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Oceanicallstars Onboard With the RJ Dunlap Shark Research and Marine Conservation Program

The RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program (formerly South Florida Student Shark Program) is part of the University of Miami’s ongoing efforts to educate the community about environmental issues. The mission of the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program is to advance ocean conservation and scientific literacy by combining cutting edge research and outreach activities. DiverWire.com SHARK correspondent Jillian Morris recently joined one of the shark tagging expeditions. Here’s her story.

With Dr. Neil Hammerschlag and his team of interns at the helm, South Florida high school students are able join shark survey and tagging trips. The data collected is extremely valuable and encourages students to take an active role in current scientific research and education.

I was fortunate enough to join the team on a recent trip, to film and photograph the work they are doing. As a marine biologist that has done shark research around the world, I was eager to see the integration of raw science with the community. Most of the time, research and data collection is reserved for university students enrolled in a program and the scientists they work with. By immersing people at a younger age, it is possible to inspire goals and instill positive everyday practices. The students on this trip were from Palmer Trinity School, where program member Leann Winn, is a science teacher. Joe Romeiro of 333 Productions was also onboard to capture images. Our day started at Sea Base in Islamorada, Florida, where we loaded the camera equipment and plenty of frozen barracuda before heading out to sea.

The fishing site was selected because it offered calmer conditions; making the ride and work much more manageable. The fishing technique used is “circle-hook drumlines”, which is modified ‘hook and line’ that selectively targets sharks, reduces capture stress and duration, and minimizes the bycatch of other species. Circle hooks are used because they allow safe hooking of sharks in the side of the mouth, where they can be easily and quickly removed. This style of hook prevents foul hooking in the gut, which can be lethal for the shark. Each drumline has a large weight attached to a main line with surface buoys at the other end. A shackle attaches another line with a baited circle hook to the main line. This allows the shark to continue swimming regularly while hooked. The techniques and equipment used have been developed to minimize handling time, reduce stress and be as minimally invasive on the animal as possible.

While we waited for the lines to soak, the kids reviewed the techniques and equipment for the workup and jobs were assigned. It is important that everybody is organized and ready if there is a shark on the line. Efficiency is necessary in order to collect all the needed data and get the animal back in the water and swimming as soon as possible.  The workup of each shark includes measuring the length, taking a biopsy for mercury analysis, a blood sample and a fin clip for DNA, as well as inserting a roto and dart tag. These tags give each shark an identity and provide contact information if the animal is caught or found. Some sharks even get a satellite tag, depending on the research that is currently being done. The tags are not permanent and will eventually fall off, with the application area healing very quickly.

When the time arrived to check the lines everyone’s energy was high. For many of the students it will be their first time ever seeing a shark and you never know what might be on the end of the line! At the end of our checks we had caught 3 nurse sharks, 2 black tip sharks and a black nose shark. I have to say I was slightly disappointed that we did not get a hammerhead, but it was still amazing to see these healthy animals. Those 6 sharks, although captured and uncomfortable for a bit, are apart of the greater good for the oceans. They are ambassadors for their species and for all sharks across the world.

The data collected provides insight into the life history of these animals, better enabling us to understand how to protect them. Previous research has helped put legislation in place, for the protection of lemon sharks in Florida waters. Hopefully, programs like this will help establish laws to protect other species as well, not only locally, but also globally.  Photos and video carry the message to a broader audience, allowing people to see what happens on a tagging trip and why it is not only valuable, but also absolutely necessary. Students can show their family and friend and the conservation message spreads.

Every student on the boat left with a huge smile and a better understanding of the ocean. It is always amazing to see the science world connecting to the average person, especially younger generations. Making a connection to these animals at an early age is vital to changing perceptions. Not every student that goes through the program will become a marine biologist, but hopefully they will all be, marine advocates.

For more information about the program or to see additional images please check out www.rjd.miami.edu and www.oceanicallstars.com

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