Shark On! Our NY Shark Expedition Begins

Photo credit: OCEARCH/Rob Snow.

By Dr. Merry Camhi
August 15, 2016

[NOTE: WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and its New York Aquarium are collaborating with OCEARCH on board the MV-OCEARCH, an at-sea research lab, for a wide-ranging study to gather data on the ecology, physiology, and behavior of sharks in the Atlantic Ocean along the coast of Long Island. Merry Camhi, Director of WCS’s New York Seascape program, was on board.]

It was great to wake up on the OCEARCH vessel. Had a solid night sleep in the crew bunks, which are really well insulated from all sounds except the lull of the generators. Getting up to my top bunk last night was easy, and the gentle sway just knocked me out after a long day in the sun and talking science.

The challenge came in the morning — trying to figure out how to get down without a ladder or waking the poor souls sleeping around me…I couldn’t stop laughing thinking how ridiculous I looked as I silently flailed my legs in the air before flopping to the floor.

With the weather and seas improving, the crew decided that we needed to cruise out from the protection of Fort Pond Bay on the north side of Montauk. We were seeking cooler waters — in the mid-70s rather than low 80s — where we thought we’d have a better chance of encountering a juvenile white or our other target species.

Sophisticated instrumentation suggested there was a narrow wedge of cool water pressed up against the beach, so after breakfast we started cruising around the tip of Long Island, past Montauk Point and its famous lighthouse and about six or so miles to the west to start fishing in earnest.

Hans Walters, Animal Supervisor at the WCS New York Aquarium and researcher with the WCS New York Seascape program, joined the expedition today. Hans has deep experience satellite tagging of sharks. Now we have our whole shark team out here — Hans, Harley Newton (WCS New York Aquarium veterinarian), Jake LaBelle (Seascape field tech), and me. We’ve built it, so we’re just waiting for the sharks to come.

Here I am taking data on our first juvenile dusky shark tagged, as WCS’s Harley Newton draws blood, assisted by fellow scientists Tobey Curtis and Matt Ajemian, and OCEARCH’s Captain Brett McBride. Photo credit: OCEARCH/Rob Snow.

To improve our chances, we’re fishing from multiple boats. Hans is out today on Greg Metzger’s boat about a mile or two from the mother ship (OCEARCH vessel). Greg is a high school science teacher and an avid angler focused on supporting shark research during the summer. We’re checking in throughout the day, but it’s pretty quiet out there, no bites yet.

Visitors — the press, donors, scientists, friends — are continually welcomed onto the OCEARCH vessel, which is an amazing platform to work from (more on that in another post). This afternoon we got word that a band member of Pink Floyd might be stopping by with a few friends and family.

As a long-time fan, I was hoping to say hi, maybe even tell him about the work we’re doing out here with the sharks, but I didn’t get the chance before he was whisked away. I’ve traveled the world in support of shark conservation and have tagged sharks more than 100 miles off New York in the amazing Hudson Canyon, but it looks like that was the closest I’d ever get to the dark side of the moon.

No worries: just moments later we got the news we’d been waiting for all day. Shark on! Hans and Greg caught a small dusky shark. The decision was made to send the scientists to the shark on OCEARCH’s Contender vessel. The media team and students followed right behind in the SAFE boat. We were all psyched — our first shark! — but everyone remained calm as we loaded up our gear and dashed off.

Photo credit: OCEARCH/Rob Snow.

Within minutes, Harley (our New York Aquarium vet) put in an internal acoustic tag and stitched the incision. We noted sex, length measurements, and did a quick health assessment. In less than 10 minutes this juvenile female (about 132 cm total length) was released. We are hoping that her uniquely coded tag will help us track her movements through the New York Seascape and beyond.

This was my first dusky shark in the wild and I feel very privileged to have seen one! The dusky shark is a U.S. Species of Concern because its numbers off the Atlantic have declined by nearly 80 percent since the 1970s. This depletion was largely due to fishing pressure; directed fishing is now prohibited to give duskies a chance to recover.

But the biology of the dusky shark — slow growth, late maturity (19–20 years old), and a small number of young (6–14 pups) every 3 years — makes this species extremely vulnerable to overfishing and the Atlantic U.S. population will likely take a very long time to rebuild. So it’s a hugely positive sign to see a young dusky swimming in our local waters of the New York Seascape.

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Dr. Merry Camhi is Director of the New York Seascape Program of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).