Posts Tagged 'shark conservation'

Thoughtful Thursday: 2013 Shark Tagging Re-cap

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Every August, the National Aquarium invites our members and the general public to join us on shark research trips We work with Captain Mark Sampson to collect data from several species of sharks off of our Maryland coastline for a variety of ongoing research projects. Trip participants actively engage in catching the sharks, reeling them in, measuring them once on the boat, and tagging and releasing them. It’s a once-in-a lifetime experience that provides valuable species and population data for several researchers around the country and exciting educational experiences for participants.

Captain Sampson works with several researchers to study the migratory patterns, growth rates, population data and species data of the sharks he catches. Every shark that is brought on board is measured and its sex determined. The data and location is noted and a small piece of dorsal fin is clipped and preserved for DNA analysis. Each shark is also given in injection of oxytetracycline, an antibiotic that stains the vertebrae and provides a baseline for growth data if the shark is ever recaptured. Finally, if the shark is big enough, it is tagged.

This tagging is part of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Cooperative Shark Tagging Program. This program, started in 1962 was developed to provide information on the life histories and migratory patterns of Atlantic sharks. According to NMFS, between 1962-2010, over 221,000 sharks of 52 species have been tagged and more than 13,000 sharks of 33 species have been recaptured. Distances traveled for the 33 species ranged from no movement to 3,997 nautical miles (nm) (blue shark). The longest time at liberty for any shark in the program is 27.8 years (sandbar shark).

Our team took eight trips with Captain Sampson in August and caught 48 sharks total! The species tagged included sandbar, dusky, spinner, Atlantic sharpnose and smooth dogfish.

It’s obvious to anyone that steps aboard his vessel that Captain Sampson has a great respect for these animals and is passionate about conserving shark populations through research and education! If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, check back with us next Spring for our 2014 shark tagging trip dates.

In the meantime, there are several things you can do right now to protect the sharks off our coast and worldwide. Please make sure you are choosing seafood that caught without harming sharks and do your part to help keep our oceans clean.

Hope to see you on the boat next August!

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Thoughtful Thursdays: The Role Sharks Play in Maintaining Healthy Ocean Ecosystems

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Sharks, like almost no other animal on this planet, capture our thoughts and imagination – deservedly so. These animals have been around for hundreds of millions of years and have evolved into almost every shape and size. They can be the size of a bus or the size of your smart phone. They can bear live young or lay eggs in open water. They can feed on the smallest plankton or on whale carcasses. They can spend most of their lives on a relatively small section of the sea floor or migrate more than a thousand miles.

Despite their incredible diversity, most species of sharks have several things in common. They generally take a long time to reach reproductive age and have few offspring and although some species can tolerate fresh water, most live in salt water their entire lives. Most are also apex predators and their numbers are declining in ecologically significant ways. A coral reef ecosystem and the incredibly diverse plant and animal community it supports, is directly impacted by the health and abundance of sharks as apex predators – and vice versa.

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Our new exhibit, Blacktip Reef, represents an entire coral reef ecosystem!

When we talk about the real and urgent threats sharks are facing – overfishing, shark finning, bycatch and habitat destruction, we are inclined to focus on the issues that are less diffuse, and quite frankly, issues where the blame lies with others. All we have to do is fix the bad habits of others and we can save the world.

While bycatch, overfishing and finning are vitally important to address (70-100 million sharks are killed annually due to these problems alone), we can’t forget that we also need to protect the places – like coral reefs – they depend upon to survive. If we want to ensure the health of our marine species, we’ll need to reverse the widespread destruction of vital coral reef, mangrove, grass bed and wetland habitats. These are nursery or feeding grounds for sharks and other species. Protection of habitat is tightly linked to the well-being of the animals we care so much about.

We are losing these habitats at alarming rates and for a variety of reasons. Climate change and ocean acidification are threatening our coral reefs, coastal development and sea level rise are jeopardizing our important mangrove and wetland areas, and sedimentation and destructive fishing practices are killing our underwater grass beds. If we are going to protect sharks and other ocean species, we’ll need to also focus on these issues. But this time, when we look for the person to blame, we need to accept some personal responsibility. We, as individuals and as a society, are responsible for – and have the power to mitigate for climate change, to make sure development happens in responsible ways, to decrease our collective carbon footprints. We need to hold ourselves responsible for our own individual contributions to this problem and we need to hold each other accountable.

