PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island shark researchers who normally split the year trolling the state’s Atlantic coastline for roving white sharks spent last season in their office, like castaways, because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“It really had us trying to work triple time to get some of the stuff done,” said Jon Dodd, executive director at the Wakefield-based Atlantic Shark Institute. “We simply said the (health) risk was too great. That’s OK, because there are two sides to shark research.”
Since ASI researchers couldn’t be on small, confined boats, they just spent more time on data analysis.
On May 21, most of Rhode Island’s coronavirus restrictions were lifted, and Dodd said the pendulum is swinging back to field work.
ASI announced Wednesday that it is planning its most robust and aggressive research plan since the research center was founded. It will conduct 10 studies on five different species of shark, deploy the most acoustic receivers it has ever deployed, and have a full season of baited remote underwater video monitoring.
The Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems are being deployed next week, Dodd said. The devices capture video of both tagged and untagged fish that gives researchers a better understanding of shark density in the region.
“Every year the breadth, depth and importance of these critical shark studies grow and that’s good news for sharks and specifically sharks in our region” Dodd said. “This year we’ve added several additional acoustic receivers to get a better sense of shark density and movement in the region, our investment in short fin mako research efforts will more than double, and we’ve got a similar expansion planned for great white, blue, thresher and porbeagle sharks as well.”
Last year, ASI detected nine different great white sharks in Rhode Island waters – eight near Block Island and one in Point Judith. Acoustic receivers will be added east of Scarborough Beach, northeast of Block Island, and on the southwest corner of Block Island.
The acoustic receivers, which last around 10 years, can detect sharks from 1,500 feet to 3,500 feet away and provide researchers with fine-scale movements of sharks, according to Dodd.
For the first time, ASI is deploying Smart Position or Temperature Transmitting Tags, known as SPOT tags, in partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Division of Marine Fisheries. The tags reveal the location of a shark every time it breaks the surface of the water, anywhere on earth.
“The vast, vast majority of the ocean has no acoustic telemetry present and some of these tagged sharks would never be detected,” Dodd said. “SPOT tags solve that problem and add additional pieces to this complex puzzle.”
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature designated the short fin mako as endangered, the great white, porbeagle and common thresher as vulnerable and the blue shark as near threatened.
“If you like to go to the beach keep doing it. If you’re in Cape Cod that’s different. There are 50,000 of grey seals up there. Those white sharks have figured that out real quick. They run that beach all day and all night waiting for those seals.”
“These sharks are critical to the health of our oceans in a wide variety of ways and that makes this research all the more important,” Dodd said. “We can’t continue to take over 100 million sharks out of the ocean, every year, and not create long-term issues to the health and well-being of our planet.”
Less than 5 percent of sharks are tagged, according to Dodd, who said ASI has tagged close to 240 great whites.
Great whites are known for their toothy role in the 1975 thriller, “Jaws,” filmed around Martha’s Vineyard.
The shark research season – the time of year when the waters warm and white sharks move north from Florida to Cape Cod to feast on sea lions, grey seals and feeder fish – is kind of like Christmas for shark researchers.
“Our studies revolve around great whites, makos, blue sharks, thresher and porbeagle,” Dodd said. “We are very focused on those sharks because of the dynamics relative to fishing pressure, population dynamics, and pressures they are under. There are decreasing populations with the majority of them.”
Block Island is a strategic location for researchers who surrounded it with acoustic devices to make sure the waters were covered from top to bottom.
Underwater video monitoring (BRUVS) are being deployed near the Block Island wind farm – the first of its kind in the US. Researchers can record six hours of video on each, which they will painstakingly analyze to determine what came into frame, when it leaves and what researchers are dealing with.
ASI has tagged about 500 sharks for its research projects and will attempt to mark about 20 threatened mako sharks this season, in addition to collecting blood and tissue samples, recording sex, condition, and taking photos of sharks to document markings.
Two pregnant porbeagles have already been tagged and when they give birth the receivers will float to the surface and alert researchers.
Birth locations are critical for researchers who are trying to figure out if some shark’s give birth to pups in areas with tremendous fishing pressure.
“As we track these sharks we can find out when they end up in harms way and when they don’t,” Dodd said.
Beachgoers can keep swimming without worry, unless you are near Cape Cod.
“If you like to go to the beach keep doing it,” Dodd said. “If you’re in Cape Cod that’s different. There are 50,000 of grey seals up there. Those white sharks have figured that out real quick. They run that beach all day and all night waiting for those seals to make a run to their food source. That’s a little different. There are more sharks there. There’s a heightened degree from swimmers.”
“For most of the Eastern Seaboard from Florida on up, do what you’re doing, and just enjoy yourself.”