The past, present and future of shark research

The longest running shark survey in the U.S. takes place off the coast of North Carolina. After nearly 50 years, Carolina researchers are still making discoveries.

Press the play button above to watch a video from the 2018 survey.

The survey methods may be the same, but the science has evolved — and so have the stakes.

Since 1972, researchers from the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) have used baited longlines to capture and release sharks in order to gather data critical to understanding the ancient predators. The baseline established in 1972 relied on visual observation of the sharks’ size and species. While size and species type are still important, today’s Carolina scientists are studying isotopes from tissue samples and the molecular makeup of cells for clues about breeding, eating habits and other behaviors and even wider ecosystem trends and warning signs.

Using the latest research methods, from a small sample of a shark’s tissue, a scientist can learn about the health and abundance of the shark’s principal prey and, in turn, which species are declining or emerging in the ecosystem. Those variances often indicate habitat loss, over-fishing or even pollution affecting a key species in the food chain. By leveraging the largest and longest-running collection of data on shark populations in the U.S. with new research techniques, future researchers can use sharks as a litmus test for ocean health and climate change.

Fishing for data

Professor Frank Schwartz officially started the shark survey in 1972, although he unofficially began collecting data on sharks off the coast of North Carolina in 1965. What’s most remarkable about the program, however, is how consistent it has remained over nearly a half century. The researchers gather survey samples from the same location using the same gear — including the same type of boat – meaning that ostensibly the data is comparable across time. The composition of shark species in each survey is the only changing variable — sharpnose and blacknose are now caught more frequently than other species, in contrast to the overall diversity of past data.

The survey takes place on a 48-foot research vessel, the Capricorn, at two locations off the coast of Shackleford Banks in Carteret County, North Carolina. Once every two weeks in the spring, summer and fall, the Capricorn’s captain navigates to fixed stations, between one and seven miles out to sea, while a crew of faculty, staff and graduate students deploy a trawling net out behind the boat to catch small bait fish. The crew members then bait up to 100 hooks on short lines, called gangions, and attach those at intervals to the mainline, which they trail behind the boat for almost a mile. After exactly one hour, they reel in the mainline and, one by one, researchers identify, measure and record information about the day’s catch.

A crew sets the hooks for sharks after trawling for bait in 2019. (Photo courtesy of the UNC Institute for Marine Sciences)

A crew sets the hooks for sharks after trawling for bait in 2019. (Photo courtesy of the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences)

The goal is to gather all the necessary data quickly to avoid harming the sharks, so all faculty, staff and graduate students aboard work simultaneously. They identify each shark by species and then record the length from the end of the snout to the tip of the tail. Depending on the researchers aboard that day, different biological samples are also taken — a small piece of tissue, a blood draw or a swab of the shark’s digestive track. Finally, they tag the shark, in case it is ever caught again by another fisherman or group, and release it back into the water. The entire process takes less than two minutes per shark. Forty-eight years of practice makes perfect.

Did you know? Sharks tagged off the coast of North Carolina have migrated all the way to California.

Although ecologists have measured and identified over 10,000 sharks since the beginning of the survey, current research has shifted to examining sharks at the microscopic level.

Old survey, new research

Ph.D. candidate Jeff Plumlee in the enviroment, ecology and energy program (E3P) in the College of Arts and Sciences studies how sharks fit into the food web by analyzing what molecules make up their cellular structure, using the concept “you are what you eat.”

“I collect a small tissue sample from the sharks and look at the stable isotopes that make up those tissues, and calculate the proportion of naturally occurring carbon, nitrogen or sulfur isotopes that make up the shark,” Plumlee said. “I can then identify what food sources most closely resemble the signatures we see within the sharks’ tissues, which gives us an idea of what the sharks’ primary food sources are and helps us understand what other species are dietarily important within the food web.”

Plumlee isn’t alone in his research; graduate student Savannah Ryburn, also of the E3P program, is trying to answer the same research question but through a different technique.

“I swab each shark’s intestinal tract for fecal matter and use DNA analysis to break down the different living organisms that make up its diet,” said Ryburn. She and Plumlee can later compare the results of their respective studies and check if they jibe.

Ryburn swabs a juvenile blacktip shark in February before the pandemic made wearing a face covering necessary. (Image courtesy of Savannah Ryburn)

Ryburn swabs a juvenile blacktip shark in February before the pandemic made wearing a face covering necessary. (Image courtesy of Savannah Ryburn)

Ryburn’s research is well-suited to the shark survey, but she originally planned on conducting her study almost 3,000 miles away at the Galapagos Science Center. The travel required for her research this summer became impossible during the COVID-19 pandemic, and when she and her advisor, Professor John Bruno of the department of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, searched for a local alternative, they found the perfect fit for her at the IMS.

