Great white shark research key to protecting food chain, researcher says

Photo provided by OCEARCH

Imagine if your grandchildren or great-grandchildren could never eat a fish sandwich? It’s hard to imagine for those living in the Lowcountry, but experts say it’s a very real possibility in the coming decades. Scientists say preserving the food chain means protecting sharks.

It’s the mission behind the worldwide organization OCEARCH, which wrapped up a month-long expedition off the Carolina coast on March 15.

The great white shark, it’s the ocean’s apex predator, but a species under serious threat. After years as a recreational fisherman, OCEARCH founder and expedition leader Chris Fischer discovered overfishing is a widespread problem. He said sharks are the key to unlocking the mysteries under the sea and adds a world without sharks would mean a world changed forever.

In 2007, he founded OCEARCH and so began the quest to track great whites, capture them safely, collect samples and release them back into the wild—alive. Their team of fisherman and scientists are conducting research and discoveries that are a first for mankind.

OCEARCH: 'We are going to solve the puzzle of Jaws'

“A lot of times people are like, what are you trying to do, I’m like, man I’m just trying to make sure our great-grandchildren can eat a fish sandwich,” Fischer said on March 11, when OCEARCH was anchored off Hilton Head, S.C.

Fischer said saving the shark is impossible without understanding them, first, and impossible without data, which Fisher said was almost non-existent when their journey began 10 years ago.

“When you step back and think about it, it becomes pretty understandable, I mean, it’s difficult to handle a 17-foot, 4,000-pound shark and you have to have a significant capacity to do that,” Fischer said. “We were surprised to know they didn’t know anything about their lives, where they’re mating, birthing, migrating.”

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In 10 years, they’ve tagged more than 300 sharks. Their 28th expedition brought them to the Lowcountry, fishing the waters along the Carolina coast. Between February and March, they caught four sharks, two white sharks and two tiger sharks.

“We’re thrilled with the results here during Expedition Lowcountry,” Fischer said. “I came down here hoping we’d catch one white shark.”

It was a rare opportunity for local scientists, including marine biologist Dr. Kim Ritchie, an associate professor at University of South Carolina Beaufort. She collected bacterial swabs from the skin of the sharks. She said shark bacteria could be the answer to development of new antibiotics.

“I’m really interested in how these animals are able to heal their wounds. They have these amazing immunities and that will translate into other organisms as well,” she said.

For Ritchie, it’s also a chance to collaborate with other specialists on board, many inventing new methods along the way.

“It’s wonderful, really a wonderful way to interact with other scientists that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to meet,” Ritchie said.

Great white sharks have been feared for decades, but the tide is slowly changing thanks to this tracking technology and social media.

Lydia, Mary Lee, and Catherine -- all sharks that have become Twitter superstars.

“We gave sharks a voice,” Fischer said. “Mary Lee has over 100,000 twitter followers, Catherine and Lydia have over 50,000 Twitter followers.”

There’s two new stars in the making, following the Lowcountry expedition, which are named after where they were caught. There’s Savannah, a young, nine-foot white shark and Hilton, a 12-and-a-half-foot, 30-year-old white shark.

“Hilton, the very shark that’s named after Hilton Head here will end up being one of those iconic sharks that we’ll always remember because he will really help us nail down the mating site of the North Atlantic White Shark,” Fisher said.

Fischer said it will be years until solid migratory patterns emerge. But in the meantime, their work is part of the bigger picture, their mission is only getting started.

“Just wanting to have a balanced relationship for the ocean, she gives so much to all of us, and I don’t think we all think about how much are we really giving to her so that we create balance and an unlimited horizon for her.”

OCEARCH makes three expeditions a year, which costs roughly half-a-million dollars for each. They’ve made it work through corporate sponsorships. In May, they’ll head down to Cuba for their next mission.

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