The good news is, as we make strides to restore and protect healthy habitats, the lasting effects cascade throughout the ecosystem – creating supportive environments for healthy plant and animal communities. The better news is we can do something today to make a difference! Volunteer with the National Aquarium or other local conservation organization to restore vital aquatic habitats, choose seafood that has been caught in ways that doesn’t harm sharks, or take a step to reduce your carbon footprint. Sharks deserve our help. Join us!

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A Blue View: The Unfair Attack on Sharks

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

July 10, 2013: Sharks Unfairly Attacked

A Blue View podcast

Click here to listen to John discuss the bad
reputation sharks have gotten over the years. 

Sharks have long captured the imagination of the public. These days, even shark sightings make national news. Just this past June, great white shark sightings in Massachusetts and New Jersey cleared beaches and were widely reported across the country.

Often thought of as mindless, aggressive killers, sharks—and their toothy jaws—are featured prominently in movies and TV shows, always adding drama with a hint of fin visible above the water’s surface. Despite the fascination that we all feel for sharks, these important apex predators remain seriously misunderstood.

Most people think of great whites when they think of sharks, but there are actually more than 375 shark species, ranging in size from the 8-inch dwarf lantern shark to the 65-foot whale shark.

Here are just a few shark species that can be found at the Aquarium:

The vast majority of sharks are carnivores, but exactly what they eat depends on what they can catch. Larger shark species may prefer seals or large fish. Other species may opt for mollusks, clams, squid, and other small marine animals. One thing is certain—humans are not the preferred menu choice—far from it.

Of the hundreds of shark species, only 12 are considered even potentially dangerous to people, with great whites, bull sharks, and tiger sharks responsible for most attacks on humans. In 2012, approximately 80 shark attacks occurred worldwide, with seven fatalities. When one considers how fearful the general public is of sharks, it’s remarkable to learn that as many as 100 million sharks are killed by people each year. The fact is, sharks have far more to fear from humans.

While sharks may be at the top of the food chain, they are susceptible to threats such as shark finning, overfishing and bycatch. As top predators, most shark species produce relatively few offspring and take years to reach reproductive maturity. The whale shark, for example, doesn’t reproduce until the age 30. When killed in great numbers, sharks don’t have the opportunity to reproduce, and the long-term viability of the population is threatened.

So why should we worry about sharks? Let’s start with the fact that they’re absolutely critical to healthy ocean ecosystems. Scientists refer to sharks as a keystone species, meaning that the whole complex food web relies on them. From their perch at its top, sharks keep populations of other fish in check, naturally select out old and sick fish, and control populations so that other prey fish can’t cause an imbalance in the ecosystem. By doing the essential job of population control, sharks actually ensure adequate biodiversity in marine habitats.

Besides regulating the food web, sharks are believed to keep coral reefs, sea grass beds, and other vital habitats healthy. Essentially, sharks regulate the behavior of other species by intimidating them, preventing any one species from over-consuming critical habitat.

Because of the severe population decline of many shark species, several states, Maryland included, have taken steps to protect sharks by prohibiting the sale, trade, and transfer of shark fins, and many conservation organizations are advocating for even greater protection of these ocean-dwellers.

This summer, if you’re fortunate enough to spent time at the ocean, don’t let fear of sharks prevent you from enjoying the water. Be sensible, but not afraid. As you’ve no doubt heard, you face much greater risk driving to the shore than you do from the sharks that live there!

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Great White Shark Spotted Off New Jersey Coast

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Last week, reports surfaced that a 16-foot-long great white shark was spotted off the coast of New Jersey, near Atlantic City. While the sighting caused a good deal of commotion, great whites are actually spotted on occasion in our area.

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The great white spotted off the NJ coast. Photo: Rob Pompilio

Additionally, species like the smooth and spiny dogfish, sandbar sharks and sand tiger sharks are also found in our area. In the summer months, tiger, dusky, common threshers, shortfin makos and blue sharks will also frequent the deeper waters in our area.

It’s important to note that shark attacks are rare. Sharks are not the “man-eating machines” they are often perceived to be. In fact, species like the great white far prefer seals and other marine mammals as their choice meal. Shark incidents usually occur if the animal mistakes a human for prey.

