Tropical weather was too wet even for sharks

A boatload of researchers found just a few of the toothy fish they were looking for as Tropical Storm Andrea kicked up.

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — As Tropical Storm Andrea made weather conditions very sloppy, researchers were on the water fishing for sharks.

Darren Rumbold, Florida Gulf Coast University professor of marine science, is studying mercury in sharks, and University of Miami scientists are looking at the behavior and ecology of bull, tiger and great hammerhead sharks.

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Not the best day they’ve had.

“We went out there, put 40 baits in the water and caught six sharks, none of which we were targeting,” field technician Curt Slonim said. The scientists were offering barracuda, mahi mahi, tuna, mackerel and jacks as bait and caught two lemon, two nurse and two blacktip sharks. “Then we pulled the baits and came home. Oh, yeah, we got wet.”

The previous two days, the scientists had caught eight sharks, three nurse, two blacktip, two sharpnose, and one blacknose aboard the 25-foot research vessel C-Hawk.

When the scientists do catch their target species, they attach smart position or temperature satellite tags to the shark’s dorsal fin.

Every time the fish surfaces, the tag sends its position to a satellite.

Since 2010, the University of Miami has put tags on more than 100 sharks in the Florida Keys, Bahamas and Hawaii; it also has tagged 20 sharks off the coast of Lee County, Fla.

“We’re using these satellite tags, which collect a lot of different data, including depth, temperature, acceleration of the fish and its orientation in the water, to study habitat use,” said Catherine Macdonald, University of Miami laboratory manager. “The idea is to identify critical habitat for these fish, then push to protect it.”


For example, the University of Miami’s satellite data indicate that deep water off the Bahama Banks might be a tiger shark mating site, Macdonald said.

If tiger sharks are, indeed, mating in that area, fishery managers could close it to fishing during mating season.

“We have the potential to identify migration corridors for these species,” Macdonald said. “We haven’t done it yet, but we might eventually.”

Although the University of Miami researchers didn’t get any of their target species last week, Rumbold took tissue and blood samples from the lemon and blacktip sharks for his mercury study.

Mercury, especially the organic form methylmercury, can impair neurological development in human fetuses, infants and children.

Most fish and shellfish contain mercury, and the substance moves through the food web through bioaccumulation: When one animal eats another, the predator accumulates the prey’s mercury.

As top-tier predators, sharks can contain large amounts of mercury.

“Mercury concentration in sharks is a tool to look at shark biology,” Rumbold said. “It also gives us an indication of how it’s moving through the food web.”

At about 9 a.m. Wednesday, Macdonald, Slonim, Rumbold, University of Miami intern Megan Peighowski and Florida International University student Mike Ojeda made the first set of the day, dropping 10 drumlines around the MAY artificial reef three miles southwest of Big Carlos Pass.

As the boat rocked and the rain fell, Slonim summed up the conditions: “This would be a good day to rent a movie and take a nap.”

After an hour, the researchers pulled the lines and came up with a 3-foot-4-inch blacktip and an 8-foot-2-inch lemon shark.

Not a bad start, but not a great start, and that’s the way the rest of the day went: not bad, but not great, and very wet.

“Unfortunately, I think in part thanks to the weather, we didn’t get any of the species we were targeting,” Macdonald said. “We did catch some very good sized lemon sharks, which are always nice to see.

“It’s always good to see large healthy sharks because it tells you the population in the area is probably not in such bad shape. We also caught some nurse sharks and blacktips. Any day we get sharks is a good day.”

On Sept. 15, 2012, reporter Kevin Lollar of The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press encountered a 25-foot whale shark on Mohawk Veterans Memorial Reef off the coast of southwest Florida.

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