July 20, 2008

Gulf Sharks Often Tagged

By Stephanie Cuevas, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

Jul. 20--BILOXI -- In 2003, a small group of researchers from the Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Lab stumbled upon a pod of 16 whale sharks several miles south of the coast of Venice, La., while conducting a study on sargasm weed.

Dr. Eric Hoffmayer, a participant in the study, saw the perfect opportunity to study the biggest fish in the ocean.

In the past five years, Hoffmayer has started a satellite tagging study for whale sharks and dusky sharks, another rare breed.

Jennifer McKinney, a graduate student of Hoffmayer's, explained the tagging process and conservation aspect of the study.

"Whale sharks are quite abundant, but there is very little known about them Whale sharks migrate all over the world and the main purpose is to study the migration patterns," she said.

The tagging begins with a hired spotter plane. The spotter plane's purpose is to locate the giant fish by air, then radio the group when the fish are located offshore. When the team reaches the fish, the tagger will most likely be in the water.

The fish is tagged with an instrument called a Hawaiian Sling. Once the satellite tag is in place, the team will immediately begin receiving daily e-mails with tracking data and GPS coordinates of the shark's migration patterns.

The researchers also try to get the spot patterns on the left side of the fish behind its gills.

"Each whale shark has a different spot pattern. It's like a thumbprint," McKinney said.

Jill Hendon, a fisheries biologist for the research lab, and other researchers tag several species of sharks in the Mississippi Sound.

Black tips, fine tooth sharp noses and bonnet heads are captured inshore, and bulls, tigers and great hammerheads are tagged offshore.

About 1 to 4 percent of the sharks tagged by Hendon and the group are found.

"The recapture rate is very rare; it's really frustrating," Hendon said.

The continuing project allows the researchers to see what species are in the area, how many species are in the area, and where the species move in what amount of time.


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