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Scientists and Fishermen Unite to Record Valuable Shark Data

As NOAA Fisheries biologist Lisa Natanson puts on her boots and sharpens her knives, people start to circle around her to get a good view. They have been watching boat after boat come back to the dock with large sharks, waiting for one to meet the qualifications to merit further study. Finally, their patience pays off. A 300-pound behemoth is placed in front of Natanson, ready to be examined. She slices through the mako’s underbelly from head to tail as the crowd lets out sounds of shock, fascination, and repulsion all at once. As Natanson puts it, “It’s kinda circus-like in the ring.”

This scene has unfolded at countless shark tournaments over the years. Since the Northeast Fisheries Science Center first began collecting data from these recreational tournaments in 1961, the tournaments have given scientists the chance to work with local fisherman to combine recreational fishing with important research. During these dock-side analyses, scientists record basic information such as shark sex, size, and reproductive condition and then examine certain body parts to give insight into the shark’s life history, genetics, age and migratory patterns. This invaluable information helps NOAA Fisheries manage shark populations and ensure that the proper catch limits and regulations are applied.

The partnership between shark tournaments and NOAA Fisheries has proven especially productive during the last few years. In -2012, NOAA collected biological samples for life history studies as well as catch and morphometric data for more than 150 pelagic sharks at 8 recreational fishing tournaments in the northeastern United States. These data are then placed in a database where scientists like Nancy Kohler, chief of the Apex Predators Program in the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, analyze the findings of different shark populations.

“We want to know how old the sharks are, how fast they grow, what they eat, where they live, what kind of habitat they live in, stock identity—all of this basic information informs us about how many sharks people can catch,” Kohler says.

The most effective way to study these long-term trends is to tag the sharks caught during tournaments that emphasize the catch and release of sharks. That way, when a fisherman happens to catch this fish a few years or even decades later, scientists can see the development of that shark and gain precious insight into their life cycles.

“The exciting part for us is getting the long-term data on a particular species,” Kohler says. “Once you are able to get enough to say something, you can come to a realization about the shark that can actually feed into management.”

NOAA Fisheries is in charge of managing the health of the marine resources living up to 200 miles from the coastline of the United States. The most critical resource available for making these management decisions is the vast amount of data that NOAA compiles throughout its many offices. Gathering information about abundance, migration, and ecosystem changes can help policy makers decide when and where to implement or modify catch limits—the weight limit on fish that fishermen can catch in a fishing season.

Tournaments also provide a way for recreational fishermen and NOAA Fisheries to interact and learn from each other about different species and species management. “We bring identification materials and regulations…and we get localized knowledge of what’s going on and what’s being caught. It’s a win-win situation,” says Kohler. At the Shark’s Eye Tournament in Montauk, New York, fishermen enjoy the added benefit of getting to name any fish they catch that ends up in the electronic tagging program.

But the biggest thing this diverse group of spectators, fishermen, and scientists has in common is a love of sharks. Sharks are vicious, powerful, fear-inducing creatures that always seem to capture the imagination. “It’s the lure of sharks,” Natanson says. “I’d probably want to be in the audience if I wasn’t a scientist. I’d want to see one too.”