Advocacy through Art: ‘Shark’ Brings the Animal’s Plight to Life

Happy Shark Week! In honor of this annual event, we sunk our teeth into a new book, Shark, by our friend and partner Brian Skerry. Skerry is an award-winning National Geographic photographer and photojournalist who won the 2017 Rolex-Explorer of the Year award. He recently spoke at the United Nations about the importance of ocean conservation and photographed former president Barack Obama swimming in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument – the largest marine monument in the U.S. Pacific. Per his usual style, Skerry is currently off on a month-long expedition shooting for the magazine.

Flipping through the pages of Shark, a layered and complex view of sharks is presented. Beautiful photos show sharks as powerful, elegant, and sleek creatures. Rulers of the ecosystem, they glide across the pages. Some of the photos are so close up, you cannot imagine how Skerry got the shot. But there are also images that show how sharks are losing control of their domain – often at the hand of humans. There is a shark stuck in a fisherman’s net, its eye forlornly looking out through the page. There is a shark on a beach with its fin being cut off, a victim of still-too-common shark finning. Mixed within the images, Skerry writes about his work, the environment, and the role of sharks in the wild.

Sharks are the top of the food chain, making them apex predators. Like wolves in Yellowstone, sharks are vital to maintaining a healthy ecosystem. When sharks are present, it’s a sign the ecosystem is working as it should.

But sharks occupy fragile standing in the world right now. Globally, more than 100 million sharks are killed every year for their fins alone. Sharks not directly targeted are often victims of bycatch, trapped on hooks or in lines meant for other fish. Sharks that survive these dangers, though, are still living in a changing world. Ocean acidification is harming reefs which provide food and shelter for the sharks’ prey. Climate change, and the resulting warming ocean has the potential to decimate a population that has not had to adapt for thousands of years.

Why Sharks?

Skerry has spent countless hours photographing sharks underwater. Part of his desire to write a book about sharks comes from wanting to show the world that sharks more than they appear in Jaws or the typical Discovery shark attack show. In an interview with National Geographic, he says, “For the artist within me, sharks represent an endless well of inspiration, a blend of grace and power that lures me into the sea time and time again in hopes of producing a new rendering that truly captures their essence. As a journalist, I’m driven by a sense of responsibility and a sense of the urgent need to broadcast that sharks are in trouble and need our help.”

You could say that Skerry views himself as more than an underwater photographer; he is an ocean advocate, using images to convey his message. Skerry, a New England native, believes that we need to fully protect more of the marine environment, and he was supportive of the creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument about 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.

When interviewed for Boston Magazine, he said, “Protecting the environment should not be, and historically in this country has not been, a partisan issue…If I could get our new president to see these things and care about them and realize how important they are for business and industry and commerce and weather and everything else that matters, then, boy, wouldn’t that be great?”

While it is unclear if the Trump Administration will be a willing audience, you can start to learn more about the issues yourself and become an advocate. You can find Shark online or at your local bookstore. Skerry’s photos are also on display as part of an exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., until October 1.

You can also take action here to preserve the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, currently under attack by the Trump Administration. The monument is free from human threats and provides a space for sharks to find food and shelter. 

Fish Friday: The Basking Shark, a Modern Marine Mystery

T.G.I.F.F. – thank goodness it’s Fish Friday! This week, we’re diving in with an elusive gentle giant, the Basking SharkBasking Shark

Sharks have been ruling the media lately. From Great White sightings off of Cape Cod to mysterious appearances in wooded backyards to the recent string of encounters along the coast of North Carolina, it seems that sharks have been everywhere, just in time for the annual explosion of shark media – the always entertaining, awe-inspiring, and extraordinarily sensationalist Discovery Channel Shark Week.

This week, sharks, a diverse and ecologically vital clade, have been labeled as “ninjas,” “monsters,” and “serial killers” – kind of aggressive descriptions, right? While some species do serve as apex predators, maintaining delicate ecosystems from the top of the food web, it’s important to remember that some sharks, such as this week’s feature, also maintain ecological balance by feeding at the base of the food web. Basking sharks aren’t interested in seals or tuna. They’ve got much smaller prey on their menu—tiny fish, fish eggs, and zooplankton.

