OCEARCH research fleet scours Delmarva waters on mission to save sharks
Expedition Chief Scientist Michael Hyatt, from Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey, talks about the scientific research to learn more about great white sharks. Megan Raymond video
Danielle Dixson of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment at University of Delaware talks about researching shark parasites. Produced by Megan Raymond
Delmarva will have a famous familiar fin grace its waters just in time for Memorial Day Weekend. Mary Lee the great white shark has returned to Delmarva's coast. Produced by Ryan Marshall
Montauk the great white shark is a new visitor to Delmarva.
Two boats have recently seen whale sharks way off the coast of Ocean City. Produced by Ryan Marshall
An injured thresher shark stranded itself on the rocks at the Indian River Inlet Tuesday, authorities said. Video courtesy of the Center for the Inland Bays. Produced by Ryan Marshall
Scientists from the Guy Harvey Research Institute put a satellite tracker in the dorsal fin of a common thresher shark while on an expedition with Captain Mark Sampson of the Fish Finder. The crew was 32 miles off the coast of Ocean City.
Honolulu beachgoers came across a tiger shark with a fishing line stuck in it's mouth. They were able to cut the line and return it safely to the ocean all while avoiding a shark bite.
- WATCH: Scientists explain how they research sharks
- WATCH: UD scientist talks about shark parasites
- Watch: Mary Lee, the famous great white, returns to Delmarva waters
- WATCH: Great white shark Montauk visits Delmarva
- Watch: Giant whale shark seen off coast of Ocean City
- Watch: Officials attempt to help stranded thresher shark
- Thresher shark released with satellite tag off Ocean City
- Shark tangled in fishing line saved by beachgoers
The shark research fleet had nearly lost hope. It was late in the day as the boat rocked on bumpy seas less than a mile off the southern Delaware coast.
Then the radio broke through the silence and echoed its first catch of the day.
It wasn’t the great white shark they truly wanted, but the OCEARCH crew quickly coordinated their three vessels.
Immediately there was a bustle of activity on the "M/V OCEARCH" ship — the fleet's primary vessel, which had been repurposed from its former duty catching king crabs.
The researchers and crew collected samples, conducted tests and implanted a tracking device in the 7-foot sand tiger shark that had been drawn to the fish slurry and baited hooks in the Atlantic.
“This is still great, even if it isn’t a white shark,” said Ami Meite, communications and outreach manager for OCEARCH. “This is a multi-species expedition, so anything we can encounter and study — sand tigers, hammerheads or, of course, great whites — is a huge success.”
The waters were too rough that afternoon to use the M/V OCEARCH’s unique apparatus — a lift that safely has brought sharks such as famed great white Mary Lee onboard with minimum stress to the animal's roughly 16-foot, 3,456-pound frame.
On Tuesday, the crew of the Contender, the fleet’s fishing vessel, was forced to lean over the edge of the 20-plus foot boat to gather samples and surgically implant a tracker in the sand tiger shark.
A few minutes later, as the Contender crew was still handling its first catch, a radio call snapped the team into an even higher alert: “Caught a second sand tiger. Ask the science team what they want to do.”
One of the baited hooks attached to a nearby buoy had hooked another sand tiger.
It was about 10 feet in length, they relayed and, more importantly to some on board, it was a mature female.
Kimberly Ritchie was on OCEARCH’s port side, ready to hand off equipment to conduct tests on the toothy new arrival — her movements calculated and excited.
“We’re really hoping this one is pregnant,” said the University of South Carolina professor and researcher, whose research during the 25-day expedition focused on the extraordinary healing capacity of sharks.
The Contender team conducted an ultrasound on the animal while they still had it captured, hoping to add to the growing body of research on the development of fetal sharks.
“See, now we’re helping the sand tiger sharks,” said Chris Fischer, the organization's founder.
“They’re one of the species we really don’t know a lot about, and whatever data we gather here today will go to a great researcher we know at the University of Delaware," he added before catching equipment from Ritchie and then speeding off to the sharks for a closer look.
