KINGSTON, R.I. – July 29, 2019 — When the National Marine Fisheries Service began encouraging fishermen to target sharks as an “underutilized resource” in the 1980s, little was known about the animals’ biology and ecology. But when shark populations soon plummeted, it spawned an abundance of research and monitoring. And Brad Wetherbee, a graduate student in Florida at the time who now lives in Lincoln, R.I., was caught up in the middle of it all.
“No one had talked about shark management or shark conservation until they realized that sharks were being overfished and declining around the world,” said Wetherbee, a professor at the University of Rhode Island who has studied sharks in Hawaii, the Caribbean and along the East Coast. “Their life history characteristics are such that they don’t sustain heavy harvest – they grow slowly, mature late, and don’t give birth to many young.”
Since then, he has focused his research on what he calls “movement ecology” – the study of shark migration patterns as they apply to marine conservation. “In order to manage a population, you have to know where that population is,” he said. “And sometimes that raises the question about whose waters are they in and what country or state is responsible for managing them. It also demonstrates the interactions between sharks and a wide variety of fisheries.”
Fishing is the biggest threat facing sharks, and the driving force for fishermen is the demand in China for shark fin soup, a delicacy that is responsible for the killing of as many as 70 million sharks each year.
“Sharks are the top predators in their ecosystems, and the ecosystem changes dramatically when you remove top predators – the communities become more vulnerable to disturbance, pollution, invasive species and other factors,” he said.
During the course of his research, Wetherbee – who has become the local media’s go-to expert for shark news – has tracked the movement patterns of hundreds of mako, tiger and oceanic whitetip sharks to learn their migratory routes and where they feed. His data was recently factored into a new study, published in the prestigious journal Nature, comparing the hotspots of global shark activity to the hotspots of global fishing activity.
“The areas overlap quite a bit,” he said. “The areas the sharks concentrate their activity in are also the areas where the fishermen concentrate their activity, and the fishing is having a major effect on their populations. The mako shark is one species that’s especially in trouble due to fishing.”
Wetherbee’s shark studies also led to the discovery of a new species of deep-sea shark, Laila’s lanternshark, which he named after his daughter.
But the URI scientist is perhaps most proud of his role in getting young people interested in sharks and marine science. More than 150 URI undergraduate students have contributed to his research, and dozens of high school students have participated in his Summer Shark Camp. He wrapped up the second camp two weeks ago with students from The Met School, Paul Cuffee High School, and Central High School in Providence, as well as from Central Falls High School.
“Sharks generate a lot of attention,” he said. “They’re a way to get students interested in marine science, get them out on boats, get them fishing, and give them an experience they wouldn’t have otherwise.