Researchers are aiming to tag up to 100 oceanic whitetip sharks in Cayman’s waters in a major research project on the critically endangered species.
Guy Harvey’s research institute is teaming up with anglers in two upcoming fishing tournaments to catch and tag as many sharks as possible.
The aim is to tag at least 20 sharks over the course of the Cayman Islands International Fishing Tournament, which starts Thursday, and the Kirk Slam tournament in May.
Mr. Harvey said the unprecedented scale of the study was only possible because of the cooperation of fishermen, who were changing their attitude toward sharks.
Historically, he said, anglers would kill the sharks because they prey on their catch.
Now, he says, more and more understand the value of the apex predators to the ecosystem and are willing to hold the animals for his research teams to tag.
Four “chase” boats will be on the water over the four days of the international tournament, ready to respond to calls from anglers who have hooked an oceanic whitetip.
“We are dealing with a shark that is very widely dispersed on any given day. If we were doing this ourselves, we would be hard-pressed to find one,” said Mr. Harvey.
Ten sharks were tagged last year, but Mr. Harvey says the research team needs a much wider sample.
“Ultimately we want to tag around 100 to establish a pattern of movement, to see where they go and for what period of time.
“They used to be the most abundant large animal on planet Earth; now they are down to less than 5 percent of the pre-exploitation population.
“The real purpose is to learn more about this very beleaguered species,” he said.
The SPOT tags, which last for around 12 to 18 months, send a signal via satellite every time the shark breaches the surface, providing a track of its movements.
It is hoped that the research will help fuel pan-Caribbean conservation policies. Cayman’s National Conservation Law, once fully implemented, will provide protection for sharks in the island’s territorial waters.
But Mr. Harvey says more regional coordination is needed because the sharks move vast distances, something that has been shown already by the study.
An example of the vulnerability of the species comes from another recent Guy Harvey study in which 30 mako sharks, were tagged off Mexico and the northern U.S. Seven of the tagged sharks ended up being killed by longline fishing boats.
Fishermen who catch a shark during the upcoming tournaments will be paid a $500 bounty and will receive a specially produced Guy Harvey painting of an oceanic whitetip. Mr. Harvey said the reward is acknowledgment for lost tournament fishing time, as well as an incentive to the anglers.
The tags have been funded by corporate sponsors who will also take part in a “great shark race.” The shark that travels the farthest over the duration of the tagging period will win a prize for its sponsor.
Matthew Leslie, the owner of CayBrew, which is a sponsor of the Guy Harvey Institute, said a shark tagged last year and named after himself, had been the slowest mover.
“My shark barely left South Sound,” he said. “I’m going to get another one this year, Matthew II, and I’m sure it’s going to go the furthest.”
Mr. Leslie, a keen angler, believes attitudes toward sharks are changing in Cayman and fishermen are learning more about their importance to the ecosystem through the tagging projects.
“Last year,” he said, “a lot of the fishermen were looking for sharks just as much as fish. A lot of them admitted, ‘normally that shark would have been a goner.’ We have been able to turn that around by offering them an incentive.”
Mr. Leslie said CayBrew’s White Tip lager was the first “conservation beer,” with proceeds from every sale going to Guy Harvey’s research institute. He believes more people are beginning to appreciate the value of sharks to Cayman.
“The message is getting out there,” he said. “We have an abundance of sharks here and we don’t have to be scared about it. It is an attraction for the island.”