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HRI Researchers Tag ‘Monster Mako’ for Shark Week

June 26, 2015

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Scientists with the Harte Research Institute (HRI) for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi got a shark’s eye view of Texas coastal waters while filming a special for the Discovery Channel’s highly-anticipated summer television event, “Shark Week.”

Scientists with HRI’s Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation (CSSC) set out on a 10-day expedition to tag and study the shortfin mako shark, one of the fastest shark species in the world, for a special called “Monster Mako.” The show, which airs at 9 p.m. Central Time, Sunday, July 5, will help open the 28th season of “Shark Week” with unprecedented footage of scientific discovery and behaviors of makos in their natural habitat.

HRI will host an encore screening of “Monster Mako” and a Q&A session with our shark experts at 6 p.m. Monday, July 6, in the Harte Research Institute building, room 127.  Members of the public are invited to come learn more about the science that goes on behind the scenes to study these enigmatic sharks.

“Sharks are such great ambassadors for the ocean and generating public awareness, and there is none better than the mako,” said Dr. Greg Stunz, expedition team leader, CSSC Director and HRI Chair for Fisheries and Ocean Health.  “Our team is so fortunate to be in the presence of such inspiring and beautiful animals. We are thrilled to share the highlights of the expedition, and by partnering with ‘Shark Week,’ it allows us to share amazing video showing the sheer power and beauty of these creatures with other shark enthusiasts world-wide.”

To make “Monster Mako,” HRI scientists teamed up with the Shark Week crew to catch and tag makos with state-of-the-art scientific instrumentation, including an array of cameras known as the “Shark Eye” designed to document the never before seen underwater world of the mako shark. Designed to release from the sharks after a day, researchers recovered the tag with satellite locators. Data captured from the tag allowed them to track the shark’s movement, depth, speed and acceleration, and view video footage capturing the mako’s behavior in both day and night.

The mako shark has captivated humans with its dramatic feeding behavior, breaching the water at high speeds while hunting prey.

“It’s quite a thrill to have a mako on the line,” said HRI Research Assistant Jason Williams, who wrangled the mako sharks boat-side during the expedition. “They are an extremely strong fish and occasionally breach clear out of the water. “

But their speed and lengthy migration paths also make them a challenge for scientists to study. Not much is known about the Gulf’s mako population.

“We know sharks like makos travel long distances because of their pelagic, highly-migratory nature. Along the Atlantic coast, makos that have been tagged off Cape Cod regularly travel down to the Bahamas and back. But what they do in the Gulf remains kind of a mystery,” said Megan Robillard, CSSC program manager.

During the expedition, researchers tagged nine mako sharks ranging in size from 7 feet to 10 feet long at artificial reef sites off the Texas coast. Housing more than 3,000 oil and gas platforms, the northwestern Gulf of Mexico has one of the largest artificial reef systems in the world, attracting a diverse array of marine life.

Because sharks function as top predators, changes in their population and location can have cascading effects on the ecosystems they inhabit. A slow-growing, long-lived species, many shark populations worldwide are in decline, including populations of oceanic and coastal sharks in the Gulf of Mexico.

The CSSC runs a number of tagging programs to monitor shark populations in the Gulf of Mexico to help fill information gaps about their lives in the Gulf. Working with fishermen, the CSSC has tagged more than 2,500 sharks along the Texas coast over the past six years. The center has also partnered with the Texas State Aquarium and the nonprofit OCEARCH to use satellite tags to track hammerhead and tiger sharks. The tag pings with a location each time the shark surfaces, and millions of shark fans can follow the sharks’ movements on maps online.  This fall, an interactive exhibit will open at the Texas State Aquarium featuring this work.

“One of the major data gaps out there is understanding where sharks migrate,” said Dr. Matt Ajemian, HRI Assistant Research Scientist. “We know they’re highly mobile, so understanding their habitat needs and discovering if there are places they’re coming back to will be very important for their future management. With satellite tagging, we can see that they’re moving hundreds of miles along the coast. We’re understanding that there’s a lot more going on with their behavior and movement than we ever anticipated.”

Follow the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation on Facebook and Twitter for more information about Shark Week and other sportfish research or go to SportfishCenter.org.