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Coastal Bend Residents Meet the Scientists Behind Shark Week

July 28, 2017

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – More than 400 Coastal Bend residents came out to celebrate Shark Week with its science stars Wednesday night as the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI) at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi hosted a live screening of its 2017 Discovery Channel Shark Week special “The Lost Cage.”

“It was gratifying to see so many people attend,” said HRI Executive Director Dr. Larry McKinney, adding that the venue, Brewster Street Ice House, said the packed event drew concert-level crowds. “Part of our mission at the Harte Research Institute is to connect our research with real-world concerns. To have science generate this level of interest in our community is very exciting for us.”

Shark Week is known for its spectacle, but researchers from HRI’s Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation were on-hand to demonstrate the real science that goes on behind the scenes. HRI Endowed Chair for Fisheries and Ocean Health and Sportfish Center Director Dr. Greg Stunz and HRI Doctoral Student Kesley Gibson, who are featured in “The Lost Cage,” and other sportfish researchers answered questions from the crowd about their fieldwork and what it was like to film the episode.

David Kelly, 11, of Ingleside, and his family showed up early and were especially excited to view the episode. David’s father, Joel Kelly said Shark Week is his son’s “favorite week of the year.”

David, donning a shark hat for the occasion, could quickly name his favorite sharks when asked: The famous Great White and the Lemon Shark — It’s his favorite color, yellow.

“I want to be a shark biologist when I grow up,” he said.

Luckily there were plenty of shark experts in the room. The HRI research group brought tags, buoys, fishing gear and other shark accessories to give hands-on demonstrations of how sharks are caught and tagged live in the field. They also demonstrated how HRI partners with shark conservation nonprofit OCEARCH to track tagged sharks in real-time using online mapping tools.

“Sharks make great ambassadors for the ocean, and we’re happy we could share our conservation message with the public,” Stunz said. “It was especially exciting to see so many from our younger generation attend so that we could share the importance of these animals with them.”

This is HRI’s fourth appearance on Shark Week. “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 tag sharks with special acoustic tags and observe how the animals interact with the artificial reef while living aboard a specially-built floating platform hundreds of miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

Any time the tagged sharks came near, their acoustic tags would “ping” onto nearby underwater receivers, sending a signal to researchers. Staying aboard the platform, which was designed with an attached shark cage, allowed researchers to quickly dive into the water and observe sharks’ behavior. The quick reaction time and close contact allowed for a unique observation experience, but also made the sharks especially curious about filming.

The Sportfish Center 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 fishermen. For more information on the HRI’s shark tagging program and to follow the movements of tagged Gulf of Mexico sharks and others around the world, visit OCEARCH.org or download the Shark Tracker app for iOS or Android.

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