It may be difficult to believe that a creature often mistaken for a Great White is actually a filter feeder. These gentle giants are estimated to grow up to 12 meters (exceeding 30 feet), but they survive on itty bitty prey consumed in massive quantities. Named for their tendency to “bask” on the surface of the water, basking sharks swim open-mouthed, passively feeding as their gill rakers act as sieves, preventing prey from passing through their gill slits.

GillSlits

Disappearing Act

Basking sharks are still a bit of a mystery to scientists. We know they roam the cooler waters of the Northern Atlantic and Pacific during the summer months, but for decades, the world’s second largest fish disappeared every winter.

In 2009, Gregory Skomal from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and colleagues discovered that, during winter months, New England basking sharks travel south at depths between 200 and 1,000 meters (600 and 3,000 feet). While some tagged sharks stopped in Florida, others traveled as far south as the Caribbean Sea, or even the mouth of the Amazon River! The migration has Skomal questioning previous beliefs about basking shark population structure: “What were thought to be regional stocks may in fact belong to a single, oceanwide population.”

Why do the sharks make this annual trek? Skomal suggests that they follow plankton to warmer waters in the winter months. “But why do they move all the way to Brazil?” Skomal asks. “There is plenty of food for them in northern Florida.” One possibility is that they migrate south to find nursery grounds. “We still have no idea where they give birth,” says Skomal.

Endangered Mammoth Migrators

While we still have a lot to learn about basking sharks, we do know that their populations are dwindling. In 2000, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed the North Pacific and Northeast Atlantic populations as endangered and the species itself as vulnerable.

The main reason for population decline is fishery overexploitation. For centuries, basking sharks were caught for their liver oil (to be used for lighting and industry), their skin (to be used as leather), their flesh (for food and fishmeal), and their fins (which are highly valuable in international trade, especially in East Asia). The basking shark’s exceptionally slow recovery rate – females are believed to sexually mature between 16 and 20 years old – makes them extremely vulnerable to overfishing.

Today, almost all basking shark fisheries around the world are closed. The only significant trade is in bycatch from New Zealand blue grenadier fisheries. Basking sharks are protected by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, the European Union, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and numerous national governments, including the United States federal government.

You can help!

Basking sharks are a common sight in our waters. Dr. Jon Witman from Brown University has spotted the sharks at Cashes Ledge, and there have already been reports this year of sightings off the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine.

Also, the New England Basking Shark and Ocean Sunfish Project is working to better understand the biology and ecology of these mammoth migrators, and they need help from citizen scientists like you! If you spot one of these gentle giants, be sure to report your sighting. The more data collected, the more we can learn and help protect!

And don’t worry, this rounded fin means you’re good.

BaskingSharkFin
Basking shark off the Isle of Skye, Scotland. Image via Antony Stanely.

 

 

 

 

This pointier one means you might want to call in for backup . . .
WhiteSharkFin
A white shark in Salt Pont, Naushon Island, MA. Image via MA Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

How to Tag a Great White Shark

With the help of over 50 researchers from more than 20 institutions, the non-profit Ocearch has tagged and tracked sharks around the world, from South Africa to the Galapagos. In September 2012, this research mission came to New England for the first time when the great white shark dubbed “Genie” was tagged off of Chatham in Cape Cod, MA.

What does it take to wrangle one of the fiercest apex predators in the ocean? After hours of preparation, sport fishermen and scientists from Ocearch set out each day on the repurposed crab vessel M/V Ocearch, a boat about the same size as the sharks they’re searching for, and use chum to attract sharks while they scan the ocean surface.

Once sighted, a shark is baited and hooked, guided towards the Ocearch vessel, and hauled out of the water using a custom lift capable of supporting thousands of pounds in weight (great whites can weigh over 5,000 lbs).  The Ocearch captain jumps into the water and onto the platform with the shark and uses the shark’s tail helps to guide it onto the lift.

When the team pulled Genie on board and the water around her receded, her anxiety visibly increased, so Ocearch Captain Brett McBride threw a wet towel over her eyes. As she began to calm down, the Captain was able to remove the hook from her mouth and insert two hoses to cascade water over her gills. At this point the rest of the crew jumped onto the platform, sporting jeans and long-sleeve shirts, and began to take a series of measurements and tag Genie. Named for “the shark lady” Eugenie Clark, Genie measured at 14 feet, 8 inches and 2,292 pounds.

Using a power drill, Genie’s dorsal fin was fitted with a satellite tag, an accelerometer and an acoustic tag. Other researches collected blood and tissue samples to study back in the lab. Genie was out of the water for approximately 15 minutes before she was guided back into the ocean and the tracking began. 10 hours later, the accelerometer detached from Genie, floated to the surface and transmitted data regarding her swimming pattern and movements. Whenever Genie’s dorsal fin breaks the surface, her tracker transmits a signal to a satellite overhead, which produces an estimated geographical location for the shark. Where is Genie now? Enjoying herself on Virginia Beach, VA.

As of this summer, the “shark wranglers” working for Ocearch have successfully tagged well over 50 great white sharks around the globe. By tracking sharks like Genie, researchers are hoping to build an understanding of their migratory patterns, breeding grounds, birthing sites, feeding areas and general white shark behavior. This information will help protect some very important animals—great whites are apex predators, which means a healthy population is crucial to maintaining the balance of ocean food webs and ecosystems.

Image via Mass EEA

The Sharks of Cashes Ledge

When most of us imagine a shark, we picture something along the lines of Jaws’ famous antihero: a massive, blunt-nosed, white bellied monster: a great white shark. But great whites constitute only a tiny percentage of the world’s sharks, and New England has some incredible habitat for many of the other species that swim our seas. For example, out on Cashes Ledge—an underwater mountain range 80 miles off the New England coast that harbors some of the most incredible habitat in the Gulf of Maine—you might come across multiple fascinating species, among them the blue shark and the porbeagle shark.

The blue shark, a slender, blue-hued fish measuring up to 12.5 feet in length, often swims in schools organized by sex and size. This habit, along with the sharks’ tendency to use their schools as “packs” to heard prey into a concentrated group for easy feeding, has earned blue sharks the nickname “wolves of the sea”.

Blue sharks migrate up and down the Americas’ Atlantic coast, and may travel all the way from New England to South America in a migration year. They prefer cooler waters, however, and so are more likely to be spotted by divers in the colder north, because in these temperate waters blue sharks are more willing to approach shore. Blue sharks prefer water between 45 and 61 degrees Fahrenheit, and as New Englanders will ruefully agree, that makes them right at home here.

Squid constitutes a large part of the blue shark diet, but the sharks are not choosy, and hunt octopus, cuttlefish, bony fish, lobster, and even sea birds. Some blue sharks have been observed snatching cod from trawl nets. The sharks themselves are sometimes hunted by orca whales—coincidentally also nicknamed “wolves of the sea”—but their primary predators are humans. An estimated 20 million blue sharks are caught each year, both as bycatch in commercial fisheries and as a directly targeted species by commercial fishermen and sport fishermen. The blue shark is currently listed as “Near Threatened”  by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

A porbeagle shark. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
A porbeagle shark. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Porbeagle sharks boast both a memorable name and impressive lifespan: around 65 years, which is more than triple the estimated lifespan of the blue shark. Shorter and bulkier than blue sharks, porbeagles have dark grey bodies, white underbellies, and rounded heads. They grow to around 11.5 feet and weigh about 300 pounds at maturity. Porbeagles are also migratory sharks adapted to cool waters, but they stay farther north and closer inshore than blue sharks do, feeding off the Canadian coast and migrating south to the Sargasso Sea to breed. They rarely swim more than 200 meters deep, yet, sadly, divers are unlikely to come across them—the IUCN Red List classifies porbeagles as endangered in the northwest Atlantic.

Due to its unique and productive landscape, a decade of protection from underwater trawling, and its location along the sharks’ migratory route, Cashes Ledge provides a perfect refuge for these incredible but threatened sharks. Divers admiring the kelp forests, anemone beds and schools of rare and threatened fish might be lucky enough to spot a pack of sleek blue wolves of the sea or a dark gray porbeagle as the sharks pause in their coastal migration at this sanctuary in the sea.

