Shark Research: Hunting For Discoveries Beyond The Ocean

2018-07-23T16:09:38+00:00 July 23, 2018|
(Credit: WHOI)

(Credit: WHOI)

From: Ocean News Weekly/ By: Ocean Leadership Staff 

What It Was

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing titled, “SHARKS!”

Why It Matters

Sharks play a direct role in the health of the ocean (which humans rely on daily for everything from the air we breathe to the food we eat). They keep prey populations from growing too large by consuming healthy animals but also clean it up by eating organisms that are weak or dying. Sharks contribute to the U.S. economy through tourism, recreation, and fisheries. Studying these animals doesn’t only benefit the ocean — the discoveries have also led to innovations in human health and aviation.

Key Points

Technology has expanded our knowledge of sharks and their role in the ocean environment. Witnesses described researchers’ use of environmental DNA, new X-ray technology, underwater robots, and satellite tags to understand how sharks move and eat, where they travel, and what ecosystems they use. According to Dr. Cheryl Wilga (Professor and Director of the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alaska Anchorage), the matrix of cartilage along the jaws of predator sharks (e.g., white sharks) creates strength to enable their bite force; she noted that this discovery may be used to improve the design of knee or spinal disc replacements.

Members of the committee exuded passion when talking about sharks. They asked witnesses to explain details of public and private funding streams for their research and the applications of shark research for human medicine and technology. In their opening statements, Chairman John Thune (SD) and Ranking Member Bill Nelson (FL) provided a long list of examples of how shark research has led to a wide range of innovations, including antibacterial medicine, cancer research, energy-efficient airplane designs, faster swimsuits, and quicker burn healing. Chairman Thune enthusiastically described South Dakota’s sharks — or rather, the fossil records of sharks in the area millions of years ago.

Witnesses shared examples of private and philanthropic investment, underscored the cost of studying highly migratory species, and expressed the need for continued federal support. To facilitate the study of sharks, they asked lawmakers to institute programs that would support accredited zoo and aquarium research and encouraged the National Science Foundation to fund these non-traditional research facilities. Additionally, they recommended Congress take the lead on international agreements managing sharks and highly migratory species, make regulatory changes on satellites so more are available for animal telemetry, and recognize shark physiology’s role in human medical research (and encourage National Institute of Health to finance this work). They further highlighted that technologies (e.g., drones, satellite tags, autonomous underwater vehicles) are advancing our capabilities to learn about sharks.

Other questions focused on fisheries management and the effects of warming temperatures and harmful algal blooms on sharks. The overarching answer was that environmental and fishing pressures can negatively impact shark populations. Senator Maria Cantwell (WA) wanted to know if marine debris was a problem. Dr. Al Dove (Vice President, Research and Conservation, Georgia Aquarium) referenced the discovery of a shark in Australia with a stomach full of plastic but admitted that more research is needed and technology is essential for documenting the impacts on sharks.

Quotable

“The investments we make toward understanding the behavioral ecology of top ocean predators today will affect conservation efforts in the coming decades and will help ensure the ecological health of marine ecosystems, which are significant contributors to the economic prosperity of our nation and many coastal communities.” – Ms. Amy Kukulya, Principal Investigator and Senior AUV Operations Engineer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

“Shark research is being used to improve American lives by increasing our understanding of oceans and fisheries, creating new innovations in engineering, and even searching for medical breakthroughs.” – Chairman John Thune (SD)

“The U.S. is a bright spot for shark fisheries…you can’t have better [shark] management without the best science, and science has underpinned the management gains that we have made over the last 25 years.” – Dr, Robert Hueter, Senior Scientist and Director of the Center for Shark Research, Mote Marine Laboratory

“There is a terrific opportunity with [zoo and aquarium] institutions to advance science in ways that can’t otherwise. For example, [Dr. Hueter’s] ability to see, and touch, and feel, and measure, a whale shark up close for the first time ever [at Georgia Aquarium], that was something that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise without aquaria.” – Dr. Al Dove (Vice President, Research and Conservation, Georgia Aquarium)

Find Out More

Watch the full hearing

 Related coverage from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership

Harmful Algal Blooms, Shark Fins, And The U.S. Coast Guard

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