Canary Sharks

Last week while reporting a story in Miami I spent a day on a 46-foot dive boat in the Gulf of Mexico observing (and supposedly “helping”) Neil Hammerschlag and his crew of PhD students and undergrads tag sharks. The director of the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, Hammerschlag, 31, is the youngest professor at the University of Miami and operates the largest shark-tagging program on the East Coast. By attaching real-time satellite tags to approximately 60 sharks’ fins, Hammerschlag and his crew can constantly track the fish, allowing them to “spy on the secret lives of sharks.”

His findings have been illuminating. “These animals go places where we never thought they’d go,” Hammerschlag says. For example, he found that hammerhead sharks move through the Gulfstream as far north to the same latitude as New York. Researchers previously thought they swam only as far as North Carolina. Hammerschlag has also found prime areas where the sharks feed and breed, which makes them vulnerable to overfishing.

“Sharks are the canary in the coalmine,” says Hammerschlag. “They’re at the top of the food chain, the most feared animal on the planet, and a great celebrity species to lead the charge for conservation.”

To that end Hammerschlag has taken more than 1,000 high school students—many of whom have never stepped foot on a boat—shark tagging to show them the important role sharks play in the ocean’s ecosystem. Before they even leave the shore, he tells them the grim realities the sharks face:

“Today alone, 270,000 sharks will be fished,” he says, “mostly sold to Asian markets for their fins.”

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