Small Shark Tagging Day

We’re all smiles 5 minutes into the first day on the water.

I am in Saba in the Dutch Caribbean with the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, St. Maarten Nature Foundation, and the Saba Conservation Foundation serving as a research assistant to an international team of shark scientists participating in the Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019.  Today was our first day out on the water and our objective was to catch, measure, and tag small sharks on the Saba Bank.

It’s a girl.

We caught three Caribbean reef sharks and a silky shark – the first time I’ve ever seen a silky shark (check that one off the list).  Each shark was worked up by the scientists, with data collected to serve their respective research areas.  When each shark was brought to the boat, the first observation was for sex, which we determined from the presence or absence of claspers.  And then measurements were taken for total length, fork length, caudal length, and girth.  We also took a fin clip, a muscle sample, and a blood sample.  Each shark was handled for only a few minutes, and then released back into the water.  Every shark today quickly swam away.

Guido, Jergen, Ayumi, and Walter work up a small Caribbean reef shark on the deck of the boat, with the island of Saba looming in the background.

Our island hosts Ayumi and Walter from the Saba Conservation Foundation were eseential in making today a success.  Walter drove the boat all day and Ayumi served as our expert fisher, helping us with the gear to target the species we were after.

You came for the science, but I’m showing you my fishing pictures.

We also trolled for bonito to and from the Saba Bank.  We didn’t catch any, but I handlined this barracuda, and we also caught a beautiful green mahi mahi.

Stay tuned for a few more blogs where I introduce some of the researchers and conservation practitioners participating in the expedition. You can also follow the expedition on social media using the hashtag #SabaShark2019, or by following the Save Our Sharks social media accounts on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Book review: “Shark Research: Emerging Technologies and Applications for the Field and Laboratory”

Editors: Jeffrey C. Carrier, Michael R. Heithaus, Colin A. Simpfendorfer. CRC Press, available here.

I can’t imagine a more useful introductory reference guide for new or prospective graduate students starting their career in marine biology than “Shark Research: Emerging Technologies and Applications for the Field And Laboratory”. This book is designed for people who have little to no familiarity with a research discipline but are about to start working in that discipline, a large and important audience that is often ignored by books and review papers geared towards people who are already experts. So many graduate students are told to learn a new research method by reading technical literature that assumes they already know this stuff, resulting in stress and frustration.

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Research expedition: what ever happened to the world’s first certified sustainable shark fishery?

My Postdoctoral research has focused on understanding the causes and consequences of public misunderstanding about shark fisheries management. While scientists overwhelmingly support sustainable fisheries management as a solution to shark overfishing, many concerned citizens and conservation activists prefer total bans on all shark fishing and trade. Some go so far as to (wrongly) claim that sustainable shark fisheries cannot exist even in theory and do not exist in practice anywhere in the world, and that bans are the only possible solution.

There’s an important piece of data that very rarely makes it into these discussions. Amidst the ongoing discussions about whether or not sustainable shark fisheries are even possible, one right in my backyard became the first shark fishery anywhere in the world to be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

However, a few years after BC’s spiny dogfish fishery got certified, the certification was quietly withdrawn. I couldn’t find any information in the MSC reports, or in associated scientific literature or government reports, that explained what happened to this fishery, which was thriving until recently. No scientists, managers, or conservation advocates who I asked about this knew exactly what happened to BC’s spiny dogfish fishery.

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A polymetallic nodule from the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone, purchased from an online dealer. 

Nodules for sale: tracking the origin of polymetallic nodules from the CCZ on the open market. 

[This article originally appeared yesterday in the Deep-sea Mining Observer. ~Ed.]

You can buy a 5-lb bag of polymetallic nodules from the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone on Amazon, right now.

Depending on your vantage point and how long you’ve participated in the deep-sea mining community, this will either come as a huge surprise or be completely unexceptional. Prior to the formation of the International Seabed Authority, there were no international rules governing the extraction of seafloor resources from the high seas. Multiple nations as well as private companies were engaged in exploration to assess the economic viability of extracting polymetallic nodules and tons of material was recovery from the seafloor for research and analysis. Some of that material almost certainly passed into private hands.

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The next generation open-source, 3D-printable Niskin bottle has arrived!

The Niskin bottle, a seemingly simple device designed to take water samples at discrete depths, is one of the most important tools of oceanography. These precision instruments allow us to bring ocean water back to the surface to study its chemical composition, quality, and biologic constituency. If you want to know how much plastic is circulating in the deep sea, you need a Niskin bottle. If you need to measure chemical-rich plumes in minute detail, you need a Niskin bottle. If you want to use environmental DNA analyses to identify the organisms living in a region of the big blue sea, you need a Niskin bottle.

