August 1, 2013
Mary Lee
Scientists from the Division of Marine Fisheries and Mote Marine Lab work with OCEARCH crew to collect data from white shark Mary Lee.

MarineFisheries’ Shark Research Project has successfully tagged white sharks off Massachusetts with Pop-up Satellite Archival Transmitting (PSAT) tags during the past four years. In 2010, the Project began adding acoustic transmitting tags when possible. These tags are attached to white sharks using a hand-thrown harpoon from a boat after being spotted by an airplane, limiting the amount of contact with the shark. While these two tag types provide broad-scale migration and finescale movement information, respectively, neither provide real-time tracking data.

In 2012, MarineFisheries was given the opportunity to be part of a scientific team that successfully tagged 2 white sharks with real time satellite transmitters for the first time ever in the Atlantic Ocean. One of the tags that both sharks now wear is a Smart Position and Temperature (SPOT) tag, which communicates position data to satellites whenever the fish surfaces. The scientific team, led by expedition leader Chris Fischer, worked aboard the M/V OCEARCH. Fischer founded a nonprofit (also called OCEARCH), whose goal is to support research on the biology and health of apex predator populations, focusing on large sharks. OCEARCH is funded through corporate sponsors and private donations.

The 126’ M/V OCEARCH works in conjunction with another 30’ vessel to tag the sharks. When a white shark is hooked – by the smaller vessel – the shark  is “walked” (or guided) by the hook and line to the M/V OCEARCH, where it is raised out of the water on a research platform via a hydraulic lift.  This type of tagging  method is quite different from MarineFisheries’ harpoon method and allows for the collection of additional biological data (e.g., sexing, measurement, blood and tissue samples).


OCEARCH Expeditions off Cape Cod

In 2012, the M/V OCEARCH worked entirely in federal waters (>3 miles from shore) off Massachusetts; the team was added to a scientific permit from NOAA Fisheries which was issued to the Division – and a consortium of researchers – exempting it from the federal white shark rules of no possession/no removal from the water. Working primarily 3 miles off the southeast tip of Cape Cod (i.e., Monomoy, Chatham), OCEARCH tagged two sharks during a successful 12-day expedition in September 2012. The real-time movements of these sharks have drawn considerable global attention through their  website. Current Massachusetts regulations define white sharks as a prohibited species, of which the possession or landing is only allowed with special authorization from the Director.

Samples from Mary Lee
A collection of samples taken from white shark Mary Lee.

OCEARCH has now returned to Cape Cod to conduct a month long project, which began July 31. . Fischer had requested permission from MarineFisheries to operate in state waters for this expedition and was granted the requested access  in order to fish in the more nearshore areas when and where white sharks are known to frequent. Specifically, the team will be working an area east of Monomoy that has become known as “Shark Cove”, where MarineFisheries has frequently tagged sharks in past years. This year, OCEARCH’s goal is to tag 10-20 sharks.




2013 Activities

Dr. Greg Skomal, of MarineFisheries, will be a member of the science team studying and sampling the sharks as they come aboard.   Well-known science organizations such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, New England Aquarium, and Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory support OCEARCH’s methods and program, and will also be participating on the vessel.  Numerous public events are scheduled during the month-long study to allow the public to learn more about the science of white sharks.  

If the expedition is successful, another 10-20 white sharks will be tagged, increasing the sample size of tagged white sharks in the Northwest Atlantic.  A greater sample size will give us a greater scientific understanding of these rather unknown fish. Here are some benefits of the upcoming project:

1. The ability to examine each shark caught to determine if it was tagged prior, thereby helping researchers estimate the white shark population abundance in Massachusetts waters;

2. The ability to surgically attach acoustic tags, which will increase tag longevity from 2-3 years for harpoon-attached tags to 10-12 years;

3. The ability to attach highly sensitive accelerometers to track inertial navigation (rotation and other fine-scale movements of sharks) to improve our understanding of white shark behavior;

4. The ability to have more sharks tagged with satellite tags, increasing the amount of movement data available in live time;

5. The ability to collect blood serum for shark physiological exams and live bacteria living on the teeth and in the mouths of sharks to help researchers develop anti-shock serums to treat shark attack victims who are infected with bacterial endotoxins.

Over the next month, MarineFisheries will focus its shark staff and resources on this project.  After OCEARCH departs at the end of August, staff will re-assess the shark situation and available resources and may resume the routine tagging using harpoon technique in September or wait until next summer, 2014.

OCEARCH website: