No catch for students in shark tagging research

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Associated Press

Posted on August 16, 2013 at 12:06 PM

Updated Friday, Aug 16 at 12:06 PM

ISLAMORADA, Fla. (AP) — Sharks abound in the waters off Florida. But not on this day at this particular spot off the Keys as some 'young scientists' are on watch for them.

About a dozen high school students — guests of the University of Miami's marine research program — went aboard the vessel Curt-A-Sea. Their mission: to help scientists capture sharks, measure them, take blood and conduct other tests before tagging them so they can be tracked. The sharks would then be released back into the ocean.

Students including 14-year-old Kyle Truesdell, kissed chunks of fish, placed the bait on 10 weighted hooks and waited. And waited. And waited some more. For six hours. But on this day, no sharks were biting.

Catherine Macdonald, lab manager for the university's R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, has been tagging sharks for 10 years. Tuesday's trip was her first shutout. Although some students got seasick or stung by jellyfish while swimming, Macdonald tried to make it a learning experience.

"If there are no sharks, there is a reason for it," she said. "Whether it's a change in barometric pressure, the presence of all these jellyfish or it's the water temperature, I don't really know. But the more days we have like this the better able we are to sort of look at that data and see what it might be telling us."

And while there were no sharks to catch, organizers hope these students will be hooked on science.

Each summer, nearly five dozen students are immersed in a 6-week marine science and technology program with activities at the Miami Museum of Science — the first science museum in the nation to become an Upward Bound Math & Science Center — and other facilities. The students work in teams to complete hands-on research projects.

Leandra Gonzalez wants to be a marine biologist. She said she was disappointed she didn't get to tag any sharks. The data the students help gather serves to evaluate the size of shark populations and record crucial habitats for those populations. The information also allows scientists to determine ways to help some of the shark populations that have declined dramatically to rebuild.

"Everybody thinks (sharks) are these dangerous things in the ocean and that they're monsters, but they're mostly misunderstood," said the 17-year-old Gonzalez of Miami, noting most sharks are actually harmless.

Gonzalez and most of the other South Florida students are part of Upward Bound, a federal program that helps teens who would be the first in their family to attend college to succeed at getting into universities. The program aims to steer them toward degrees in science, math or technology.

The program with the UM shark researchers brings out 1,500 high school students every year for the day-long shark outing.

Shark populations had been in decline worldwide for decades, with overfishing and a decline in coral reefs among culprits blamed. Sharks have slow growth rates, mature late in life and produce few offspring. A number of shark species are already protected by regulations in both state and federal waters

But nowhere are these warm water creatures more misunderstood than in Florida, shark experts say.

More than half of all shark attacks in the U.S. occur in the Sunshine State, according to the International Shark Attack File compiled by the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida. The state sees more than 20 attacks per year, mostly puncture wounds and small lacerations. Occasionally there is a worse injury and about one fatality of per decade, on average.

"We are seeing more shark attacks numerically but that is not a new trend," said George Burgess, director of the museum's Florida Program for Shark Research. "We see more sharks now than we saw ten or 20 years ago because there are more sharks and more people in the water."

Yet as the human population increases, Burgess said, shark sightings have risen because more people are in the ocean and engaged in water sports, such as surfing and sail boating. Those sports, he said, "put people in more danger by putting them closer to sharks."

But shark populations are beginning to recover — slowly.

"It's not going to happen in my lifetime and that's just the reality," Macdonald said of sharks making any measurable recovery in coming decades. "But if I die feeling like I contributed to making sure there will be sharks in the ocean 100 years for now, that's fine by me."

Indeed, while no sharks were tagged on her student outing, Macdonald said she hopes the teens were encouraged to get involved in science — even if they don't pursue careers as scientists.

"At the end of the day our goal is to provide role models and mentorships to students," Macdonald said. "Even without sharks, we more or less accomplished that goal."

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Follow Suzette Laboy at https://twitter.com/SuzetteLaboy

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