“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Shark Tagging, South Carolina

If you’re like me, you probably think that the numbers of sharks in the water around you on any particular day at the beach are few and far between.

That’s what I thought too until I spent a day with biologists with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. I hopped aboard a 21 foot boat and accompanied Brian Frazier and Ashley Shaw, two SCDNR biologists, into the shallow estuaries and bays around Charleston, assisting in an ongoing project to track and understand the population, birthing and migration of these beleaguered animals.

SCDNR has been conducting a shark population since 1998 in coordination with the federal government under a program called COASTSPAN. The study targets first year pups and juvenile sharks as study subjects. Sharks are captured, measured, tagged and released, numbered tags providing the means to track the animals’ movements and life spans. Six species are targeted: Atlantic Sharpnose, Bonnethead, Sandbar, Blacktip, Scalloped Hammerhead and Fine Tooth. Blood samples are taken from any mature females captured to assess reproductive status.

It was early morning as we motored away from the boat slip in the tiny fishing village of Bennetts Point accompanied by dolphins swimming and surfacing alongside our boat, seemingly curious as to our presence. We sped through meandering waterways, among islands and vast expanses of sea grass, and finally idled to a stop in Saint Helena Sound just off the edge of Morgan’s Island. Brian said that this spot was, for some reason, a place where sharks congregated.

There are two capture methods for sharks: longlines and gillnets. We set both out, first running a 300 foot longline with baited hooks every 6 feet or so. Once the longline was set, we ran a gillnet across the sound, setting it in about 7 feet of water. Then we waited, letting the sets soak for 30 minutes. As it turned, this was our last rest of the day.

Brian counted down 30 minutes and we ran the longline, pulling up each hook in turn. The first dozen or so were empty, not a good omen for the rest of the day I thought. But then things changed. The next hook revealed a two foot Atlantic sharpnose, then another and another. Three small sharks on the first soak—not bad. On to the gillnet and things got even better. Pulling the gillnet over the bow of the boat, I spied a large fish thrashing in the net—a four foot bonnethead, not happy to be entangled in the nylon. We heaved the shark aboard, avoiding its slashing tail and lethal teeth and finally extricated it from the tangled net.

She was a beauty, the first shark I had actually held in hand. Running my hand along her flank from head to tail her skin was smooth and silky, but rub in reverse and she felt raspy. Her eyes were cold, but she was a beautiful animal. We measured her, took a blood sample, inserted a small plastic tag in her dorsal fin and released her back into the water.

OK! This is what I came for! Sharks up close, an amazing sight. They are amazing creatures, even more so once you hold one and feel their powerful and lithe bodies in your hands.

We emptied the gillnet, time to go back to the longline, and so on for the entire day. We set and gathered the longlines and nets all day long, hot, tiring, grueling work—pulling in a gillnet encumbered with angry sharks against an opposing tide is backbreaking, hauling up lines hooked with unwilling sharks even harder. But the excitement never grew old and by the end of the day we captured 36 sharks, including a dozen mature females of four foot or more.

All of the sharks were caught in an area water of maybe 100 acres—many more sharks than I ever expected one would find in such a small area. It seems like a healthy number but these were pups and few will live to adulthood, falling victim to larger sharks, commercial fisheries, pollution. Sharks are in trouble worldwide, no doubt about it, but in the estuaries of South Carolina, you may want to think twice about dipping your toes in the water.

No comments:

Post a Comment