URI students join shark tagging expedition to learn about shark migrations

URI students join shark tagging expedition to learn about shark migrations

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URI student Kevin Anderson reels in a blue shark as other students look on during a shark research expedition off the coast of Rhode Island. Photo by Joel Silva

KINGSTON, R.I. – September 16, 2016 – Eight University of Rhode Island students participated in two days of shark fishing far off the Rhode Island coast this month to capture and tag mako sharks to gain insight into the animals’ migration.

The students traveled aboard the charter boat Snappa with URI shark researcher Brad Wetherbee to sites between 18 and 35 miles offshore where the sharks are known to spend time in summer and fall.

“There is a big difference between learning things while sitting in a classroom or in front of a computer and learning by actually experiencing something,” said Wetherbee. “These students got to go out fishing for sharks, see big, beautiful 9-foot sharks right next to the boat, and experience something that they will remember for a long time.  There is no substitute for experiences like that.”

Wetherbee’s research is aimed at learning about the health of mako shark populations, the migratory routes they travel, and the locations of their preferred feeding grounds. Makos, which he calls the “fighter jets” of the shark world for their speedy swimming abilities, are difficult to manage because they travel through the waters of dozens of countries, thereby requiring significant international cooperation to protect them from overfishing.

Using conventional fishing rods baited with tuna, the URI students caught and helped tag two blue sharks, each about 200 pounds. Although they were unsuccessful at catching their target species, the students said the experience cemented their desire to pursue careers in the marine environment.

Kevin Anderson, a senior marine biology major from Albany, N.Y., reeled in the first shark, a process that took about 20 minutes and just about every ounce of his energy.

“It was a thrill and really got my adrenalin running, even though my back was killing me from the strain of the rod and my fingers were cramping around the pole. You have to have a lot of endurance,” he said. “I was just hoping not to lose the fish in front of everybody.”

Anderson said he has been fishing since age 3 and has caught about 30 sharks during family vacations to Florida, the first when he was only 12-years-old. But he had never caught a blue shark before, or one as large as the one he reeled in southeast of Block Island.

“At first you don’t really know what it is – it could be a barrel you hooked for all you know,” he said. “But once you get it close and see its mouth open and see those teeth, it definitely gets your heart racing.”

Freshman Brandon Markiewicz of Baltimore joined the expedition after just three days of college classes. He, too, had shark fishing experience, having volunteered through the National Aquarium to help Wetherbee on a similar project off Ocean City, Md., while he was still in high school.

Noting that it took five hours before the group hooked its first shark, Markiewicz said that shark fishing is “a waiting game. It’s all about waiting for that one shark to swim by your bait. You would think that with the ocean being so big there would be tons of them and you would be catching them all the time,” said the ocean engineering major. “But it takes a lot of patience and has to be something you really want to do to come out here and sit on a boat for 10 or 12 hours.”

Junior Kirsten Fagan has been working with Wetherbee since she was a freshman, when the URI researcher learned of her enthusiasm for sharks.

“I’ve always had some sort of connection with sharks,” said Fagan, a marine biology major from Tolland, Conn. “Maybe it’s that sharks are misunderstood and I always felt misunderstood, too. Everyone has this fear of them, and while there is some truth to it that they’re dangerous, that’s only if you’re disrespecting them or messing with them.”

She joined her first shark research expedition last summer, and after reeling in her first shark she “found it incredible that I had to put so much effort into it and was barely making any progress,” she said. “The shark was just sitting there like it didn’t have a care in the world.”

It isn’t necessary for students to have shark fishing experience to join Wetherbee’s research team. Carly DeLiberty of Hershey, Pa., had always dreamed of being a marine biologist and working on the ocean, but she had never seen a shark in the wild before joining the expedition.

Standing on the deck of the Snappa, she said that even though she didn’t have a chance to reel in a shark herself, she “enjoyed the atmosphere, meeting people who have the same interest I do, and I can’t wait to come back again.

“My dream is to work with white sharks, but I’m happy starting right here,” added the senior marine biology major. “I’d like to tag them and research them, maybe go underwater with them. I don’t want to work at Pet Smart, I want to be right here.”