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.
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.
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.
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 Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
I’m in the Dutch Caribbean this week with a team of international researchers for an expedition to the Saba Bank to study sharks. This endeavor has been pulled together under the leadership of the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, the Saba Conservation Foundation, and the Nature Foundation Sint Maarten. I’m only here for five days, but the entire research trip will span from July 15 to 25.
Those of you who know me, are probably thinking, “but wait, you’re not a shark scientist!” That is correct. I’ve joined this expedition as a research assistant, which means I’ve signed up to carry a lot of heavy things and sing Jimmy Buffet songs with my ukulele. My main role will be helping with communications. I hope to share with you what we’re doing this week on this blog, and you can also follow along on social media with the hashtag #SabaShark2019.
We are going to be spending most of our time out on the Saba Bank, a large submerged atoll just off the coast of the beautiful island of Saba. We’ll be within the borders of the Saba Bank National Park, which extends across 2,680 square kilometers of ocean, an area about the size of Rhode Island. The region is high in biodiversity, and home to sea turtles, migrating whales, and over 200 species of fish. Researchers also think it is incredibly important for Caribbean shark species.
The scientific projects carried out during this ten-day expedition will focus on a couple of different species, including tiger sharks (YES PLEASE!!), silky sharks (there are a lot of juveniles in this part of the Caribbean, a nursery perhaps???), nurse sharks, and Caribbean reef sharks. The overall goal of the research is to gain insight into the role that Saba Bank plays in the life cycle of the species that live here, knowledge that is essential to adequately protect sharks. Four projects that will be carried this week are:
Tracking tiger sharks from space. During the expedition, tiger sharks will be provided with tags equipped with a completely new satellite technology developed by the European Space Agency (ESA). The space organization has developed an advanced technology that allows the tags to communicate with satellites in space in an innovative way allowing the tags to last much longer and collect much more data than tags currently used. Stay tuned for a blog on these tags.
Preventing bycatch of nurse sharks. The Dutch Elasmobranch Society and the Saba Conservation Foundation have been working together with local fishermen to reduce the by-catch of nurse sharks in lobster traps. One essential element to achieve this is insight into the behaviour of sharks in and around the traps. Fishermen report that juvenile nurse sharks break into lobster traps to eat the trapped lobsters, but this is only anecdotal. Dr. Robert Nowicki of Mote Marine Lab has developed a camera system that can record the behavior of sharks in and near the traps, and this will be deployed this week.
Connectivity between habitats of Caribbean sharks. Between 2015 and 2018, a number of silky sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, and nurse sharks were equipped with acoustic tags to find out more about how these species utilize the area and the connectivity between different Caribbean habitats. Guido Leurs from the University of Groningen is building upon this research by collecting samples from Caribbean reef and nurse sharks to analyse diet and age of the sharks. Combined with the knowledge from the tagging program, this will offer government managers more insight into the role the Saba Bank plays in the life cycle of these sharks.
Stress levels of sharks in captivity. Blood samples will be taken from all sharks caught to determine the level of stress hormones in their systems. Based on this, researchers, can gain insight into how much stress the animals experience when they are examined for the different experiments. This information can be used to make the catch and research process as efficient as possible so that the animals are not adversely affected by the procedures.
There are also a couple of smaller projects the organizers aren’t promoting — but I’ll see if I can share an update or two about them. We’ll be out on the boat all day, and then back on land at night and I’m going to try to post an update each night. If you just can’t wait for the daily update, follow the expedition on social media using the hashtag #SabaShark2019, or by following the Save Our Sharks social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
2018 was a big year in hagfish science. Below are just a few of my favorite studies.
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!
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.