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John “Jack” Casey: Internationally Recognized Shark Researcher, Mentor, and Narragansett Lab Co-Founder

August 23, 2021

In celebration of our 150th anniversary, we are highlighting people who helped build the foundation of fisheries and marine science. Meet Jack Casey, a pioneer in shark research.

A scientist on the deck of a research ship at sea on a sunny day. He is holding a long pole with a sharp point at the end, used to insert tags into a shark’s fin.

John “Jack” Casey was born and raised in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Two days out of high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he served for 4 years on the destroyer escort USS Raymond. Following his military service, he returned to Turners Falls and worked at a paper mill for about 18 months. Seeking more on his horizon, Casey returned to school. He spent 2 years at the University of New Hampshire and 2 years at the University of Massachusetts, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in wildlife management in 1960.

A scientist in foul weather gear on the deck of a research ship on a cloudy day. He is using a long pole with a tag on its end, which he is attaching to a shark in the water below.
John “Jack” Casey tagging a shark on a research survey in 1989. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

That same year, Casey started working at the U.S. Fish and  Wildlife Service’s Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife laboratory at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. He began to study sharks of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean in 1961, when sharks were unstudied and misinformation abounded. 

Realizing just how much information could be obtained by working with sport and commercial fishermen, Casey initiated the Cooperative Shark Tagging Program in 1962 with less than 100 volunteer fishermen who were eager to help science. Since then, thousands of fishermen have stepped up to join forces with NOAA Fisheries to tag sharks all over the Atlantic. 

Fishermen participating in the program have tagged more than 300,000 sharks and recaptured more than 18,000 of many different species. Data gathered through the program are a font of information on the distribution, movements, and migration of more than 30 shark species. The program has resulted in numerous publications, and served as the basis for undergraduate honors projects, master’s degree theses, and Ph.D. dissertations. Most well-known, however, are the two “shark atlas” publications showing the first detailed distributions and movements of tagged Atlantic sharks. 

A research scientist on the deck of a ship at sea on a sunny day with a shark caught for biological sampling on this research survey cruise. He holds a set of calipers used to measure different parts of the shark’s body.
Jack with calipers measuring a shark. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

In 1970, NOAA was created by executive order. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bureau of Commercial Fisheries and the saltwater labs of its Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife were combined and moved to NOAA to form the National Marine Fisheries Service, now informally known as NOAA Fisheries. Casey was instrumental in setting up the new NOAA marine fisheries laboratory in Narragansett, Rhode Island. The Apex Predators Program he founded moved from the Sandy Hook Laboratory (which was by then also part of NOAA’s new fisheries service) to the Narragansett Laboratory. It remains there to this day. 

Casey founded the Cooperative Shark Tagging Program and changed the course of knowledge on Atlantic shark movements and distribution. That alone is enough to make him a NOAA Fisheries science superhero. But Casey simultaneously started a life history program on sharks encompassing age and growth, reproduction, and food habits. His team produced groundbreaking science on all aspects of shark biology. Collaborations between Casey’s team, its successors, and experts at other institutions have led to widespread use of program data. They have exponentially increased our knowledge of sharks in the Atlantic. These lines of research continue to provide direct support for maintaining sustainability of these species.

A research scientist crouched on the deck of a ship at sea next to a shark. The shark is on its side, with its pectoral fin extended. The scientist is using a tape measure to determine the height of its gills.
 Jack Casey measuring the gill height of a shark in the early 1960s. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Jack Casey is recognized nationally and internationally among his peers. He has been an invited speaker at scientific meetings around the world. He has appeared on several sportfishing shows, and authored or co-authored numerous scientific and popular articles. He has been honored with numerous awards, including the Department of Commerce bronze medal and the bronze medal awarded by the Morski Institute (Poland’s national marine fisheries service). He was also named a distinguished fellow by the American Elasmobranch Society. Through his outreach and public education work, he helped turn the public perception of sharks from “the only good shark is a dead shark” to the conservation-oriented value placed on sharks today.

As a pioneer in shark research, Jack Casey‘s influence is global and has proliferated through generations of students he has mentored and who have chosen careers in shark research. His contribution to shark science has been aided by his fighting spirit and determination. His excitement for sharks and his charismatic personality helped him forge a diverse group of volunteers into a team of collaborators dedicated to furthering shark research.