BY JACK SHORT - Sharks have been a passion of Dr. Bob Hueter’s for almost 40 years. When he spoke at Mote Marine Laboratory’s fourth lecture series on marine ecology in our area on Tuesday, March 26 at the Boca Grande Community Center. The presentation about shark tracking and behavior research included documentation of ongoing projects as well as those Mote hopes to undertake as part of its partnership with the Boca Grande community and the larger Charlotte harbor area.
Hueter is the associate vice president for marine biology and conservation at Mote, and the director of the National Center for Shark Research. He pointed out that the legacy of shark research begun by Eugenie Clark when she started the Cape Haze marine laboratory in 1955 is a large part of Mote’s identity around the world ... though things have changed a bit since then.
“The thing that Genie had at her disposal back then was lots of really big sharks,” Hueter said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have quite that situation today.”
The NCSR, to which Mote is home, is engaged in research from molecular biology to field ecology and behavior and conservation.
Hueter and his colleagues have learned that Charlotte Harbor is a major nursery area where at least 13 different species of sharks mate and give birth to young. It is also a feeding ground for coastal sharks, and provides habitats for some endangered species of shark relatives like the smalltooth sawfish, which had been all but eradicated by gillnetting. Finally, its relatively good environmental quality makes it an optimal place to rebuild shark populations that have been depleted, primarily, by overfishing.
Hueter said a large part of the research they’ve already done in the area is aimed at getting an idea of various shark populations’ sizes. That data can then be used by national fishery services to formulate management plans.
Doing this requires some ingenuity, according to Hueter.
“The difficult thing with sharks is you can’t see them, in most cases,” he said. “That’s why shark biology as a field still has a long way to go to catch up with other fields. This is a very elusive, mobile creature.”
He and his colleagues have used acoustic tracking devices and accelerometers to monitor the movements and swimming habits of various types of sharks.
They have monitored the levels of outlawed, but persistent, contaminants like organochlorine pesticides in bonnethead sharks to track the environmental quality of various estuaries, including Charlotte Harbor.
Hueter and his colleagues know that very large sharks come to the pass at certain times of the year to feed on tarpon. The two largest great hammerheads ever caught have been caught in the Charlotte harbor area, he said.
But because of their allure to sport fisherman, Hueter said it’s necessary to promote alternative catch-and-release tournaments, such as the Gulf Coast Shark Census tournament, which he helped run from 1989 until 1998, and the more recent Ultimate Shark Challenge, wherein certain catch were fitted with satellite tags that give position data when sharks surface.
The public can also track sharks tagged in May, 2011 and March, 2013 by Hueter and his colleagues in partnership with Chris Fischer at OCEARCH at sharks-ocearch.verite.com/.
“This is part of our outreach … to make sure that everybody shares in the result,” Hueter said. “At Mote we don’t want to come to your backyard and take some science measurements and then go home and write our papers. No. This is a partnership that we’re envisioning with Boca Grande.”
Tracking data shows that sharks range all the way up the Atlantic coast, down to the Bahamas and must often pass through “the gauntlets” of Cuba’s and Mexico’s shark fisheries. Researchers aboard OCEARCH were able to tag great whites in the waters off New England. One of them, Mary Lee, made her way into waters off the northern Atlantic coast of Florida.
People were getting quite excited, Hueter said.
“This 16-foot, 3,500 pound great white shark was coming down the coast and sticking her nose in just about every river mouth and beach,” he explained. “As a matter of fact, at one point she was in the surf zone off Jacksonville beach. Most of the excitement was, ‘This is the coolest thing we’ve ever seen’.”
Hueter then went to Jacksonville with OCEARCH to try and capture a great white and gather data. Hueter said it was the first time in 40 years of study on every continent but Antarctica he seen a live great white shark. The team named her Lydia.
He hopes to continue research like this and build on the knowledge they’ve obtained.
“That's why we have to collect lots of data,” he said. “You can’t just go into place like Boca Grande, do a project like this for one month and have all the answers. You’ve got to be there over multiple replications of these kind of studies over a period of years, decades is even preferable.”
Hueter said he hopes to build on the past 50 to 60 years of data to determine how many sharks are present in the Charlotte harbor area, how many tarpon they eat, if they’ve learned to prey on hooked tarpon, if they can lead scientists to tarpon, where they go when not in the pass, if the same sharks are returning every year and, finally, if Boca Grande is a vital population center for conservation of the various species.
Because of their close relation to their main prey (in the Charlotte Harbor area), Hueter said, Mote’s shark initiative will be linked with their tarpon initiative.
He also appealed to fishermen and guides to help provide local knowledge, tagging assistance and boats so Mote researchers can continue their use of tracking tags and accelerometers.
He also said he hopes that the community will understand that tarpon is the most effective bait for catching sharks, and he hopes to use a small amount for that purpose.
He called on the general public to support Mote with private funding and word-of-mouth testimony about Mote as they continue to provide data that will, he hopes, change management as well as perception of sharks.
“We’ve rewritten with our work a whole perception of sharks as being this mindless predator that just follows its prey,” he said. “These animals are very sophisticated, they have large brains, and they’re actually navigating to certain points for reproductive activities, for feeding, and so on.”
Sharks are also of interest to medical researchers because of unique characteristics such as a relatively low incidence of cancer, even when exposed in a laboratory to known carcinogens, according to Hueter.
“More than 25 years ago, scientists at the NCSR began this long path to understanding what it is that the sharks do to essentially prevent them from having cancer,” Hueter said. “What it’s come to now, the group is working on the immune system of sharks. A substance produced by their immune cells can actually shut down, in a culture in the lab, the growth of human cancer cells.”
Dr. Hueter and Dr. Michael Crosby invited everyone to come to the lab at Mote and learn and become more engaged.
Dr. Crosby, newly-appointed president and CEO of Mote, seized the opportunity to emphasize how proud he is to have opened their new office in the Boca Grande area and the partnership that has already resulted in 40 new volunteers – a critical component to their vision and service to the community.
He also spoke about Mote's “2020 Vision” plan, whose goals include new post-doctoral positions, marine public policy oriented publications, public forums and new research partnerships. According to Mote, these initiatives and others will help them increase their ability to conduct research with an emphasis on conservation and sustainable use, enhance staff recruitment and professional development and facilitate the translation and transfer of science and technology to the community.
But Crosby said that the transfer of knowledge goes in both directions.
“A lot of folks think that knowledge sort of flows from the science community, from those learned men and women in those ivory towers and those research institutions and it flows out to the public,” he said.
“Who was Genie Clark's partner? It was a fisherman. Genie knew the value of that traditional knowledge. It was an exchange of information. Our scientists have as much to learn from fishermen and the men and women who’ve lived down here for generations, as we have to offer them.”
He said the Mote-Boca Grande partnership is characterized by the exchange of knowledge between its partners.
Mote scientists will speak again on April 18 about tarpon and snook stock enhancement and habitat protection. It will be the fifth and last installment in the lecture series.
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