Three weeks into a shark tagging expedition off the famed waters of Montauk, Long Island, the daring shark research organization Ocearch announced the discovery of the first ever Great White shark nursery in the North Atlantic. Founder of Ocearch, Chris Fischer, characterizes the discovery of the nursery and probable birthing site as the, “holy grail of [shark] research”. This is the first ever Great White Shark nursery to be identified in the history of science in the North Atlantic. The importance of discovering a shark nursery teeming with young, healthy Great Whites can not be understated in a time where threats to the ocean and sharks are ever mounting.
With all the fear and sensationalization of sharks in the media, very little is actually known about their migration patterns and life stages, especially in the time period following birth through their juvenile years. Ocearch hopes to mend this knowledge gap by tagging individuals around the world, with a special interest in tracking the movements of large females on the Atlantic coast. Chris Fischer describes the team’s recent expedition as, “probably the most important significant discovery we’ve ever made on the ocean”. Ocearch is no stranger to the spotlight as many of their previous expeditions have landed them center stage in the media for their innovative approach to conservation. However, their most recent historic breakthrough comes off the heels of a public controversy over the ethics of their shark handling and tagging practices.
Previous Ocearch Work:
In 2012, Ocearch launched their first shark tagging expedition and completed an impressive 23 expeditions by the end of 2015. Tagging locations range from Baja California, South Africa, Florida, Long Island, to Cape Cod – all iconic shark hotspots lacking data on shark movements during all four seasons. Ocearch itself partners with scientists from around the world, by assisting scientists to conduct their field study while supplying them with the need equipment to conduct such demanding research. In addition to simply conducting the research and publishing their findings, Ocearch has transformed the idea of the citizen scientist by creating a free, real-time database called Global Shark Tracker that anyone can access to track the live movements of tagged sharks.
This transparency between scientists and the public in regard to research on an animal that nearly everyone is concerned about, one way or the other, allows for greater education and involvement of the public in the scientific process. Global Shark Tracker (ocearch.com) aids conservation efforts as teaching materials and stories about individual sharks allows for relationships to be formed between the tagged sharks and the public. For example Mary Lee, a massive female tagged in 2012 off Cape Cod, has her own Twitter account! These innovative ways to inspire people to become involved in the fate of sharks has proven successful with generating public interest in sharks, especially in coastal communities.
Through tagging Great Whites in multiple locations, scientists can compare and contrast different shark migration patterns. Great Whites are solitary animals so scientists are puzzled with how sharks know when to leave their current habitat and where to migrate next, as they do not school together when migrating. Furthermore, scientists wonder what they are doing at each location and why? These questions, along with the conservation concerns related to sharks traveling in international waters, are what Ocearch seek to answer. Their work thus far has shown that mature females on the East coast of the U.S. migrate back and forth from Florida to New England waters, using the Carolinas as a rest stop. The current hypothesis is that their lengthy migrations are driven by chasing meals – seals. However, unpredicted movements by some of the females suggest that they may leave Florida early in order to migrate North and give birth, a hypothesis that is in part supported by the discovery of the Montauk shark nursery.
Method to their Madness
Ocearch owns and operates the M/V OCEARCH a sizable vessel that is the base of operations for all ocean expeditions. Through partnerships with hundreds of marine biologists, Ocearch has conducted 26 expeditions leading to 50 scientific papers produced in total. A fundamental goal of Ocearch has always been to make tagging and tracking Great Whites easier, while increasing the scientific data available. The team took a two pronged approach in attacking this problem by: developing innovative tagging procedure and making their data more accessible to the general public. In order to discover the mating and pupping grounds of Great Whites, Ocearch sought out large, mature females as the primary candidates for tagging. Their expedition vessel design was unique in that there is a 75,000 lb hydraulic lift at the back of the boat that serves as a loading dock for soon-to-be tagged White sharks. The team uses state of the art Smart Position and Temperature (SPOT) tags that can record salinity, temperature, depth, location and then transmit the data to a satellite each time the shark surfaces. Not only are SPOT tags in real time, unlike traditional acoustic tags, but they hold a wealth of information about the behaviors of sharks when no one is watching.
In order to tag a shark, the team lures sharks into the vicinity of the boat Shark Week style by chumming the water with juicy fish bait. Once a suitable shark takes hold of the bait, they drag them onto the hydraulic lift which is still partially submerged beneath the water’s surface. Once the shark is secure on the lift, the 15 minute countdown begins. Within those precious 15 minutes every second counts as they have to stabilize, tag, take samples, and release the 5,000 lb slightly angry Great White. A PVC pipe of rushing seawater is inserted into the shark’s mouth so that water is constantly flowing over its gills and they are able to breathe while out of the water. A towel is often put over their eyes in an attempt to calm them as length measurements and vital signs are taken. Blood samples and muscle biopsies are taken for later analysis in the lab. Then the tag is secured to the dorsal fin of the shark. Lastly, all the equipment is removed from the platform and any hooks removed from the shark’s mouth. Finally, the lift is lowered so that the shark can swim away freely and report back its movements to the team.
In order to secure larger SPOT tags, that can hold more data, holes are drilled through the dorsal fin and the tag is then threaded through and secured to the fin. This has become the central point of controversy regarding Ocearch’s tagging and data collection methods, as many people worry that this procedure is hurting the shark more than anything else. There is definitely legitimacy in this argument, despite evidence that sharks are reported to begin swimming strongly again 2-4 hours after release, as the concept of drilling holes through an animals body to insert a foreign object is startling. Without knowing more about how a shark’s central nervous system works and how they interpret pain, it is hard to take a firm stance either way on this debate. It is important to note that there a variety of different tags available and different, less invasive ways to implant the tag. Overall satellite tags have provided scientists with priceless data on the lives of sharks and serve as a pivotal tool in combating illegal fishing and protecting sharks.
Significance of Great White Shark Nursery
As Chris Fischer puts it, “When we started this work back in 2012, 2013, the real question was where are these sharks in the North Atlantic giving birth?” and the answer to that question will dramatically impact how this species is managed. The main concerns with the overall decline of sharks in ocean waters globally is habitat degradation, global warming, overfishing, and bycatch. All of these factors directly impact the health of Great White populations, and though they are not legally allowed to be caught in U.S. waters, by catch, illegal fishing, and overfishing of prey are still major threats to the White shark’s livelihood. The Montauk shark nursery is home to the future generation of Great Whites. Knowing the geographical area mature females use to pup and where juveniles grow up is critical to developing better policies to protect this vital species. Furthermore, Ocearch is hoping that they can decipher if any of the offspring found in Montauk are from sharks they originally tagged in Cape Cod. A proven connection between birthing grounds and feeding grounds in White Shark populations would be unprecedented and give scientists insight into the lives of the largely mysterious Great White.
There is certainly a good percentage of the population who will read this news and be consumed with fear instead of intrigue and excitement. Undoubtedly, some are sitting at home thinking: More sharks, what good is that? Regardless of personal feelings towards Great Whites, they are a keystone species and the success of the marine environment where they are present is dependent on their survival. From both a cultural and economic standpoint, the Northeast and Great Whites must learn to coexist in peace in order to preserve the gorgeous coastlines, productive fishing industry, and charm inherent in the East coast. Behind those sharp teeth, is just a fish trying its best to live its life in increasingly challenging conditions, so try to befriend the toothy-grinned giant as best you can. Even by simply learning more about sharks or engaging with knowledgable ocean enthusiasts is one more step closer to becoming a society that values our wildlife and wild places.