Always a bigger fish: Florida scientists seek new angle on shark depredation

Many anglers lament the one that got away. In Florida, the issue is more often the fish that is caught but is then snatched by a shark before being reeled in.

A grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) will allow scientists at two universities to research and possibly solve the problem of shark depredation, an increasingly common annoyance to 4 million recreational anglers who fish Floridian waters each year.

The study by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and Mississippi State University will investigate what species of sharks are the most prolific offenders, what types of fish fall victim more frequently and where the thefts occur.

The researchers also hope to get a handle for the first time on the economic cost. The recreational deep sea fishing industry supports more than 88,000 jobs in Florida and provides annual revenue above $9bn.

“Few studies have quantified the impact of depredation in recreational fisheries,” said Dr Matt Ajemian, the lead investigator, assistant research professor and director of the fisheries ecology and conservation laboratory at FAU Harbor Branch.

“Incorporating fishermen’s knowledge into a scientific process gives them more confidence in scientific results, promotes trust and more importantly increases the quantity and quality of data.”

Ajemian’s team will embrace what it calls a citizen-science approach, working with and surveying recreational fishermen and building on a Facebook site with 6,000 members that already records photos, videos and anecdotal accounts of sharks snatching fish such as red snapper and grouper.

“The data we have collected from the Facebook group show the potential benefits of a social media-based approach to engage fishermen in reporting, which has uncovered the potential breadth and complexity of the issue,” Ajemian said.

The researchers will also take a more hands-on approach, including taking swabs of bite wounds on fish remains to attempt to identify the species of shark involved.

Some experts believe preservation efforts have led to an increase of shark depredation.

“Now that these conservation actions have been put in place, and these management plans have been put in place, what we’re actually seeing is something more natural, more healthy,” Lauran Brewster, a senior research fellow at FAU Harbor Branch, told the Sun-Sentinel.

“We need to learn how to respond to that without retaliating against a species that’s just living where it’s supposed to live.”

The FAU award of almost $200,000 is part of a rolling program of educational grants from Noaa to universities conducting research in certain scientific areas. On Saturday, a page on the agency’s website celebrated National Hunting and Fishing Day.

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