Niskin bottles are neither cheap nor particularly easy to use. A commercial rosette requires a winch to launch and recover, necessitating both a vessel and a crew to deploy. For informal, unaffiliated, or unfunded researchers, as well as citizen scientists or any researcher working on a tight budget, getting high-quality, discrete water samples is an ongoing challenge.

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Cut rock samples from the Rio Grande Rise show Fe-Mn crusts (black and gray) growing on various types of iron-rich substrate rocks (pale to dark brown). Photo credit: Kira Mizell, USGS.

A lost continent, rich in cobalt crusts, could create a challenging precedent for mineral extraction in the high seas.

[This article originally appeared yesterday in the Deep-sea Mining Observer. ~Ed.]

The Rio Grande Rise is an almost completely unstudied, geologically intriguing, ecologically mysterious, potential lost continent in the deep south Atlantic. And it also hosts dense cobalt-rich crusts.

The Rio Grande Rise is a region of deep-ocean seamounts roughly the area of Iceland in the southwestern Atlantic. It lies west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge off the coast of South America and near Brazil’s island territories. As the largest oceanic feature on the South American plate, it straddles two microplates. And yet, like much of the southern Atlantic deep sea, it is relatively under sampled.

Almost nothing is known about the ecology or biodiversity of the Rio Grande Rise.

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All the slime that sticks, we print: 2018 in Hagfish Research

Hagfish. You love them. I love them. Of all the fish in all the seas, none are more magnificent than the hagfish. Across the world, children celebrate the hagfish by making slime from Elmer’s glue, their own mucous, or just, like, something. Seriously, how is is that toddler hands are always coated in some strange, unidentifiable slime?

And never, ever forget:

Your car has just been crushed by hagfish: Frequently Asked Questions.

2018 was a big year in hagfish science. Below are just a few of my favorite studies.

Biogeography

A hagfish in the high Antarctic? Hagfish have previously never been observed in the shallow waters around Antarctic, but a photograph from 1988 was determined this year to be a hagfish feeding on a large pile of clam sperm in shallow water. Neat!

Possible hagfish at 30 m in Salmon Bay in 1988. The white patch is Laternula elliptica sperm.

Incidentally, the reason the photo languished for so long is that it was originally though to be a Nemertean. Because Antarctic Nemertean worms are huge and horrifying.

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Canada announced new marine protected area standards. Here’s how science and conservation professionals reacted.

Recently, the Canadian government released the Final Report of the National Advisory Panel on Marine Protected Area Standards. This report is a set of guidelines and goals for the creation of new marine protected areas in Canada, and comes as Canada is hoping to greatly increase the number and quality of MPAs. I reached out to MPA experts and environmental nonprofits to ask what they think.

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Barndoor skates, once a textbook example of overfishing, have recovered enough to allow fishing

Barndoor skates were once thought to be so overfished that a highly-publicized paper from 1998 noted that they had been “driven to near extinction without anyone noticing.” One of the largest skates, barndoor skates can reach over 5 feet in wingspan, which is large enough that their diet includes small sharks like spiny dogfish; for a skate, that’s about as close as it gets to charismatic megafauna!

Recently, NOAA Fisheries announced that Barndoor skate populations off the Northeastern United States had finally recovered enough that fishing for them could resume. This move comes after a 2009 NOAA Fisheries report showed that the species had begun to recover enough that they could be removed from the species of concern list, though they remained protected at the time. “This is good news,” Mike Ruccio, a Supervisory Fishery Policy Analyst for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, told me. “Rebuilding overfished stocks is one of the cornerstones of the US domestic policy on fisheries.”

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What to do after the first fatal shark bite in Massachusetts since 1936: 3 experts respond

Two weeks ago, tragedy struck in New England as a boogie boarder was killed by a great white shark. Though shark bites* in general and fatal shark bites* specifically are incredibly rare (Mr. Medici was the first person killed by a great white shark in Massachusetts waters in 82 years), emotions are running high. Some Cape Cod residents are explicitly calling for a cull (targeted killing) of great white sharks.

Such a cull would be devastating for a recovering but still protected shark species, has been shown not to effectively reduce shark bites, and is opposed by shark experts around the world, but what, if anything, should local governments do instead? I’ve written in the past about alternatives to lethal shark control here and here, but not every solution is applicable for every location; local oceanographic conditions vary, as well as local laws and cultural norms. I reached out to three experts to ask what, if anything, they think should be done here. Here’s what they had to say:

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