South Florida team goes on the hunt for sharks -- to save them

Researchers collecting data on predators off state's coasts

By Ian Margol - Reporter

DANIA BEACH, Fla. - Their reputation for being deadly hunters and fearsome predators makes sharks one of the most fascinating species on the planet, but these magnificent fish are in danger.

“Whether it’s across ocean or right here in our backyard, sharks are struggling," said Derek Burkholder, of the Guy Harvey Research Institute. "It’s estimated that over 100 million sharks are being killed every single year around the world.”

On a recent afternoon in Dania Beach, shark scientists from the Nova Southeastern University's Guy Harvey Research Institute geared up for a trip out on the Atlantic Ocean.

The team led by Burkholder is looking to better understand these creatures right in our backyard.

This is the first line of defense to protect those sharks.  

These animals are at the top of the food chain, and they’re really important in these areas where they live," Burkholder said. "It may look like just a simple tag that we’re putting out there, but being able to better understand this community and better understand this population, we can help conserve it a little bit.”

The rototags, as they’re called, clip into the cartilage of the shark’s dorsal fin and can allow researchers to track the sharks they come in contact with for decades.
"The great things about these tags is they’ve got a phone number, an email address on the other side of it," Burkholder said. "So if a fisherman catches the shark again, if another research group catches the shark, we’ve even had divers get close enough to sharks that they can read the tag and call us up and tell us where that shark has gone so you can really start to look at movement and even growth rates over time.”

The crews at the Guy Harvey Research Institute go out on tagging trips about 50 times a year.  This time, they were joined by students from New River Middle School, who got to do everything from setting up the bait to attract the sharks to actually hauling them in.

“A lot of these kids, when they step on the boat, are terrified of a shark. They’re excited about going shark tagging, but they’re terrified," Burkholder said. "At the end of the day, they’re generally naming the sharks. ... So it’s great to see the flip literally from the beginning of the day to the end of the day of people’s perceptions of these animals."

Throughout the day, the crews set up about 30 sets of bait. And then they cross their fingers, hoping they get a catch.
At one point, they get lucky, snagging two sandbar sharks and a lemon shark, but that’s when the real work begins.

“When we actually catch a shark, we want to learn as much as we can in a short period of time," Burkholder said.

Burkholder's team goes to work collecting data about the catch. The sharks are measured, their fins are tagged and tissue samples are taken.

The samples are used in genetic studies and what’s called stable isotope studies. Those studies tell researchers how healthy the sharks are and what they’re eating.

Once they're done, the team takes the hook out and send the shark on its way.

While none of the testing hurts the animals, the lemon shark wasn't thrilled about being bothered that day.

The shark bit the ladder just to remind the researchers who's really in charge.

With all of their information recorded, the crew heads back to shore, armed with data that could one day save these sharks.

“I think one of the biggest reasons to do this locally is to inform the people that live here," Burkholder said.

He said that although people in South Florida spend a lot of time in and around the ocean, many residents still do not know a lot about sharks.

"So we love to get these kids out here, love to get anyone who wants to come out here ...  to learn about these animals firsthand and hopefully go away with a little more understanding that they can share with everybody else,” Burkholder said.

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