The bustle of activity is just a glimpse of the off-and-on, fast-paced research that OCEARCH conducts to gain knowledge about one of the Earth's least understood predators.
About 100 million sharks are killed each year by humans around the world, according to the Shark Research Institute, and Fischer said that's largely fueled by global demand for shark fin soup.
The sand tigers caught by OCEARCH are common for Delaware and Maryland waters. The three other species often seen are the smooth dogfish, spiny dogfish and sandbar shark, according to the DNREC.
It's one of the seven different types of sharks that swim through from time to time, said Suzanne Thurman with the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute.
But there's no way of really knowing just how many are off the coast, she added.
"They're naturally occurring organisms in the ocean," she said. "That's their habitat."
The Shark Research Institute also found that eight species of shark have declined by more than 50 percent in the past 15 years, with scalloped hammerheads decreasing by 89 percent, thresher sharks by 80 percent and white sharks by 79 percent. Those are species that also visit Delmarva waters, but like the sand tiger and sandbar shark, are illegal to fish for, or require special permits.
And the decline in population matters, Fischer said, not strictly from the perspective of animal welfare, but for very practical reasons that apply to everyone.
"If we don't have a lot of large sharks, there will be no fish for our children to eat," he said.
Sharks off the Delmarva coast
The last unprovoked shark encounter on Delmarva was in 2014, when a 16-year-old boy was bitten by a shark near Cape Henlopen State Park.
In Delaware, it was the fourth shark attack since 1940. Off Maryland's coast, there have been fewer. According to the Global Shark Attack File, there have been three unprovoked attacks since 1848 and one was fatal, when a man fell overboard in the Tangier Sound in August 1906. Attacks on Virginia's coast parallel the number of attacks in the states nearby.
Humans were attacked by sharks 154 times worldwide in 2016, according to USA Today.
As elusive as they are to swimmers and boaters off Delmarva's coast, sharks' unubiquitous nature can frustrate the researchers of OCEARCH, too. Tuesday's expedition was almost a loss before the sand tigers were hooked.
It's part of the reason why Fischer founded OCEARCH in 2007 after comprehending the sheer lack of data on sharks.
"Even the most basic data concerning mating and birthing sites and shark nurseries are still largely unknown to us," he said. "It's shocking to me that it's 2017 and we don't know where our fish go."
A large part of that, Fischer said, is the established community of scientists preventing the sort of collaborative efforts needed to overcome the unique challenges of studying sharks.
The old days of science research were more of a solo endeavor, Fischer said, with individual researchers competing for grants, hoarding data and being adverse to collaboration. Now, Fisher's efforts have resulted in a new way of thinking about research that seeks to unite the scientific community.
“We have 18 institutions represented on this ship now conducting research side by side, and that never would have happened 10 years ago — we'd all have been competing against each other,” he said.
Having all those separate institutions conducting multiple studies at once makes a real difference, not only in terms of how quickly research is done but for the sake of the welfare of the sharks, he said. A single shark can provide data to 18 researchers, making it time- and energy-efficient.
And Delmarva residents notice when one of the OCEARCH-tagged sharks ping off the coast. Celebrity-status sharks like Mary Lee generate immense online interest from locals and beachgoers during her yearly migrations.
Mike Belardo, an employee at the Fin Alley seafood restaurant in Fenwick Island, has been involved in the seafood industry for decades. For him, sharks simply aren’t a concern on several levels.
“I’m conscious of them when my daughter and I are in the water, but I’m definitely not worried,” he said Thursday. “I’m in the water five days a week, and I just try to stay aware that I’m on their turf and not at the top of the food chain out there.”
Belardo also said that he and his fishing buddies don’t really worry about sharks.
“I think the ocean’s doing just fine,” he said.
