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Sharkbites Saturday

Awareness Inspires Conservation

Sharkbites Saturday is proud to feature a guest post by Marianne Long, Education Director at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC). We asked Marianne to tell us a little bit more about AWSC and its ongoing work on Cape Cod; enjoy her insights and amazing photos!

Save the Sharks?!

When I go into schools or provide a presentation for community groups, I often start off the program by asking the question, “What is the first word that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Shark’?” The initial responses are always, “Scary! Jaws! Teeth” or sometimes I have a little one who just screams in horror. It wasn’t until the last year or so that I started to receive responses that were less negative, such as “Awesome! Beautiful!” and once I event got the response of “Important”.

As the Education Director for the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a nonprofit organization based on Cape Cod, a big part of my job is trying to get people to understand why it is sharks are important animals in our marine ecosystem. I have found that the ‘Jaws’ mentality people often reference is a very real thing, and that the idea of shark conservation is difficult for many to understand because they have grown up thinking of sharks as a negative thing, something we should fear, rather than respect.

Films like the movie ‘Jaws’ have led many people to view white sharks as villains in our ocean. The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy works to change public perception and develop people’s understanding of the importance of sharks in our marine ecosystem. Image credit: Marianne Long/AWSC

Why study white sharks?

White sharks specifically are a shark that deserves respect for their role as the top predator in our ocean. White sharks are apex predators, meaning they will control the ocean food chain from the top down, and without them we could see the levels of our ocean food chain become unbalanced. Having a healthy ocean food chain in turn helps to ensure a healthy ocean. With over 70% of our planet being made up of ocean, and over ⅔ of the oxygen we breath being supplied by marine plants, having a healthy ocean is vitally important to us as humans.

The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy was founded in the fall of 2012 because it was realized that there was a need for funding to support white shark research in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. The white shark research is led by Dr. Greg Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, but to increase the research efforts, more funding was needed. Much is known about white sharks in other parts of the world, such as South Africa, Guadalupe Island, but here in the northwest Atlantic there was never a place where white shark research could occur regularly. The growing population of seals on Cape Cod has led to the area becoming a hot spot for white sharks, providing predictable access to white sharks year after year for research to take place.

The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy is currently helping to fund two research projects led by Dr. Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. One project is a movement study, which involves tagging white sharks and tracking their movements in the Atlantic to better understand their movement patterns. The second is a population study, in which they are trying to answer the question, “How many white sharks are there in the northwest Atlantic?” The movement study is an ongoing research project that began in 2009, and the population study is a 5 year study that began in 2014.

This image shows the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy working with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to capture underwater footage and tag a white shark off the coast of Cape Cod. Image credit: Wayne Davis/AWSC

Sharks as friends, not foes

As a non profit organization working to fund these research projects, AWSC has had to create an awareness for white sharks role in our ecosystem, and how that role has a greater impact on the ocean as whole. In helping to develop an understanding of their role in the ecosystem, people are starting to see that the ‘Jaws’ mentality of sharks as a villain is something that needs to be changed. By replacing fear with facts, and sharing the findings of the research, AWSC is inspiring communities to take part in conservation efforts.

The best example of the change in public perception took place two years ago this past week on July 13, 2015. A white shark stranded itself on a sandbar in Chatham where boaters had set up to enjoy the beach for the afternoon. Instead of running in fear or trying to kill the animal, beachgoers reacted and tried to save the animal. A call to the harbormaster was made and people used sand buckets to dump water over the gills in an attempt to keep the shark breathing. The research team was able to get their quickly and pull the shark back out into the water, where after some time it began swimming on its own again. The shark, named Jamison, had a tag placed on it and left the area to travel to South Carolina, but returned to the cape the following year. At the Chatham Shark Center, the outreach facility of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, visitors come in regularly and ask how that shark is doing, relieved to hear that he survived and is able to fulfill his role in the ecosystem as an important predator.

The research team worked with the harbormaster to move Jamison off the beach and out into deep water where he could swim freely. Image credit: Wayne Davis/OceanAerials.com

The mission of AWSC is to support scientific research, improve public safety, and educate the community, to inspire conservation of Atlantic white sharks.It is our vision to increase knowledge of Atlantic white sharks and change public perception to conserve the species and ensure biologically diverse marine ecosystems.

To learn more about the research the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy is funding, or their public safety initiatives and education programs, please visit www.atlanticwhiteshark.org. If you would like to learn more about the movement of white sharks in the Northwest Atlantic, you can download the free Atlantic White Shark Conservancy app, Sharktivity, on apple and android devices.



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