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Aug 28, 2017 8:00 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Second Season Of White Shark Research Solidifies Long Island As Nursery

The crew and scientists of the Ocearch caught a juvenile white shark on Thursday morning, took a batter of biological samples and affixed satellite tracking tags to its fins before setting it free. Michael Wright
Aug 29, 2017 10:26 AM

The shark research organization Ocearch last week wrapped up its second summer of catching and tagging juvenile great white sharks just yards off the beaches of the South Fork, cementing the region’s designation as a known nursery for the young sharks—one that can be expected to give researchers a reliable resource for further study of the species for years to come.

The group, which collaborated with 18 different scientific studies during this summer’s two-week expedition, implanted satellite tracking tags in 11 more young-of-the-year and 1-year-old white sharks this year, bringing the total for the two years to 20 sharks.

“Our goal was to get 20 tags out there—that is a very good sample set to learn from,” Chris Fischer, the founder of Ocearch, said aboard the expedition’s namesake vessel anchored barely a mile off the beaches of Hither Hills in Montauk on Thursday, August 24. “What this year’s expedition taught us is that we can have steady interactions with white sharks over a period of time here—which means we have predictable access that can be leveraged by scientists in the future.”

Over the last two weeks, the Ocearch crew fished daily from small boats, typically just a half mile off the beaches below Hither Hills. When one of the boats would hook a small white shark, the crew would lead it over to the 126-foot Ocearch, which is outfitted with a broad submersible platform onto which the shark would be guided.

With a hose gushing sea water inserted in its mouth and a wet towel over its eyes to keep it calm while the scientists worked, the shark would give up blood and tissue samples before being fitted with a satellite transmitter and released back to the sea.

The group has said it will not return to Long Island next summer, instead handing off the effort to continue the research on the young white sharks to the Long Island Shark Collaborative. That is a group of former Southampton College marine science graduate students led by Southampton High School science teacher Greg Metzger and NOAA biologist Tobey Curtis who spurred Ocearch’s interest in exploring the extent of the white shark nursery off Long Island and have been assisting the Ocearch team the last two summers.

Mr. Metzger said this week that while the collaboration’s scientists have been the leaders of the studies, so they have the science down, what the Ocearch group has done to help them the most is teach them how to fish.

Mr. Metzger, an avid fisherman already, hooked one great white shark last year at the tail end of the expedition. This year, after some tutelage by Captain Brett McBride of Ocearch and his mates, he hooked four.

“There’s nobody here on Long Island that I could call to help me catch white sharks specifically. They are phenomenal fishermen and they have been catching them for years,” Mr. Metzger said.

Being able to continue catching the small white sharks will allow the scientists to expand the data sets started by the 20 sharks tagged by the Ocearch expeditions.

“A lot of the data that we’re collecting, it’s the first time anyone on the planet has gotten this data on young-of-the-year sharks,” Mr. Metzger said. “We’ve got years and years of data to collect still. We knew they were here but we didn’t know if they were here for a week or a month.”

The first year of tracking, Mr. Curtis said aboard the research vessel on Thursday, indicates that the baby sharks, which were likely born off the Carolinas in March or April, arrive in Long Island waters in late May or June and linger until September, feeding on forage fish, before swimming south again.

Mr. Fischer—a Kentucky native who founded Ocearch on the heels of an ESPN television series that followed him, Mr. McBride and their crew on fishing trips up and down the Pacific Coast—said that the expedition is eager to see how the sharks tagged last year change their behavior or how their range will expand in their second year of migration.

Several of the sharks tagged on the most recent expedition have been spotted by the satellite trackers—which can be followed at Ocearch.org or through the group’s mobile phone app “Shark Tracker”—still in the waters off Long Island.

Mr. Fischer said it is encouraging that eight of the nine young-of-the-year white sharks tagged last year had also “pinged” within the last two months—meaning that they are still alive and swimming.

“That they’ve survived and there hasn’t been a lot of [mortality] across the first year’s migration, it’s really kinda hard to believe,” he said. “I think it’s a testament to the management that was done in the 1980s and 1990s to protect fisheries, that these large predators are benefiting from, also.

“These are super coastal sharks—you can see they’re swimming right off the beach—so the actions taken to protect other coastal fish are helping these sharks out as well.”

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One of the great books about sharks was Thomas B. Allen's 1963 "Shadows in the Sea: the Sharks, Skates and Rays," one I'm confident was Peter Benchley's inspiration for Jaws with its recounting of the Matawan Great White which killed five people in New Jersey back in 1916.

In one of those chapters, he asserts that Great South Bay up around Captree is the second largest Hammerhead nurseries in the world, behind only an area off Australia as I recollect.

By Frank Wheeler (1818), Northampton on Aug 30, 17 2:11 PM
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