The Ocean’s Top Predators

In “Ocean Soul,” world-renowned National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry says, “It’s been said that sharks have remained unchanged for hundreds of millions of years because they are perfect and that no further evolutionary change is necessary.”

Sharks have certainly reached the top of the food chain as the ocean’s apex predators. Apex is a word of Latin origin meaning peak or tip. In ecological terms, apex is used to describe an animal that has no natural predator within its ecosystem—terrestrial examples include wolves and cougars.

Although humans might find them terrifying, apex predators are crucial for maintaining healthy ecosystems. Sharks, for example, play a vital role in balancing ocean food webs. They aid in population control of smaller predators, so that prey species are able to exist at healthy levels. They also regulate the behavior and abundance of prey species, protecting habitat like seagrass beds and coral reefs from overgrazing, and promote biodiversity by preventing any single prey species from monopolizing resources.

Sharks also tend to prey on weak or sick members of a species, so as to minimize their caloric hunting expense. This natural tendency towards efficiency promotes healthier populations by advancing the transmission of strong genes, as weaker genes are taken out of the gene pool.

Despite the enormous amount of good we know sharks do for ocean ecosystems, humans hunt sharks for their meat, especially their fins. Sharks can also become collateral damage to commercial fishing for other species—accidental net entanglements or hooking often prove lethal. According to a 2013 report published in “Marine Policy,” humans killed approximately 100 million sharks in 2000, and 97 million in 2010. Annually, humans kill between 63 and 273 million sharks.

What happens when the oceans begin to feel the loss of sharks? Populations of smaller predator species boom, stressing habitats and depleting populations of prey species. These changes can be very detrimental to the fishing industry. For example, depleted great white shark populations have been linked to the boom in gray seal numbers in New England, and the voracious appetite of the seals may be harming the recovery of overfished cod. In North Carolina, a decline in large sharks because of overfishing led to an increase in cownose rays, one of the sharks’ prey species. Cownose rays eat shellfish, and so an increase in their population caused the bay scallop fishery to collapse.

Clearly, apex predators like sharks are absolutely critical to maintaining healthy marine ecosystems. The role of apex predators is better understood today than ever before, and now that we know how vital their role is, it is time to protect and respect the ocean’s top predators.

Photo via Mass. Office of Energy and Environment

Gearing Up for Shark Week

The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week starts in just ten days! As ocean fans around the world gear up for the annual celebration of all things shark, New Englanders are turning their eyes to the North Atlantic Great white population. It seems these days Cape Cod beachgoers can’t help but scan the ocean horizon for a dorsal fin before taking a chilly but refreshing dip.

This year’s Cape Cod shark-spotting season kicked off on June 23rd when Captain Tyler Macallister captured video footage of a great white, Carchardon carcharias, six miles southwest of Provincetown, in Cape Cod Bay. Upon seeing the shark, Macallister began recording his calm and somewhat mystical encounter with the estimated 16-to-18 foot great white. A Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries biologist confirmed that the fish captured on Macallister’s video camera was a great white, but that the lack of scale in the footage meant its size could not be accurately determined.

Five days after Captain Macallister’s encounter with a great white shark in Cape Cod Bay, researchers from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy saw a great white one-quarter of a mile off of Nauset Beach, near Orleans, Cape Cod. The researchers were able to identify the fish as a 12-to-14 feet long female great white and named her “Ping.” Ping was first spotted by a spotter plane and then tracked by boat. The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy sends out both a spotter plane and boat twice a week to study Ping and other great whites.

The increase in great white shark sightings has been going on for the last decade or so, and in the Cape Cod area it’s been partially attributed to the growing gray seal, Halichoerus grypus, population around the Cape. Gray seals were previously hunted by fishermen as a precaution towards preserving fish populations that the Gray seals consume, but the seals are presently protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Great white sharks prey on seals and as seal populations expand in the Cape Cod area, there appears to be a growing number of white sharks.

