07 July 2005

Taggers stare down sharks to save them

A riot of activity erupts on the Eugenie Clark, a 50-foot research boat plying the emerald waters 15 miles off this barrier island near Sarasota.

Interns with blood- and bait-smeared T-shirts scramble. Two marine biologists shout orders as they struggle with an 8-foot lemon shark tugging at the hook end of a 900-pound-test monofilament line being hauled slowly by hand from the Gulf of Mexico. One biologist pulls the line tight while another tries to loop a rope around the shark's tail.

Suddenly the thrashing fish lunges at the narrow aluminum platform where the men are standing just above the water. The shark locks its powerful jaws, lined with rows of teeth, onto the scarred metal decking, just inches from the scientists. An enamel-grating sound jolts the senses like a dozen fingernails being dragged across a blackboard.

"Watch your feet! Watch your feet! Get that tag over here!" shouts shark expert Bob Hueter, who has helped tag 13,000 sharks over the last 14 years.

On this sweltering mid-June day, the researchers catch more than a dozen sharks, measuring and inserting plastic tags in their dorsal fins before releasing the fish back into the Gulf. At the end of a 10-hour day, the scientists still have their toes and fingers, and they have advanced, by just a notch, man's understanding of a 400 million-year-old creature.

This gritty and sometimes dangerous science takes place more than 500 miles from downtown Atlanta, where the nearly complete Georgia Aquarium is rising near Centennial Olympic Park. Still five months away from its Nov. 23 opening, the aquarium already is advancing shark research conducted by Sarasota-based Mote Marine Laboratory researchers like Hueter and biologists Beau Yeiser and Jack Morris, who assisted on the tagging trip.

Research teamwork
The aquarium's benefactor, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, has provided seed money for Mote's shark lab to build a state-of-the-art tank, which will permit scientists to better study sharks in captivity. And Marcus is helping fund whale shark research by Hueter, one of the nation's leading shark experts.

"Modern aquariums can no longer function solely as places where people come just to see fish in tanks," said Hueter, director of Mote's Center for Shark Research. "They have to be engaged in the effort to conserve our natural resources and to educate people about the value of the oceans and the fact the oceans are in trouble in a variety of ways.

"The Georgia Aquarium figured that out early — that it will not be just a place to see fish, but an active institution."

The aquarium got involved with Mote several years back, Marcus said, as he began to formulate a philosophy that would combine entertainment, education and research as part of the big fish tank's mission.

"I was very interested in the kind of work they were doing," Marcus said. "And it's the kind of work the Georgia Aquarium will end up doing also. And we will cooperate with each other. The two of us together will make bigger strides than one of us by ourselves."

Marcus said he had given a "substantial amount" of money to Mote, but when pressed for specifics, replied, "I don't have a clue."

Sharks 'being hammered'
The Georgia Aquarium has acquired two whale sharks — the biggest fish in the world — from Taiwan. Hueter will use aquarium money to study and tag whale sharks off the Yucatan Peninsula.

The Georgia Aquarium has also indicated in federal collection permit applications that it wants to acquire hammerhead, bonnethead and blacktip reef sharks. Some would likely come from Mote.

Established in 1991, Mote's shark lab is the largest research center in the world dedicated to the scientific study of sharks and their close relatives, skates and rays. Ten doctoral-level scientists study everything from how sharks react to hurricanes (they apparently leave before the big storms arrive) to whether the fish might provide cancer therapies (their immune system fluids have been shown to inhibit cancer growth in lab cultures).

A third of the center's $3 million annual budget comes from private sources like the Georgia Aquarium. Research funded by the Georgia Aquarium will take place at the aquarium itself and offshore, like the recent shark-tagging trip. By inserting plastic identification tags in the sharks' dorsal fins, scientists can track the animals' movements and growth rate. About four of every 100 sharks tagged will be caught by fishermen or biologists, researchers say. Scientists then can determine how far a fish has traveled and how much it has grown since it was tagged.

The research is important because sharks are being decimated as other fish stocks are depleted and commercial fishermen turn to less desirable fish for food.

"Sharks have declined worldwide in some areas 75 to 90 percent since about the mid-1970s," Hueter said. "Worldwide, sharks are being hammered." Two recent shark attacks off the Florida Panhandle, and one to the south near Boca Grande, have splashed the feared fish across newspapers and television screens around the globe and left Hueter once again defending an often-misunderstood animal. Shark attacks on humans are very rare, he said.

"The fact that sharks are always out there and these attacks are so rare is testament to the fact that they're not very interested in us," Hueter said.

Source: SharkTrust


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