The race is on to save the sharks.
Researchers at Nova Southeastern University decided to create the Great Shark Race to bring attention to the overfishing of the ocean’s key predators.
Mahmood Shivji, director of the Delray Beach-based Guy Harvey Research Institute as well as the Save Our Seas Foundation at NSU, is the main mover behind NSU’s push to make sure that the shark populations are preserved. If they go away, the seas will be left with an imbalanced ecosystem, he points out.
Sharks seem to be an area of study that is a passion for NSU.
“We’ve been working with sharks for over 25 years or so now,” Shivji said. “We work on a variety of different things, including studying their genetic blueprint. We’re trying to learn more about what makes a shark a shark.”
It turns out that one of the best ways to learn about sharks in the field is to watch their behavior in the ocean.
“We study the behavior of sharks in their element,” he said. “The way we do this is by tracking them. The way you track a shark is with a transmitter, which we attach to the dorsal fin.
“The tag has to be out of the water to transmit its location to satellites in space. So basically, the shark has to be at the surface with its dorsal fin sticking out. If the shark is not at the surface, then you don’t hear from it.”
Shivji said that the teams he works with decided they needed a way to bring attention to the fish’s plight. That’s when the idea of a race came up.
“We thought that creating a race might get the public more interested, because people like contests,” he said. “But if we just kept on telling people that these sharks need to be conserved, people don’t normally pay that much attention.”
So the Great Shark Race was created. There are two races, one for whale sharks and one for mako sharks. Shivji said that they created the races for two fundamental reasons. One was that they want more people to be aware of the plight of both of these sharks because they are endangered species.
“The second very important reason is to be able to see if we can raise donations and sponsorships as part of this race, to then allow us to continue doing this type of research, which is quite expensive,” Shivji said.
“We decided to try and get company sponsors, where a business sponsors a tagged shark in the race,” he said. “I thought this was a good idea, but I was not all that optimistic that we would get many sponsors, but it far exceeded my expectations. The business community really stepped up in a big way.”
Not only can companies sponsor a shark, but they can also track the sharks’ progress online, which creates ongoing interest while they are swimming through the ocean. There’s even a leaderboard on the site where you can see the number of miles a particular fish has traveled and compare it to the other ones.
“The satellite picks up the signal from the shark tag, and then we can see exactly where it is,” Shivji said. “Every time we get a satellite detection from a shark with a tag, our program will put a new dot on a map.”
With the Great Shark Race underway, people, businesses and other sponsors can follow along, which makes it a fun event. But the bigger picture of the shark population issue is a serious one.
“The Shark Race is really part of a much bigger study to examine migration patterns of whale sharks and mako sharks,” Shivji said. “We’re trying to understand the behavior of these animals and how the environment influences their movements.”
Shivji points out that sharks’ movements are affected by the temperature of the oceans. And the impact of climate change is affecting the behavior of the sharks directly. He said that researchers want to understand their movements now so they can predict what the impacts might be as the climate shifts.
“If you find that there are some clear patterns in where animals are spending a lot of time, then that’s a place where they need to be protected because they’re basically when there are clusters of sharks, the danger for them is that it’s like shooting fish in a barrel by fishermen,” he said.
Shivji said that the federal government has decided that makos are overfished. They have announced that, at the current rate of capture, populations will decline rapidly and will be lost.
“We published a study in 2017 where we tracked over 105 sharks,” Shivji said. “We found that 30% of the sharks with satellite tags were captured by fishermen. That is a huge number. We found that the mortality rate for mako fishing in some areas was literally 10 times higher than what the regulatory agencies allowed.”
Shivji said studies can sometimes result in action being taken.
“Partly as a result of that study, the government agency that regulates fisheries has increased the size limits on mako recreational captures,” he said. “This has the effect of reducing the overall numbers fished. Also, now for commercial fisheries, if you catch mako and they’re still alive, you have to release it. In the past, any time fishermen caught a mako in their net by accident, they would keep it because their meat is valuable.”
What the Great Shark Race boils down to is that the sometimes scary predators are important to the balance of life in the ocean.
“If you remove sharks from the ocean’s ecosystem, you have cascading negative effects on the entire food web below them,” Shivji said.
On July 14, (International Shark Awareness Day), the mako and whale shark that logs the most miles/kilometers will be named winners.