To avoid any confusion with these animals, here are some important safety tips for beach-goers this summer: 

  • Don’t swim alone.
  • Don’t swim at dawn or dusk.
  • Avoid areas where seals live.
  • Don’t swim in areas where you see active bait (small fish) near shore.

In reality, sharks have more to fear from us than we do from them. Over 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year. Did you know great white sharks are a federally protected species? From bycatch (when animals are caught unintentionally) to shark finning (the practice of slicing off the fins of a live shark and then discarding the animal at sea), even the largest predatory fish on Earth is not immune to human-related threats.

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Thoughtful Thursdays: Maryland Shark Fin Ban Signed Into Law!

government affairs and policy update

Governor Martin O’Malley signed a bill prohibiting the sale, trade, and distribution of shark fins into law this morning, making Maryland the first state on the East Coast to grant sharks this crucial protection.

Governor Martin O'Malley signing the shark fin ban into law.

Governor Martin O’Malley signing the shark fin ban into law.

Our home state has now joined California, Hawaii, Illinois, Oregon and Washington in enacting laws regarding shark finning. Perhaps most exciting of all, the state of Delaware passed similar legislation only last night and New York is poised to do the same in the coming weeks.

Maryland’s law, which will help curb the unjust killing of approximately 100 million sharks every year, was sponsored by Senator Brian Frosh and Delegate Eric Luedtke and passed by the Maryland General Assembly with bipartisan support earlier this year.

There are as many as 62 species of shark found off the Atlantic coast of North America (and 12 species found right in the Chesapeake Bay). Because they have few natural predators, are slow to mature and produce very few young, shark populations are very sensitive to environmental and commercial fishing pressures. Their continued depletion could cause irreparable damage to marine ecosystems around the world.

The National Aquarium worked closely with the bill sponsors, the Humane Society of the United States, the National Wildlife Federation, Oceana, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and recreational watermen on the issue. The new law provides exemptions for commercial and recreational fishermen, a museum, college, or university to possess a shark fin. The mid-Session addition of an amendment to exempt smooth-hound and spiny dogfish from the bill limits the impact on Maryland’s hard-working watermen yet still protects the most vulnerable families of sharks – large apex predators. The resulting legislation addresses both the supply and demand side of the market for shark fins by prohibiting the sale, trade, possession, and distribution of both raw and processed fins.

As part of our mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures, we take very seriously our responsibility to educate guests on the majesty and importance of sharks to the worlds’ oceans. We’d like to sincerely thank all those who showed their public support of this ban and Delegate Eric Luedtke and Senator Brian Frosh for championing this legislation through the General Assembly!

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Maryland House of Delegates Passes Shark Fin Ban!

The House of Delegates has passed HB 1148 – Maryland’s proposed ban on the possession, sale and trade of shark fins! If adopted by the state Senate, Maryland would join California, Hawaii, Illinois, Oregon and Washington and all three U.S. Pacific territories of Guam,  American Samoa and Northern Mariana Islands in passing laws to provide critical protection to sharks and to preserve the health of the world’s ocean ecosystems.

Recent studies indicate that close to 100 million sharks are killed every year – a crippling statistic for the long-term survival of these incredible creatures!

Last month, National Aquarium’s CEO John Racanelli testified before the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee in favor of Maryland’s proposed ban on the possession, sale and trade of shark fins. John and others spoke passionately about the need to save our sharks and how these bills will end Maryland’s involvement in the unsustainable and inhumane market for shark fins.

Among those voicing their support for this legislation was fourth-grader Keegan Taylor. Keegan, donning an anti-shark finning t-shirt, displayed her great love of sharks and eloquently urged Maryland’s legislators to pass the bill.

Aquarium CEO John Racanelli and Keegan Taylor

Aquarium CEO John Racanelli and Keegan Taylor

When asked how she became so passionate about protecting sharks, Keegan said, “I first became passionate about sharks when I was 4 years old and watched Shark Week, which I look forward to watching every year. I then got lots of books about sharks and all of the Jaws movies and some shark documentaries. I learned that the author of Jaws worked really hard to help people understand that sharks are not enemies of people since the movie made some people scared. I love sharks and have posters all over my room and have written stories about them.”

