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Taming Jaws: Scientists lift great white sharks from ocean to fit with satellite tags


A group of scientists from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), working with the Marine and Coastal Management Branch of South Africa, have perfected an unusual, hands-on method to study great white sharks, where these fearsome predators are gently hauled into research vessels to receive high-tech satellite tags.

According to the scientists, the technique is safe to both shark and researcher, resulting in better data to understand – and ultimately protect – one of nature’s largest and most maligned carnivores. So far, seven sharks ranging up to eleven-and-a-half feet long and over 800 pounds have been tagged using this technique off the coast of South Africa, one of the world’s hot spots for great whites.

The sharks are baited with a hook and line, and quickly hoisted into a specially constructed cradle. At that point, a team of two veterinarians inserts a hose with oxygen-rich water into the shark’s mouth to keep them breathing while monitoring their condition. Meanwhile, a group of scientists attach the tag to the dorsal fin to record the fish’s movements. Before the shark is released, it is given a cocktail of medicine to ensure rapid recovery.

"We have gone to incredible lengths to make sure that our sharks are treated with the most rigorous standards of safety and ethics," said WCS researcher Dr. Ramón Bonfil. "Our sharks behave like tamed kittens once in the cradle, hardly ever moving or noticing that we are working on them like the pit-crew of a F1 racing car. Then they swim away strongly upon release".

According to Bonfil, the sharks spend only three to seven minutes out of the water, resulting in a minimum of trauma. This is evidenced by the tagging results showing that all sharks continued to move about after the procedure. In fact, one shark traveled all the way to Mozambique and back again, a total of more than 2,000 miles. Six months after first being tagged, the shark continues to transmit data.

In South Africa, great whites are a protected species, but Bonfil and his research team believe these predators commonly travel into other countries’ waters, and therefore need international protection through organizations such as CITES. However, Bonfil says such work doesn’t come cheap – each tag costs around $3,500 (U.S.) which is why his program currently seeks sponsors. "We plan to put many more tags on white sharks, but that will depend on funding; this cutting-edge research is expensive, and we need support to make it happen."

Dr. Ramon Bonfil | EurekAlert!
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