Apex Predator

Journalist Brian Lam, the first recipient of the MacGillivray Freeman Explorers Fellowship, joined a shark tagging expedition in the Bahamas, along with our film crew. Led by shark researcher Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, it turned out to be quite an adventure. Here's his account.

This article was originally published on 16 April 2013 in Popular Science.

I'm on a small boat. A woman in a bikini stands next to me dumping gallons of blood into the sea. Beside her, a man in board shorts strings barracuda heads onto large fishhooks as crooked as a witch’s finger, and in front of him, toward the bow, an engineer fiddles with an instrument that looks like a cross between a model rocket and a giant hypodermic needle. I’m covered in fish guts.

We are in the Bahamas, in a marine preserve, fishing for sharks. We have a research permit to do what’s otherwise illegal in this country, but the boat and its crew have a rough, paranoid quality to them, everyone as superstitious as pirates. Since I came on board, we haven’t had a single strike. The ocean seems empty, the crew is agitated, and I get the sense that I’m being blamed for the dry spell. The lead fisherman tells me flatly, “I think you’re bad luck.”

Just as the captain raises the anchor to motor to another spot, a spool of 900-pound monofilament begins unwinding furiously off the stern. A buoy attached to the line pinballs across the choppy ocean. A cameraman in a wetsuit readies his $50,000 waterproof HD-camera rig. A scientist grabs a steel lasso and a cordless drill, and an engineer snatches up the rocket-looking thing, which includes a plastic tube filled with sensors and a satellite transmitter.

The rocket-looking thing is one of the reasons we’re all here. It is a prototype of a new kind of shark tag, one designed to last decades, not days or months as current models do. It will record a shark’s behavior every few seconds, beaming back data when it can. If the tags work, scientists will get an unprecedented look into the secret lives of sharks. But in order for them to work, we have to tag a shark. And to tag a shark, we have to catch one.

Then the line goes limp, and the hook comes up empty.

Photo courtesy of Brian Lam. 

The shark’s role in our oceans is almost entirely a mystery. Because scientists typically track sharks for only a few months and because sharks live for decades, the gaps in our knowledge are immense. We don’t know—with much detail—their migration patterns or where they mate and give birth. More important, we don’t understand their contribution to the health of the oceans, though it’s almost certainly significant. Most sharks are apex predators, akin to lions on the African savannah or polar bears in the Canadian Arctic, and those predators typically serve critical roles in maintaining the ecosystem.

One thing scientists do know is that sharks are in trouble. Every day, more than a quarter-million sharks die as bycatch or as a result of the finning trade. Some ecologists say populations are down by 90 percent from just a few decades ago. No one knows what might happen if they fall beneath a certain threshold or disappear entirely.

“The ocean is like a fancy Swiss watch,” says Neil Hammerschlag, director of the marine conservation program at the University of Miami. “I don’t know how all the gears work together. But I do know that if you take a major spring out, it’s not going to work as well as it is supposed to.”

Hammerschlag, 34, spends nearly every weekend out on the water in South Florida, armed with hooks, lines, and tags. As a result, he is intimately acquainted with the limits of current technology; most tags, he says, are too expensive and don’t last long enough. Two years ago, he partnered with Marco Flagg, an engineer, to develop a new device. The production version of the HammerTag, he says, will last years and maybe even decades attached to a shark; it will be hundreds of dollars cheaper; and it will provide a thousand times the data.

Data, Hammerschlag says, will lead scientists to identify nurseries and hunting grounds for the first time. It will reveal life cycles to determine when the animals are most vulnerable. And with enough of it, conservationists could influence legislators. Without effective legislation, Hammerschlag says, shark populations will surely continue to decline­—and the ocean with them.

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