Keegan’s Top Seven Reasons Why We Must Ban the Possession or Distribution of Shark Fins:

  1. It is cruel and inhumane to fin sharks. Shark finners cut off the shark’s fin and then throw the shark back in the water to die a painful death. It would be like cutting off your arms and legs and then throwing you in the middle of the street.
  2. It is depleting the shark population, placing many species on the endangered list. If the shark population is depleted – or worse, eliminated – it will disturb the entire ecosystem of the ocean. This will impact all food sources and have a negative impact on humans and many other species. For instance, depleted blacktip and tiger shark populations along the East Coast of the U.S. led to decreased shellfish populations, which led to decreased water quality since shellfish filter water. At this rate, the oceanic ecosystem that has evolved over millions and millions of years would collapse.
  3. It is basic supply and demand. If there is no demand for shark fins because owning or distributing them is illegal, then there will be no demand and no more shark finning.
  4. Shark fins are not even healthy for you! They contain high levels of mercury and add no flavor or consistency to food. The main reason behind finning sharks is for consumer consumption, and a recent study conducted at the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank found that consuming shark fins may put consumers at risk. The study, published in the journal Marine Drugs, found that shark fins from Florida waters have a high concentration of a neurotoxin (β-Methylamino-L-alanine) that has been linked to Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease.
  5. It’s a wasteful practice. Only the fin is saved while the rest of the shark is thrown back into the ocean. Shark meat is not popular because of the high ammonia content.
  6. President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act, banning shark finning in U.S. waters, but only five states have banned the distribution and possession of shark fins so far.
  7. The European Union, which is one of the largest exporters of shark fins to Asia, banned finning in 2003, but in a loophole, companies with freezer vessels applied for “special fishing permits” that allowed them to continue if they landed the fins separately from the bodies. The issuing of these permits became standard practice, making a mockery of the law. This loophole was recently closed.

Keegan will soon be visiting National Aquarium to go behind the scenes and meet our sharks! We’ll be sure to share a recap of her visit with everyone!

Why We’re Thankful for SHARKS!

Our blue planet has been inhabited by sharks for more than 420 million years. We now have close to 500 different species of sharks ranging in size from the dwarf lanternshark (only about 6 inches in length) to the whale shark (the largest fish in the world)!

Although they have become the subject of the international phenomenon otherwise known as Discovery Channel’s Shark Week (which boasted an average of 27 million viewers last year), there is still so much to learn about these amazing creatures.

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The very interesting tasselled wobbegong shark – coming to our new Blacktip Reef exhibit in summer 2013!

In honor of our mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures, we hope to educate our visitors and community about the misconceptions surrounding these amazing animals.

To get to know more about our sharks, we sat down with one of our shark caretakers, Alan Henningsen:

National Aquarium: How long have you been working with sharks? 

Alan Henningsen: I’ve been working alongside sharks for 32 years.

NA: What is your favorite shark species? 

AH: It’s hard to say! My favorite animal is by far the sawfish, which is actually a species of ray.

A sand tiger shark cruises slowly above sawfish in our Shark Alley exhibit.

I have worked with lemon sharks a lot over the years. Actually, the sand tiger sharks and sandbar sharks are my favorite.

The sand tiger sharks get up close and personal with visitors in our Shark Alley exhibit.

NA: What are your daily duties caring for the National Aquarium sharks? 

AH: My day-to-day duties include observing and recording behavior, maintaining the exhibit (e.g. lighting and cleaning), preparing food and feedings.

NA: How many sharks do you care for? 

AH: In our Shark Alley exhibit, I am currently caring for 10 large sharks (5 sand tiger, 2 sandbar and 3 nurse sharks), and 3 rays (2 freshwater sawfish and 1 roughtail ray).

NA: What’s your favorite fun fact about sharks? 

AH: That’s another tough one! I think the diverse way in which sharks reproduce is fascinating. From internal fertilization to asexual conception, sharks display a diverse array of reproduction cycles.

Want to get up close and personal with our amazing sharks and rays to learn even more about these species? Lucky for you, we are hosting a Shark Sleepover on Friday, November 23. Bring the out-of-town family too (we can almost guarantee it will make you the coolest member of your family).

What species of animal are YOU most thankful for this year? Tell us in the comments section below!


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