Balancing the ecosystem
Dustin Mowen was fishing at the Ocean City Inlet on Thursday with his 8-year-old son. Sharks were the last thing on their mind at the popular fishing area a few blocks from the beach.
"I honestly don't really care about sharks," Mowen said. "To be honest with you, when it comes to catching fish they've never really entered my mind."
Mowen's 8-year-old son, Mason, was straightforward about his thoughts on sharks.
"All I know is that they're dangerous," he said.
But the importance of a healthy shark population can't be understated, researchers say. And the boon they provide the area shouldn't be of interest to environmentalists alone, but also to the businesses on which Delmarva has built its tourism industry.
OCEARCH not only studies to learn and educate, but also to protect the species. That's one of the reasons that Matt Feronni, supervisor for the fish and invertebrate husbandry at Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey, was on board Tuesday.
Ferroni compares how the sharks are handled by the OCEARCH team to the way his aquarium operates, to see if any modifications might be made to facility's routines.
A healthy population of sharks holds a great deal of value to the everyday person, he said.
"As apex predators, they're at the top of the food chain in the ocean," he said. "Whatever they're feeding on is feeding on something else, of course, and when you eliminate the top of that chain, it throws off the balance of everything below it."
"They are the lion of the ocean; they are the balance keepers," he said. "So it's really about developing a fundamental data set to bring back the apex predator of the ocean so it's full of life and abundant for our grandchildren."
Mark Sampson, longtime Delmarva captain with Fish Finder Adventures in Ocean City, works on a local level studying and tagging sharks.
The Daily Times fishing columnist said the naturally small population of sharks, relative to other marine species, makes their conservation vital.
“You could take a million of some species out of the Delmarva waters, and there wouldn’t be much of a problem. But take a huge number of sharks away, and it’s a massive problem,” he said. “A very small number of sharks makes a huge impact on the total Delmarva, and global, ecosystem.”
Whether for striped bass, tuna, marlin or any of the other fish beloved along the Shore, their continued existence is directly related to the number of sharks that call them prey.
“The food chain in the ocean is such a web,” he said. “Everything is connected in one way or another by a delicate balance."
Local fishing industries would suffer greatly within a few short years were shark populations to experience a dramatic drop, he said.
Fish normally hunted by the sharks would experience a boom in numbers, followed by an overpopulation that would lead to their demise as they ravaged their own habitat.
“It would be devastating,” he said.
'Everything we wanted'
After the pair of sand tiger sharks were examined and freed, the onboard OCEARCH lab was abustle with activity, with centrifuges spinning and samples carefully packaged for cold storage.
Blood samples were successfully taken, shark stress levels were recorded and tracking tags were filed into the system as researchers discussed the preliminary data.
For Danielle Dixson, an associate professor in the marine biosciences department at the University of Delaware's College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, part of her purpose with the expedition was fulfilled. Her job aboard the vessel was to collect parasite samples for later analysis.
"The parasites are always a negative interaction for the shark, so understanding what's causing them and the impacts they're having on the sharks' health is important," she said.
The expedition's head scientist, Michael Hyatt, was conducting the process in the M/V OCEARCH's cramped forward laboratory.
"On both sharks we got blood, placed an acoustic tag, collected parasites, a muscle biopsy, and on the first shark we placed an additional tag programmed to pop off in 60 days," he said. "That'll give us temperature and depth of the water he's in, as well as general idea of his location."
Additionally, the second shark was treated to an ultrasound to determine whether she was pregnant. Hyatt leaned over the machine's display, examining it for signs of in utero sharks. Unfortunately, he couldn't see any, but said the data would still be delivered to experts who might catch something he wasn't able to detect.
All in all, the day was successful for the OCEARCH crew, he said. Although the conditions of the day weren't ideal, with the rougher-than-desired seas and the slow fishing, Hyatt was pleased.
"We pretty much got everything we wanted," Hyatt said. "It's not the species we were specifically targeting, but every small piece of the puzzle we discover will go toward helping other researchers."
On Twitter @ReedAShelton