[MARINE_BIOLOGY_INTERNATIONAL] Scientists hunting, testing sharks in SWFL


Scientists hunting, testing sharks in SWFL

Jul 05, 2011 6:31 PM EDT

Scientists off Southwest Florida's coast are hunting for some of the largest predators in the sea. The secrets these sharks have could hold the key to the health of the Gulf - and of those of us who enjoy it.

NB2's Andy Pierrotti went on an expedition to catch sharks to find out more.

There are few creatures that can swallow a five pound fish whole, but that's exactly what researchers from Florida Gulf Coast University and the University of Miami hope to catch.

They're testing sharks for most toxic form of mercury, while implanting state of the art satellite technology to track them.

"We could literally, if we had our iPhones, follow the shark," said Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, with the University of Miami.

Everyone on the boat has a job, which is essential to keep the shark alive.

Once it's out of the water, the goal is to get the shark back into the water as possible.

Until then, they try to put water through its gills to keep it breathing.

The catch of the day runs the runs the gamut, from smaller sharks, like a five-foot black tip, to a 12-foot hammerhead caught last year during another expedition.

Mercury affects the immune and nervous systems and is especially harmful to unborn children.

Right now, there are more than 59 species of fish listed for limited consumption due to mercury issues.

Since sharks eat the same fish we do, they're the best ones to test.

Tissue samples will tell how much mercury is in a shark's system; helping to come up with better guidelines for human consumption.

"For one reason, we want to know more information about mercury because the risk to humans, but there's also the risk to animals themselves," said Dr. Darren Rumbold, with FGCU.

While resilient, shark numbers are dwindling. Over the past 50 years, about 80 percent of sharks off Florida's coast are gone.

Dr. Hammerschlag hopes tracking them will determine where they spend most of their life.

"So, if we can determine those spots, we can say to policy makers, `Hey, here's a very important spot. So, if we're interested in putting measures in to protect these animals, we need to go to areas - that's important to their health and their life history,'" he said.

By Andy Pierotti

NBC News

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