Southern Sharks Showing Up On Sharktivity App

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Southern Sharks Showing Up On Sharktivity App

By Tim Wood, Cape Cod Chronicle

CHATHAM – The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy's Sharktivity smartphone app is usually pretty quiet during the winter and early spring months. The white sharks that visit Cape waters during the summer are usually long gone by the new year, and the first sightings of the season usually don't happen until June.

It may have come as a surprise, then, when notifications of shark detections began showing up on the app in January.

Some of those “pings” were after-the-fact detections found when data was downloaded from acoustic receiver buoys from around the Cape and southeastern Massachusetts waters. But others – as recent as April 9 – were nearly real-time and weren't local. The sharks showing up on the app were swimming in Atlantic waters between South Carolina and Florida.

Two white sharks – Hunter and Miss Carolina – were tagged off South Carolina by fisherman Chip Michalove of Outcast Sports Fishing. Miss Carolina was tagged Jan. 20, Hunter on March 9. According to Cynthia Wigren, president of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, Dr. Greg Skomal, who has been conducting a shark population study in Cape waters over the past three years, provided Michalove with two Smart Position and Temperature, or SPOT, tags to fasten to the dorsal fins of a couple of great whites. Whenever the sharks break the surface, the tags send a signal to a satellite which is then transmitted to the app.

SPOT tags differ from the acoustic tags that Skomal, senior marine fisheries scientist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, has attached to sharks here as part of his population study. When a shark with an acoustic tags gets close to a buoy equipped with a receiver, the time, date and individual identity of the shark registers. The data showing those detections, however, has to be downloaded manually from the receiver and then uploaded to the app, whereas the SPOT tags register in real time. Michalove has placed a half dozen acoustic tags on sharks off South Carolina, according to his website.

In a Facebook posting, Skomal said he was “ecstatic” to employ the technology on white sharks in their overwintering grounds in the southeast. “This contributes significantly to our research into the movement ecology of this species, which we started more than a decade ago,” he said. “The ability of Captain Chip Michalove to capture and minimally handle this species off SC is a testament to his skill set.”

Wigren explained that Skomal did not want to use SPOT tags in his Cape population study because attaching them is a more disruptive process than simply jabbing the fish with a harpoon, which is how the acoustic tags are attached. Sharks must be captured so that the SPOT tag can be attached to the dorsal fin, and those sharks then tend to leave the area.

That was the basis of a dispute last year between Skomal and OCEARCH, the research nonprofit that tags sharks around the world. OCEARCH came to Cape waters with its large ship that hoists sharks out of the water to be tagged, tested and sampled. Skomal was concerned those sharks would then leave the area and that would skew the sample population for his study.

Unable to get a permit to operate in state waters, OCEARCH ended up keeping its ship within federal waters, a narrow sliver between Monomoy and Nantucket. They managed to tag several sharks, most of which immediately bolted from the vicinity. Sharks tagged with SPOT tags by OCEARCH can be followed on that organization's Shark Tracker app.

Using SPOT tags on sharks off South Carolina would not have the same impact on Skomal's study, Wigren said. In addition, Michalove was able to tag the sharks without removing them from the water. They were the first sharks off South Carolina to receive SPOT tags.

While the SPOT tags do not register on acoustic receiver buoys, some sharks are outfitted with both kinds of tags, including Miss Carolina and Hunter. There are quite a few acoustic buoys up and down the Carolina coast, Wigren said, which will not only register Miss Carolina and Hunter, but the 85 sharks Skomal has affixed with acoustic tags over the past three years. Again, that data must be manually downloaded, but Wigren said if detections from Massachusetts sharks are found, the information will be communicated to Skomal and added to the Sharktivity app.

Wigren said the population study, funded by the Conservancy, will resume in mid June and continue through the end of October. Skomal was able to obtaining funding for acoustic tags – which cost about $400 – from the state, so the Conservancy will be concentrating its efforts on expanding the array of receiver buoys and raising money to purchase some Pop-off Satellite Archival Tags (PSAT), which cost about $4,000 each. PSATs differ from the acoustic and SPOT tags in that they collect a wide range of data and are programmed to detach from the shark at a specific time, float to the surface and transmit data via satellite.

Skomal used PSATs when he first began tagging sharks off Chatham in 2009, and last summer, working with Warren Joyce, a scientist from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, tagged three sharks here with PSATs, said Wigren. The tags were provided by the Canadian government, and Joyce was on board when Skomal attached them to the sharks. The tags are programmed to pop off the animals at a range of times; Skomal said in an email that one popped up off the coast of North Carolina in December, and the other two are scheduled to surface this summer. They will not only provide tracking information and but also data about water temperature and the depths to which the sharks dove. A PSAT that Skomal attached to white shark Curly showed she swam up to 2,500 feet deep in water much colder than researchers expected.

