LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Sharks may not be cute and cuddly, but they are essential for our ocean's ecology. The feared animals are being overfished, and the results could impact you.
Face to face with one of the world's most feared creatures, University of Miami and Florida Gulf Coast University researchers get up close and personal in an effort to understand the misunderstood predators.
Earlier in February, five miles off the shoreline of Bonita Springs, University of Miami graduate student Stacy Assael, loaded bait traps with cuts of tuna, mackerel, amberjack and barracuda. Ten drumlines, complete with bait, weight and buoy, were launched in one square mile in hopes of catching a predator.
The shark-friendly gear includes a circle hook, designed to catch the shark's lip, not its insides. When and if a shark is caught, a pump is placed in the sharks mouth, flushing water over its gills. After a checkup, researchers carefully tag the shark's fin with the latest in satellite tag technology.
The intricate devices track the long-term movement of nearly 100 tiger, hammerhead and bull sharks. Every time the shark surfaces, the device sends a signal via satellite, allowing researchers and anyone with a computer to track the threatened toothy fish. To track these sharks visit http://rjd.miami.edu/education/virtual-learning/tracking-sharks
"Satellite tags will help us understand where the sharks are going. We can even try and figure out how they're getting from place to place, maybe they're following food sources, maybe they're following water temperature," explains Assael.
"We're really looking for some of the biggest and "baddest" most threatened species, so that'll be tiger sharks, bull sharks, hammerheads...This is a prime area for habitat use for large sharks, and we have seen those three species out here before," says Austin Gallagher, a PhD candidate at University of Miami.
While the research team has been successful in its three years, that wasn't the case on February 12th, when Katie Walls journeyed into the Gulf with the crew. Drumline after drumline was retrieved with no shark on the other end. Seven hours of fishing, a total of 50 drumlines, but no bites! Researchers blame their getting skunked on red tide and bad luck.
But the shark population world-wide has been in decline over the last decade, and 25 shark species are now protected in Florida, including hammerheads and tiger sharks.
"They're highly threatened. Things like overfishing, shark finning, and recreational fishing can all threaten their populations," says Gallagher.
If predators at the top of the food chain disappear, the affects will ripple through the entire web to sub-predators like mackeral and tuna, down to one of our favorite southwest Florida treats, shrimp.
Conserving and understanding the ocean's top predators are researchers' like Austin and Stacy's top priority.
"We never give up," encourages Gallagher.
"I think tomorrow will be better," laughs Assael.
Shark research and satellite tags aren't cheap. You can help the research continue by adopting a shark! You'll have the opportunity to name your shark and head out with researchers as they tag your shark. For more information visit http://rjd.miami.edu/donate/adopt-a-shark