citizen-science programs like the ones in South Florida help on both counts. Genetic studies help determine which shark species and populations are being overfished and therefore likely to be declining.
“The goal of our program is to bring awareness about the conservation issues sharks face,” said Dr. Derek Burkholder, research scientist at NSU. “We hope that when people see these animals up close and personal that it changes their minds about sharks and the Jaws–eating machine mentality that many people have about these important animals.”
It works. Shark tracking by researchers has helped turn the tide somewhat. Evidence of this is the recent fascination with two great white sharks, Katharine and Betsy.
Nearly four decades after the movie Jaws seared fear of sharks into human psyches, the two great whites tagged by the OCEARCH research project drew widespread public interest. Speculation on whether Katherine, a 14-foot, 2,300-pound great white, was pregnant or not sounded more like royal and celebrity gossip than the more expected shark loathing.
And now people are paying to catch, tag and release sharks in the name of science and salvation. Oh, how far we’ve come since Amity, Captain Quint, Sheriff Brody and that terrifying summer on the silver screen.