“There are a number of different tags and they all complement the work Greg is doing on the movement of sharks,” Wigren said. Being able to track detections of acoustic tags – by far the most abundantly deployed – in real time is right now the holy grail for local shark researchers. A new real-time receiver will be deployed this season.

An update of the free Sharktivity app to be released within the next few weeks will add the ability to track individual sharks, Wigren said, as well as new icons. The app is available for iPhones and Android devices, and has been downloaded more than 100,000 times.

Since Skomal's study began in 2014, a total of 257 individual great white sharks have been identified in the waters from Truro to Chatham, with the largest concentration off Monomoy, which also, not surprisingly, has the highest population of gray seals in the area.

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Cape Cod's Great White Shark Population May Be Growing

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Cape Cod's Great White Shark Population May Be Growing

By Stephanie Pappas, Live Science Contributor

New shark-survey numbers could indicate a healthy population of great white sharks on the Atlantic Seaboard.

Summer surveys led by the Massachusetts Department of Fish & Game and funded by the nonprofit Atlantic White Shark Conservancy identified 147 great white sharks off the coast of Cape Cod between June 2016 and October 2016, including 89 new sharks that researchers hadn't seen in previous years.

The survey project began in 2014, when researchers identified 68 individual great white sharks in the same June-to-October period in the area. In 2015, the team identified 142 great whites, 101 of which hadn't been seen in 2014. [See Stunning Images of Great White Sharks]

The leap from 68 observed sharks to around 140 may mean that the population is growing — or it may not, said study leader Gregory Skomal, a senior marine fisheries biologist and the project leader of the Massachusetts Shark Research Program.

A great white shark nicknamed "Ping" is spotted off Nauset Beach, Massachusetts, on June 28, 2014. Researchers surveyed sharks by using an airplane to spot their silhouettes and then sending a boat to take video of individual animals.

"Some of the media has been very tempted to try to make that leap, and it's hard to do that right now," Skomal told Live Science. The researchers are now working to translate their survey results into estimates of the likely shark population, he said.

Summer visitors

Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They were overfished along the Atlantic coast of the United States for many years, Skomal said, but there is some evidence from various studies that their population may be bouncing back. (Harvesting great whites has been illegal in U.S. waters since 1991.)

"Those are positive signs that conservation is working," he said.

Great whites roam up and down the Atlantic coast and are drawn to Cape Cod for the seals that frolic there in the summer months, Skomal said. They very rarely bother humans: The last fatal great-white-shark attack in Massachusetts occurred in 1936, when a teenage boy was killed, according to Boston.com. There were no other confirmed great-white encounters in the state until 2012, when a great white attacked a 50-year-old man who was bodysurfing off Truro Beach. (He survived.) In 2014, two kayakers were knocked into the ocean by a great white shark that bit one of their boats; neither was attacked.

Nevertheless, Skomal said, the more information state officials have on great-white population dynamics and movements, the better equipped they will be to manage the beaches where both great whites and humans use the water. The National Park Service at Cape Cod National Seashore recommends that swimmers steer clear of seals, swim in groups, and avoid swimming at dawn and dusk, when sharks are the most active. [How to Avoid a Shark Attack]

What we know

Skomal and his colleagues have already found seasonal patterns to great-white movements near Cape Cod. Many, he said, leave the area at the end of summer or the middle of fall, and many return to Cape Cod year after year, though some appear to be newcomers.

"The second year, 70 percent of the sharks [identified] were new, and the third year, 60 percent of the sharks were new," Skomal said. It's possible that some of the new sharks are repeat visitors that were missed in previous surveys, which are done from airplane and boat. Others probably truly are first-time visitors, Skomal said.

The researchers have also noticed a broader size range of sharks since they first started tagging studies in 2009, Skomal said. More juvenile great whites could indicate a growing Atlantic shark population, he said. A doctoral student from the University of Massachusetts will be spearheading population-modeling efforts, Skomal said, which should clarify the true size of the great-white-shark population that visits Cape Cod. The researchers also plan to do two more years of summer surveys to keep an eye on Cape Cod's toothiest tourists.

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Pilot spots sharks from above to save surfers

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Pilot spots sharks from above to save surfers

By Lawrence Crook and Bob Crowley, CNN

Chatham, Massachusetts (CNN)The Cape Cod National Seashore is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the United States, but it's also known for its abundance of great white sharks.

"Jaws" was filmed on nearby Martha's Vineyard, adding to the local shark lore.

Thousands of seals call the shoreline their home. And where seals go, sharks go.

    "I wouldn't go swimming out there," a Cape Cod resident told CNN while watching the seals with his elderly father in Chatham Harbor recently. "Couldn't pay me to do it!"

    When the kids are back in school and family vacations have come and gone, local beaches are largely empty.

    On a recent fall day, a young man on his surfboard was the only person around. He sat about 50 yards offshore waiting for the next big wave -- completely unaware two adult great white sharks were swimming just 25 yards away.

    Biologists from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy are helping spot sharks to study the species and protect the public.

