Shark Conservation Through Citizen Science

We all know sharks are in trouble. For most of you, I probably don’t have to tell you that there are over 273 million sharks killed worldwide, which includes 100 million sharks dying for the ever so popular shark fin soup. Shark fin soup is not the only problem, a study estimating the number of shark deaths a year found that 1 in 15 sharks dies every year from fishing. That’s a staggering number!

So with the catastrophic numbers of sharks dying around the world, there are a many, and I mean many organizations working to stop the senseless deaths of these sharks…many of them being advocacy groups that are trying to get finning banned, or trying to get specific sharks protected on the endangered list, or educating people all over the world raise awareness about the plight of sharks. No matter what the conservation actions people take, much of the information provided in petitions, or for endangered species, or anything else for that matter highly depends on one critical part of the conservation effort…SCIENCE!

Ocean Science To The Rescue!!!

Yup…science…It’s the basis of the conservation process. Ocean Scientists conduct studies to find out what is happening below (and above) the Ocean’s surface; they document the change; and, they write about it to let others know what they found. If they notice something wrong (like sharks dying at staggering rates) then advocacy groups, other organizations, and ocean leaders (like yourselves) take up the call to action and change policy to protect more sharks.

The Science Community is Small

Ocean science happens all day, every day at universities, governments, and organizations, but ocean science field in significantly under funded and lacks the numbers in personnel to conduct important studies which could save the lives and populations of hundreds of millions of sharks. So how do scientists combat the lack of funding and resources? Ocean Citizen Science.

Shark Tagging - Citizen Science

Ocean Citizen Science

I am a firm believer that Ocean Citizen Science will help advance the speed at which studies are conducted, published, and conservation action is taken. After all, this is the entire point of SpeakUpForBlue.com.

On a side note, I think Ocean Citizen Science is such a good idea that I will be covering my favourite citizen science programs on this site giving reviews and interviews with the owners to give you an idea of what to expect when you decide to do some Citizen Science for the Oceans as well.

Anyway, back to the post…

Ocean Citizen Science: Shark Tagging

On October 13th, I had the wonderful opportunity of conducting my first (hopefully first of many) Ocean Citizen Science project at a Conference I was attending in Miami, Florida. The conference was part of Science Online, a non-profit organization that holds conferences to help scientists communicate their research to the public. The conference I attended was all about Oceans. So I got to chat all weekend with some really interesting people about Ocean Science, Blogging, and Social Media (I really geeked out!). As part of the conference, I went on the Shark Tagging trip with a group of researchers for the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami.

As I marine scientist, I get to go on some pretty cool field trips where I can monitor whale distribution in the Arctic or track jellyfish in the Gulf of Mexico. Shark tagging is something you never pass on because sharks are such as amazing group of species. They are an apex predator that regulates the Ocean, they captivate the human psyche with their successful ability to act as a predator, and I feel compassion towards them as many of the shark populations around the world are, or have, decreased by 80%. So needless to say, seeing a shark up close and personal and collecting all of this cool information from each shark is an opportunity of a lifetime…or because of this Citizen Science Program…an opportunity that can happen every time I am in Miami!

David Shiffman aka WhySharksMatter Shark Tagging

About the Shark Tagging Program

The program is run by Dr. Neil Hammershlag who oversees his lab made up of post-docs, Graduate Students, Undergraduate Students, and Interns. The information collected during the Shark Tagging trips supply data for 7 or more ongoing projects, which have helped inform policy makers in the quest and successful implementation of adding some hammerhead species on the Florida Endangered Species List and is being used to assess whether the species should be added to the Federal Endangered Species List. So the program has direct and indirect ties to shark conservation.

There is a wonderful feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you know the work you are doing is going to help protect the Ocean. It’s why I love being and marine scientist, why the researchers in the Shark Tagging program love their work, and it is now the reason why you will enjoy becoming an Ocean Citizen Scientist!

Shark Tagging

So here is the low down of what happens during the Shark Tagging Trip. A group of 20 (usually high school students or adults) load up on the boat for the morning or afternoon where you are greeted by the very friendly and knowledgeable Shark Tagging crew. David Shiffman, aka WhySharksMatter (the ocean scientist celebrity himself!) gives a very interesting and informative opening speech on sharks, shark conservation, and the Shark Tagging program along with some safety briefs.

The boat leaves the dock and travels just offshore into approximately 40 feet deep water. The crew and the Citizen Scientists Set the hooks (by the way, the program uses circle hooks which is a better and safer way to catch large animals.) with some fish bait attached to a line and a buoy. We set 10 hooks, wait an hour or so, and then retrieve the hooks. Once the crew and Citizen Scientists reel in shark, a series of measurements and samples are taken for the various ongoing studies including various lengths, tissue samples, and blood samples. Finally, a tag is set on the shark to monitor its where abouts after it is released.

It is important to note that the researchers and crew have studied sharks and their well being for years and the information collecting process is geared towards keeping the sharks safe at all times. The crew tells each participant how they make sure the sharks are not harmed during the data collection process.

Once the 10 hooks are retrieved and the sharks caught and released, the crew sets another 10 hooks out and do the process all over again.

My Thoughts on the Program

As a marine scientist, I was so happy to participate in this program. The information was top notch! The crew was terrific! And it helped that the Miami weather was amazing! Plus I made some really good friends on the trip. As for the shark tagging…we didn’t catch any sharks that day…boo! However, it was only the 9th time in 7 years where no sharks were caught during a trip. It was a bit disappointing, but I still had an amazing time casting and reeling in the hooks and chatting with the Ocean Scientists who know so much about sharks.

This program is not only fun, but it can be done by anyone. You do not need to have any sort of marine biology training do go out on this Citizen Science program. Also, there is a professional photographer on the trip taking great pictures of you during the trip, which are posted on the program’s Facebook page.

Here is a quick breakdown of the program:

Program: Shark Tagging with the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program
Cost: The money goes towards paying for students at risk and underfunded classes
Most interesting information on my trip: Hammerhead sharks get extremely stressed while being caught on a fishing line, so much so, that they tend to die from the stress after the fight getting out of the water even if the shark is released afterwards.
Do I Recommend the Trip? Abso-FREAKING-lutely!!!!

So are you interested in taking part in this awesome Shark Tagging trip next time you are in Miami? Check out the SharkTagging.com site to make arrangements to participate in the program!

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