URI student’s summer research has him planning career studying sharks

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Amherst, Mass., native to merge marine biology, engineering

KINGSTON, R.I. – September 15, 2015 – Johann Becker’s first day of shark fishing last month was a challenge. The seas were rough and most of the people aboard were seasick – Becker included – which made it difficult to impress the National Geographic and NBC10 film crews that joined the expedition.

And when the University of Rhode Island junior finally caught his first shark, it took a while to learn the technique for reeling it in.

“Once I finally got it close to the boat, it would run and take all the line out again,” said the Amherst, Mass., resident. “It was a 20-minute fight, and I was exhausted when it was over.”

It was also a valuable learning experience. The fishing trip, led by URI shark expert Brad Wetherbee, was part of Becker’s summer research on shark behavior. Unfortunately, they caught mostly blue sharks and none of their target species, mako sharks, which they had hoped to tag to track their travels.

Wetherbee had plenty of other mako shark data for Becker to work with though. The goal of Becker’s summer research was to analyze the routes taken by previously tagged sharks to learn about their feeding and migratory behavior.

“When you look at the data, you see that sometimes they go straight for a thousand miles without stopping, and then they stop and zigzag around one spot for a month or two before going straight again,” said Becker, a marine biology and ocean engineering major. “They’re transiting from one place to another and then staying in one area to feed.”

He spent a great deal of time analyzing data and comparing each shark’s movement patterns to chlorophyll concentrations, ocean depth and other oceanographic parameters to determine “why they go where they go and why they decide to stay where they stay.”

Becker had hoped to go shark fishing regularly – including trips in New Jersey and Connecticut – but the weather seldom cooperated and boat malfunctions canceled additional trips. Yet the two days he made it out on the water resulted in 10 and 8 shark captures, respectively, though no makos.

“I still got a lot of good experience working with the data, and that’s something I’ll definitely use again,” he said.

And he enjoyed learning about the satellite tracking devices used to monitor shark movement patterns. Wetherbee told him that none of the various devices he uses can collect all of the data he seeks, which motivated Becker to consider a career that uses his engineering expertise to create improved tracking devices for use in biological studies.

Becker’s research was part of the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique initiative designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its 20th year, it is based at URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences. Students are paired with a mentor and research staff to help them gain skills relevant to their academic major and future occupations.

Becker said that sharks have always been one of his three favorite marine creatures – along with octopus and sea turtles – but his summer of research moved sharks up to the top spot. With just a few semesters left before graduation, he is carefully considering how sharks will play a role in his future career.

“I’m strongly considering graduate school, but I also want to just get out there and do some field work,” he said. “I hope to get a chance to travel where the sharks are and continue studying them.”