    But someone was watching out for the man above.

    "We've got two sharks swimming about 25 yards away from a surfer," Wayne Davis called over the radio from his airplane a few hundred feet above the young man.

    Davis is a fishing spotter pilot, who is contracted by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy to patrol the shoreline for sharks and radio back confirmed sightings to a boat of eager scientists below.

    While the sharks might keep some people from wading far from shore, this group of biologists does the opposite -- spending a majority of their time patrolling the shoreline studying the kings, and queens, of the ocean.

    The AWSC funds great white shark studies to increase knowledge of the Atlantic white shark and keep the public safe.

    From sighting to app alert

    "I'm calling it in," Cynthia Wigren, the founder of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, announced as she grabbed her iPad.

    Wigren quickly added the confirmed sighting to the group's Sharktivity mobile app. The app was developed by the AWSC in collaboration with the Cape Cod National Seashore, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, and officials from Cape Cod and other shore towns.

    Wigren also alerted the Regional Shark Working Group. Established in 2012, the group consists of local public safety officials from several shoreline communities. When the group is alerted of a shark sighting, they assess the credibility.

    "If they determine the sighting is credible, the lifeguards will pull all of the swimmers out of the water for an hour. If no further evidence of the shark presents itself within that hour, the lifeguards will let the swimmers back into the water," said Leslie Reynolds, chief ranger at the Cape Cod National Seashore.

    "Every day, our lifeguards work on their shark sighting drills ... which focuses on identification, communication and notification," Reynolds said.

    So far this year, the Cape Cod National Seashore beaches have pulled swimmers out of the water nine times due to confirmed shark sightings close to shore, according to Reynolds.

    "We've discovered that the white shark numbers are increasing here off of Cape Cod, and have been for roughly the last decade, and we firmly believe that that's driven by the growing seal population," said Dr. Greg Skomal, program manager and senior marine fisheries biologist for Massachusetts.

    Skomal, a regular on Discovery Channel's "Shark Week," has been studying marine life for more than 30 years. He and fellow biologist, John Chisholm, were the first to successfully tag and track great whites in the northwest Atlantic Ocean.

    Since 2009, 100 great white sharks have been tagged off the coast of Cape Cod, according to the AWSC.

    "Having seen and grown up during the era of 'Jaws,' one would expect that a touristy area like Cape Cod, which is a massive tourist resort destination, would be concerned about the presence of these animals. What's really quite refreshing, and surprising to me, is the fact that we're not seeing that. We're seeing folks that are almost embracing them, fascinated by them, are interested in them. They're drawn to what we're doing and they're drawn to these sharks, so that's refreshing," Skomal said.

    30 sharks spotted in single day

    As the boat pulled up to the surfer, Wigren yelled, "Get out of the water!"

    The surfer, recognizing the danger, quickly got out and waved a thank you. As the boat continued to patrol the shoreline, people on the beach clearly recognized them and waved as they passed by.

    Up above, Davis continued to call in sightings over and over again. Roughly 30 sharks were spotted that day.

    One of the sharks investigated by the team had been previously tagged by the AWSC. The shark's name is Specialist Brian Arsenault. The 12-foot shark was named after a 28-year-old soldier from Northboro, Massachusetts, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2014.

    "Brian's cousin, Elliot, reached out to us saying that Brian loved white sharks and that the two of them often talked about planning a cage diving trip in Mexico. We happened to tag a 12-foot male white shark the day Spc. Arsenault passed away. I've stayed in touch with his family, and we absolutely love that his family is following our operation," Wigren said.

    Wigren took a photo of the shark and sent it to Brian's mother, who follows the AWSC's operation closely.

    "Half of the ones, on average, that we see, we've seen before. The other half are brand new to us," Skomal said.

    Attacks on humans are rare

    Despite years of research, Skomal said scientists still "know virtually nothing about white shark migratory habits and behavior in this part of the world."

    And even though the Cape Cod shoreline boasts an abundance of great white sharks, attacks on humans are rare.

    In 2012, Chris Myers and his 16-year-old son ignored the warnings and decided to swim to a sandbar that was roughly 500 yards off the coast of Cape Cod's Ballston Beach. Before the two could get to the bar, they realized how far they were from shore and decided to turn around. It was at that moment the shark attacked.

    "I felt like I was caught in a vise," Myers said in an interview he gave to CNN. Myers was bit in the leg by an adult great white shark and several of his tendons were severed. He received 47 stitches to his right leg. His son was uninjured.

    Another incident occurred in 2014 when two women kayaking in nearby Plymouth were attacked by a great white. Their boats were ruined but they were not injured

      According to the Global Shark Attack File, there were 59 shark attacks in the United States in 2015, with one fatality in Hawaii.

      "Our mission is to learn as much as we can about the great white sharks to help sustain the population, while simultaneously learning as much as we can about them to help people make informed choices when they decide to venture into the water," Wigren said.

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