Both Plumlee and Ryburn’s research provides new ways for ecologists to map out how sharks fulfill different roles in a variety of ecosystems. Sharks are highly migratory and travel long distances, even traversing oceans depending on the season, and their diets can vary widely depending on location and time. When sharks co-occur, there is a partitioning of resources among different species of sharks that is based on their dietary preferences and life stage. However, how and when sharks change their diets is still not fully understood by scientists. The new methods used by the researchers at IMS to track sharks’ diets and molecular makeup will help researchers understand diet specialization among, and potentially even within, shark species.

The importance of tracking different sharks’ diets is also based on the species’ role as “ecosystem engineers” that regulate the diversity and distribution of prey. That regulation is essential to maintaining the precarious balance in estuaries, shallow bodies of water where fresh and salt water meet, which serve as essential habitat for animals that make up a large portion of the coastal food web. Sharks, small fish and even shellfish all live in estuaries for at least part of their life cycles, and many live in the brackish water for their entire life cycle.

Balancing the ecosystem

According to Associate Professor Joel Fodrie at the IMS, sharks are key species to measure because they often represent the health of their ecosystem.

“Sharks serve as a ‘canary in the coal mine,’” said Fodrie. “They integrate all the irregularities that surround them, so if the water quality gets screwed up, or the crab population suddenly decreases, sharks register all those changes and can reflect the fact that your system is performing differently.”

Although these “canaries” have a bigger bite, sharks are as vulnerable to environmental changes as any other species. Some sharks rely upon healthy estuaries to reproduce, and smaller sharks make the brackish, shallow water their permanent home. When their natural prey either exceeds its population or decreases suddenly, there can be disastrous repercussions for marine life from the top to the bottom of the food web.

A Ph.D. student at the Institute for Marine Sciences holds a shark before taking its measurements (Photo courtesy of Mary Lide Parker/UNC Research)

A Ph.D. student at the Institute of Marine Sciences holds a shark before taking its measurements. (Photo courtesy of Mary Lide Parker/UNC Research)

Fodrie uses a recent observation of the sea turtle population to illustrate the effect: “Sea turtle numbers are increasing because there’s less control on their population due to decline in shark numbers. But, as a result, in some parts of the world turtles are mowing sea grass down at an irreplaceable rate. Sea grass is a habitat and breeding ground for smaller fishes and invertebrates, so without those grasses we see these smaller animals decline in numbers — some of which are ecologically or economically prized themselves.”

Surveying the decline

The diversity of shark species found off the coast of North Carolina in different seasons has remained steady at around 50 since the first UNC-IMS longline shark survey, but data shows a clear decline in overall shark population since 1972.

“There are several species of sharks that are thought to be overexploited, mostly medium to large species, like dusky sharks or sandbar sharks,” said Fodrie. “The survey data would suggest that since the 1980s, the numbers of medium to large sharks in North Carolina have slowly declined.”

Infographic of the percentage of shark species decline

(Graphic courtesy of UNC Research)

The decrease in population may be due to any one or a combination of factors: habitat loss, pollution or food sources disappearing. An irrational fear of shark attacks also permeates popular culture and silences calls for preservation, usually cited as beginning when “Jaws” hit theaters in 1975. In response to that fear, Fodrie said he would remind everyone that their chances of being attacked by a shark are so small, it’s almost incalculable.

“Sharks are incredibly efficient and skillful hunters, so they would only bite a human if they were confused by either sight or smell and mistook you for prey,” said Fodrie. “Under normal circumstances they have no interest in humans. Everyone who has been in the ocean has likely been within 100 yards of a shark, but only an average of five people die from shark encounters per year in the entire world.”

Did you know? You’re more likely to die being struck by a champagne cork than from a shark encounter.

The survey continues

The hallmark of the IMS shark survey is its longevity, and as the second faculty member to lead the project, Fodrie hopes the survey will continue for another 50 years.

“A data set this extensive is uniquely remarkable, and our data will be important to future researchers in multiple fields,” said Fodrie. “Shark population numbers can also be used to measure the effects of climate change and pollution in the ocean, which will be very valuable in the near future.”

During trips to sea in the summer of 2020, the survey has reflected a slight increase in populations of threatened species since 2018. Fodrie believes this is a positive sign that some threatened species may be making a comeback, which is a trend he’s happy to record.