Discover Your Island

Researchers Search for Sharks on a Drifting Reef for “Shark Week”

July 17, 2017

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Researchers from the Harte Research Institute (HRI) for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi spent a week drifting hundreds of miles offshore to study the relationship between sharks and the Gulf of Mexico’s unique artificial reef habitats for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

Their episode, “The Lost Cage,” will air at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 26 on the Discovery Channel as part of Shark Week’s 30th anniversary season. You can watch the episode live with our Shark Week stars at Brewster Street Ice House, located at 1724 N Tancahua St., Corpus Christi. A special meet and greet with our shark researchers and shark-tagging demonstrations will begin at 6 p.m. There will be shark themed giveaways for kids and adults throughout the night. Admission is free and open to the public. The live episode begins at 8 p.m.

“We like to call sharks our ‘ambassadors of the ocean,’ these charismatic animals allow us to convey the importance of ocean conservation to a huge audience of people,” said Dr. Greg Stunz, HRI Chair for Fisheries and Ocean Health and Director of the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation, who is featured in the episode. “Sharks are apex predators and the great balance keepers of the ocean. We’re incredibly fortunate to work with them — most people never see these animals in the wild, much less interact with one. As we’re pulling one in you still always have a moment where you think, ‘Wow, what an amazing animal!’”

This is the HRI Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation’s fourth appearance on Shark Week after filming the hit “Monster Mako” series, which followed the scientists as they tagged Shortfin Mako sharks in the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean.

“The Lost Cage” features HRI researchers deploying a special form of free-floating artificial reef known as a “Fish Aggregating Device” or FAD into the waters off the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. They returned months later to observe how life had accumulated around the device, and to tag sharks with special acoustic tags to observe how the animals interact with the artificial reef.

“These FADs are put into oceans around the world to attract fish and increase recreational fishing opportunities — but we believe they also attract sharks. So, while these may be enhancing recreational fisheries, the concern is they could also make sharks more vulnerable,” Stunz said. “Our goal was to find out: Do sharks use them? What type of sharks use them? And do they stay in the area, or do they come and go?”

To better observe sharks on this unique reef, researchers attached and lived on a floating platform similar to a pontoon boat around the clock for about a week. Any time the tagged sharks came near, their acoustic tags would ping onto nearby underwater receivers, sending a signal to researchers. This allowed them to quickly dive into the water and observe the sharks’ behavior.

HRI Doctoral Student Kesley Gibson, whose dissertation research gets her up close and personal with sharks on a regular basis, is also featured in the episode. Gibson studies the migratory patterns of Sandbar Sharks and Mako sharks and how they interact with artificial reefs. She works with experienced volunteer shark fishermen to tag sharks, and while on this Shark Week expedition assisted in the tagging of a Mako shark that topped out at more than 11 feet long and 1,000 pounds – twice her size.

A native of Tennessee, Gibson said she is often met with surprise when she explains what she does for a living, but she is excited to be a part of Shark Week.

“It’s a unique experience, and not something I ever thought I’d be doing when I got here — I grew up watching Shark Week and this is definitely one of those check it off the bucket list moments,” she said.

The Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation is home to the largest shark-tagging program in the western Gulf of Mexico, and has tagged more than 4,100 sharks with the help of volunteer anglers. Our researchers use the latest in wildlife tracking technology, including satellite tags that allow for the real-time tracking of sharks. With our online mapping tools provided by the nonprofit OCEARCH, everyone can follow the movement of these sharks online at OCEARCH.org or by downloading the Shark Tracker app for iOS or Android.

You can also follow the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation on Facebook and Twitter for more information about Shark Week or visit SportfishCenter.org.