If you are curious where these sharks spend their days, when they are not busy stalking Cape Cod’s massive seal populations, you can track tagged sharks through Ocearch.com or through the Ocearch app. And get ready for more information on New England’s sharks as we celebrate Shark Week here at New England Ocean Odyssey!

Image via Mass EEA

Shark diving – taking a bite out of Jaws

Just a few years ago only adrenaline junkies or daring visionaries would have thought of jumping in the water to dive near sharks. Today, it is a whole different story. Many divers and snorkelers hope to see sharks of all sizes, some of which were once considered man-eaters. These often greatly misunderstood creatures are now attracting divers who simply want to observe them and get a glimpse of their universe. As with any wildlife encounter it’s important to be responsible when diving near sharks. Use only well known dive operators that will teach you how to safely and respectfully interact with sharks and other ocean life.

While sharks have long been perceived by many as voracious killers, for me they have become a fascination. I have traveled around the globe for the pleasure of diving with them. I have been in places like Cocos Island in Costa Rica and the remote islands of Wolfe and Darwin in the Galapagos.

These are expensive destinations but I and many other divers think it’s worth it. The reason is simple: they remain two of the best places in the world to dive with scalloped hammerhead sharks who congregate there by the thousands. There are so many other examples of how shark diving is making a positive contribution to our tourist economies:

  • On a shark diving trip to the Maldives, a small island nation located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, I was thrilled to see a billboard advertising shark ecotourism, but not in the usual way. The ad showed various parts of a shark that can be sold – each with a price tag. But there was another price tag showing that this same shark could generate far more in shark tourism if left alive than the shark parts would ever bring in.

 

  • In New England, in places like Maine and Rhode Island, operators offer day trips to snorkel or dive with blue and mako sharks. Anyone can participate – if you’re not a certified diver, you can still snorkel. Blue sharks used to be one of the most abundant species on the planet. Sadly, they have dramatically suffered from finning, overfishing and bycatch.

 

 

  • Going north of Maine, in Quebec (Canada), you can dive with a prehistoric looking animal: the Greenland shark (below). I have dived with this animal on several occasions and it is always a very unique experience. This shark moves slowly to conserve its energy and if you are lucky enough, it will let you swim by while it remains nearly motionless. Blue sharks and porbeagle sharks can be seen in Quebec as well.

Greenland shark

Interacting with sharks is an incredible experience, and it makes you realize that they are very different from how they are portrayed in the movies. It is so humbling to look at the graceful movement of a shark passing by. Shark conservationists and scientists have played an important role in changing the way we look at sharks and the Jaws aura surrounding sharks is slowly fading. Fear of sharks is being transformed into respect and curiosity, and an increasing number of people are coming down with what ails me: shark fever!

Today’s guest post is by our friend Michel Labrecque. Michel is a published underwater photographer and contributor for various underwater medias. He is also a PADI Master Instructor, IANTD Trimix Instructor, a DAN and EFR Instructor Trainer and an HSA Instructor. He co-owns Plongée XL, a PADI 5 Star IDC Dive Center located in Victoriaville, Canada with Julie Ouimet who signs most of their articles.

The Shark Tracker – an Interview with Greg Skomal

Dr. Greg Skomal is senior fisheries expert with Massachusetts Marine Fisheries, and the State’s leading shark expert. He spoke with us last year about his basking shark research. He has recently been part of a research team that is investigating the use of robot shark tracking technology, as featured on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, which he talks about below. 

Keren: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about the exciting new shark tracker technology where robots (autonomous underwater vehicles- AUVs) follow sharks in our waters! Can you tell me how this project began?

Greg: Conceptually this goes back many years – to around 2008. We were starting to track basking sharks with various kinds of technology and learned that these sharks spend quite a bit of time diving. We were curious about what they do when they dive and thought it would be interesting to have a robot follow them and sample the water column to see what they’re eating. We worked with a plankton biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), and WHOI gave us the initial funding in 2008. That was the first time we were able to develop an AUV that could track marine animal.

Then, we were making a show with Discovery on white sharks in 2010 and one of the producers of the show found out what we were doing with AUVs at WHOI and he suggested that Discovery might fund that research! So in 2011 and 2012 we began fieldwork with the WHOI oceanographic systems engineering department developing and implementing the AUVs.

