Starting June 25, OceanX, the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI), Florida International University (FIU), Microwave Telemetry and the Haiti Ocean Project (HOP) launched a new research and media mission to study bluntnose sixgill sharks and oceanic whitetip sharks in Caribbean waters. These updates from the field are from Anderson Cabot Center’s Ryan Knotek, a Ph.D. candidate at UMass Boston’s School for the Environment.
Today, I embark on an expedition with OceanX and the Cape Eleuthera Institute to study juvenile oceanic whitetip sharks off of the coast of Haiti. This is a massive, multi-institutional collaboration working also with the University of North Florida, Florida Institute University, Florida State University, and the Haiti Ocean Project.
This project is now in its ninth year of working with this species and up until now the research has focused on mature females off of Cat Island, The Bahamas. However, reports from local Haitian fishermen, provided by the Haiti Ocean Project, have indicated a possible aggregation of juvenile oceanics around Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) not far off of their coastline. This and tracking data from adults (from Cat Island) that have exhibited migrations to within Haitian waters, suggests that this area may be an important pupping or nursing ground that the team has been eager to investigate. Now, with help from the global research initiative, OceanX, we are steaming to these FADs aboard the M/V Alucia to investigate these reports of juvenile oceanics.
Research objectives for this trip include tagging juvenile oceanics to study movement patterns of these sharks for the first time in Haitian waters, drawing blood samples for capture-stress physiology and taking muscle and fin clip samples for stable isotope analyses, line-borne video footage and accelerometer data to evaluate capture behavior, and ultrasonography on any mature females we may encounter along the way.
This morning we arrived to Haitian waters and have begun fishing off of the villages of Anse Veau and Petit Guove. To catch these sharks, we are using modified handlines and focusing our efforts around FADs, while“chumming” the waters with bait in hopes of attracting sharks. Local fishermen have also joined our research efforts to increase the likelihood of finding these juvenile sharks using their traditional handlines from artisanal fishing boats.
Now a few days in and we’ve tagged our first juvenile oceanic whitetip shark with the help of local fisherman, Mr. Mano. In fact, it was the local fishermen who captured the shark and thenradioed our team with exciting news. Immediately, our research team sped off in the panga (smaller vessel used to “work-up” sharks) to meet Mr. Mano, who was temporarily letting the shark swim on his line while we raced towards him. Once on the scene, our research team quickly tagged and released the juvenile male oceanic whitetip to avoid any additional stress. And just like that, we have tagged the first oceanic whitetip in Haitian water and the project is truly underway!
Excitement has been high–but fishing has unfortunately slowed down and we have gone a few days without catching an oceanic whitetip. Knowing our time is brief in these waters; we have increased our fishing efforts by setting experimental longlines that span up to one mile with upwards of 100 baited hooks, and soak (i.e., fish) for a relatively short duration of 2 to 3 hours. In that time frame, we continuously spot checked hooks in the hopes of finding an oceanic whitetip, which would then be removed from the line and sampled as quickly as possible.
Follow along on social media and check back next week for more updates from the field!