Shark Tagging: Citizen Engagement in Shark Research

Published September 10, 2014

by Laura Bankey, Director of Conservation

Every August, the National Aquarium invites members and the general public to join us on shark research cruises out of Ocean City, MD. These trips are meant to connect our members with these amazing creatures and to help garner support for important shark conservation efforts.

Locally, we work with Captain Mark Sampson to collect data from several species of sharks off of our Maryland coastline for a variety of ongoing research projects. Trip participants actively engage in catching the sharks, reeling them in, measuring them once on the boat, and tagging and releasing them. It’s a once in a lifetime experience that provides valuable species and population data for several researchers around the country and exciting educational experiences for participants.

Captain Sampson is collaborating with several researchers to study the migratory patterns, growth rates, population data and species data of the sharks he catches. Every shark brought on board is measured, and its sex determined. The data and location is noted, and a small piece of dorsal fin is clipped and preserved for DNA analysis. Each shark is also given an injection of oxytetracycline, an antibiotic that stains the vertebrae and provides a baseline for growth data if the shark is ever recaptured. Finally, if the shark is big enough, it’s tagged. This tagging is part of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Cooperative Shark Tagging Program.

Participants tagging a Scalloped hammerhead shark

One of the true values of the shark tagging experience is the ability to connect participants to shark conservation efforts. It was easy to tell that with each new piece of information about shark biology and behavior, with each crank of the reel and finally viewing the shark up close, participants gained an appreciation for sharks. This appreciation ultimately helps build a connection with the species. For some participants this was a chance to try a new activity, while for others it was an opportunity to satisfy a lifelong curiosity about sharks. Two of this year’s participants actually expressed an interest in pursuing careers in marine biology, with one of those individuals specifically wanting to work with sharks. So for these two individuals, the shark tagging experience was a critical step in the continued development of their career interests. Over the course of the weekend’s trips we caught multiple shark species, including dusky sharks, sand tiger sharks and even a scalloped hammerhead shark (pictured below). Additionally, some participants were treated to sightings of dolphins and even a Humpback Whale.

Tagging a Scalloped hammerhead shark

Do you want to help sharks? There are several things you can do right now to protect the sharks off our coast and around the world. Make sure you are choosing seafood that is caught without harming sharks, and do your part to help keep our oceans clean.

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Laura Bankey

Director of Conservation

National Aquarium - Laura Bankey

About Laura Bankey

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