What’s happening currently is an engineering feat. I’m a marine biologist so I can provide a sense of how a shark might behave, and based on that engineers are able to program the software and the machinery.

Keren: Can you explain more about what the AUVs actually do?

Greg: It’s essentially an unmanned mission under water; you can program the AUV to do many different things, like map the ocean floor or do water sampling. The robots can do something as simple as ‘mow the lawn’ (go back and forth on the ocean floor taking data) or something as complex as tracking a shark.

In November 2011 we began field trials, simulating tracking something with an AUV. The first step was to have the robot try to follow boat, then a person. I dove in the water and swam around, and the AUV followed me. In 2012 the AUV did its first marine mammal track, following a basking shark.

Keren: What specific kind of information does the AUV collect?

Greg: With these kinds of AUVS you can measure pretty much anything- depth, current profiling, basic oceanographic data like temperature, dissolved oxygen, salinity. There are various modules you can clip onto the AUV, so if you want additional measurements, like amount of chlorophyll and plankton abundance, you can get that information too.

Keren: Can you explain more about how the technology works?

Greg: Sure – you can’t train a robot to recognize a fish, instead, you put a transponder on the fish. Generally, there is a communication system, which transmits a high frequency ping from the fish to the robot. In this new technology we’re using with the sharks, it’s a bit more complex- there’s actually two-way communication where the tracker asks questions that can be answered. The tracker can learn information about depth, range, and bearing from the transponder. The tracker can then navigate relative to where animal is, and follow the shark in a more precise manner. We have to catch the shark to put the transponder on it and the technology has a release mechanism so it will detach after a certain amount of time.

Keren: Similar work has been going on the West Coast, what are the differences?

Greg: The method by which the animal is being tracked is different. On the West Coast researchers attach a high frequency tag to the shark and the AUV detects the sound and positions itself based on directionality and intensity of sound source. The AUV can track for several hours doing that. This technology involves a lot of searching and listening- the communication is more passive.

The technology we have developed involves a more robust navigational system where the two devices can interact, allowing more precise tracking and positioning. The transponder can send information through underwater modem technology to the AUV, and the AUV can ‘ask questions’ back to the transponder. For instance, our transponder can detect depth and send this information back to the robot. Our system also has more video capability. However, it’s a bigger transponder. The technology on the West Coast is smaller, and therefore can attach to smaller sharks.

I fully support the development of multiple technologies because I think what will eventually emerge is the best of both worlds.

Keren: What are the main difficulties using AUVs?

Greg: You have to tag the shark, and that’s always a challenge- we’ve had great success in doing it but it can be hard. Any time you put electronics in the ocean there are many factors to consider. The engineers at WHOI do a really great job with ocean technologies.

Also, robots don’t always know what sharks are going to do next; we are always trying to figure out ways to predict the behavior of the shark. If we can predict what the shark will do we can arm the AUV with the best information for making decisions.

Keren: What are you most interested to learn?

I’m interested in understanding the fine scale behavioral data we’re getting. We’re learning about the movement of the sharks, things we had no idea about before. For instance, we’ve learned they have no problem swimming against the current at sustainable speeds of 5 or 6 knots.

We can also learn about their movements as they relate to the environment in which they’re swimming, like behavioral changes with regards to tide and time of day, do they move off shore, and if so when, in general, what are their daily behavioral patterns?

It’s a lot of cool novel data we’re gaining from these AUVS, almost everything we’re learning is new- it’s really exciting!

Keren is a rising senior at Cornell University studying Biology and Society, with minors in Marine Biology and Science of Earth Systems. She has loved the ocean since she was old enough to walk along the sea shore. Keren recently spent time researching water quality on the Kona Coast of Hawai’i Island with The Nature Conservancy. She has also researched the Maine intertidal ecosystem as it reacts to climate change at Shoals Marine Laboratory. Keren is a native of Southern Maine, where she enjoys taking her dog for walks and exploring the rocky coast. She was a summer intern with the Communications Department at CLF.