Texas State Aquarium, The Nature Conservancy, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Unite to Study Sharks
September 23, 2019
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX – Experts from three prominent Texas conservation organizations, the Texas State Aquarium (TSA), The Nature Conservancy and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), collaborated this month on a shark electronic tagging and research expedition in the Gulf of Mexico, which gathered data to help scientists discover where these ocean predators travel and reproduce.
The TPWD regularly conducts censuses of marine species, known as fisheries independent surveys, to help determine the health of the state’s marine populations and ecosystems. During their latest survey off the coast of Sabine Pass and Galveston, Dr. Jorge Brenner, Associate Director of Marine Science and Fisheries with the The Nature Conservancy in Texas; Dr. Taylor Yaw, Head Veterinarian from the Texas State Aquarium; and Victoria Garcia, an aquarist at the Texas State Aquarium, were also permitted to be aboard to assist with data collection. Each member brought their own unique expertise and experience to add insight into the health of the ocean habitats off the Texas coast.
“Our mission at the Aquarium goes beyond just educating our guests about the sharks on exhibit here; we also want to play an active role in helping research and conserve shark species in the wild,” said Tom Schmid, President & CEO at the Texas State Aquarium. “For that reason, we were honored and grateful for the opportunity to work alongside the experts at Texas Parks and Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy to help people better understand these amazing ocean predators.”
During the survey, shark species including blacktip, bull and finetooth sharks, were brought aboard the TPWD research vessel, San Jacinto, where scientists measured and weighed them and determined their gender. The sharks were also tagged by TPWD using plastic tags so they could track their movement after release. During the expedition, Dr. Yaw also performed brief ultrasounds on female sharks to determine their reproductive status with a new portable ultrasound machine obtained by the Texas State Aquarium Wildlife Rescue Center. Some of the sharks were also equipped with special acoustic electronic tags by Dr. Brenner and Dr. Yaw. Placement of the acoustic tags required a short surgical procedure for placement of the tags in the shark’s abdomens. Using underwater sound receivers that ping off these tags, scientists will be able to obtain location data to study the migration patterns of coastal sharks for up to five years.
“Being a part of this collaborative effort with The Nature Conservancy and TPWD was a truly amazing and humbling experience,” said Dr. Yaw. “I never would have thought I would be applying the surgical and ultrasonography skills obtained in my veterinary curriculum at Texas A&M in a makeshift field surgical suite on the deck of a research vessel out at sea.”
With shark numbers dropping at alarming rates worldwide due to a variety of threats such as habitat loss and overfishing, scientists are urgently collecting data that they hope will protect these ocean predators. Experts say that knowing the swim patterns of the different shark species in our coastal waters can aid in their conservation. For example, the data from shark tagging and tracking can help identify key areas to prioritize for protection, such as important mating, feeding or nursery grounds.
“We’ve gathered an incredible amount of information during the shark tagging trips we’ve embarked on with TPWD and TSA this summer,” said Dr. Brenner. “From tracking the surprising coastal behaviors of certain shark species to identifying marine nurseries, these trips and the satellite and acoustic tags we deploy on them help us to understand the pathways of these animals and pinpoint the most impactful places for future marine conservation efforts.”
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