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It’s summer in New Jersey and that means thoughts of “going down the shore” to sun bathe on the beach, gaze at the water, and, occasionally wonder about what lies beneath the surface. And with television’s “Shark Week” just over, those thoughts often turn to sharks.

Meanwhile, at the Princeton Echo, our thoughts have also turned to sharks, or more specifically to the Shark Research Institute headquartered at 70 Heather Lane in Princeton.

Founded in 1981, the SRI’s mission is to use science education “to bring a fact-based position to the table in our work to advocate for shark conservation and protection. From this foundation we work relentlessly to make an impact in four important ways: research and science, including field work and documentation, whale and shark migration and DNA studies, legislation, including engaging with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to support protective, enforceable shark legislation, including banning the shark fin trade; education includes school outreach programs, shark ecotourism, a newsletter, and online global shark attack file; and conservation efforts that include whale shark adoption, open expeditions, and an awards program.

In an effort to learn more about sharks, their role in ecology, their situation, and their potential danger to New Jersey swimmers, we contacted Shark Research Institute founder Marie Levine, who shared the following insights into the world of sharks and the SRI:

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Marie Levine of the Shark Research Institute in Princeton.

Princeton Echo: What would the ocean be like with a diminished shark population?

Marie Levine: Dead, non-functioning. With diminishing populations of sharks, there would be more trophic cascades [ecological imbalances], such as we experienced here off the coast of New Jersey. Most of our shark population disappeared as result of overfishing. With no sharks to control the population of their normal prey (cownose rays), we had a massive population explosion of rays. Cownose rays feed on scallops and other bivalves, which filter the water. The huge numbers of rays totally decimated the scallops, resulting in the collapse of the scallop industry and a significant loss in water quality.

Most sharks have not evolved much since before dinosaurs roamed the earth. Sharks are some of the highest developed large animals on our planet. Unlike other kinds of fish, sharks grow very slowly and don’t have young until they reach maturity, which can be up to 25 years for some kinds of sharks. Each year people slaughter more than 100,000,000 sharks. People are killing sharks much faster than sharks can reproduce. Global warming has become a popular subject these days, but if we lose our sharks, we lose our oceans, our species may not survive.

They keep populations of fish and other marine species healthy and in check by culling the weak and diseased animals. They maintain the ecological balance of the marine ecosystem.

PE: What are humans doing to threaten the shark population and why? That includes products.

ML: Slaughtering sharks for their fins to use in shark fin soup is a major problem. Although some shark species are in trouble due to habitat loss and many sharks are caught as bycatch, it is the shark fin trade that is the biggest danger. The fins are used in shark fin soup. Shark fin soup was served to the Chinese emperor and nobles as far back as the Sung dynasty, but with the rise of China’s middle class it became a symbol of wealth and was served at weddings or to impress business associates. A bowl of shark fin soup can cost $150, sometimes more. The cartilage noodles from the fins are tasteless (the flavor comes from chicken or pork).

Fins of sharks are marketable, but their meat isn’t. Sharks are not good to eat due to the high levels of methyl mercury and other toxins in their flesh, plus their meat spoils quickly due to its high content of urea. Increasing demand for shark fins (is) mostly in Asian countries.

PE: Why do you think sharks are perceived so negatively or menacingly in popular entertainment — especially as human-eating predators?

ML: Some people like horror movies; they enjoy being scared. For many, the ocean is an alien world and some popular entertainment plays to such audiences.

PE: What is the reality related to sharks eating human beings? Every species (every animal) has a menu imprinted in its brain.

ML: Sharks have been around 450 million years, but humans have only been around for about 200,000 years. Too late to make it on the shark menu. And menu items are rather specific. Humans eat plants, but we don’t chow down a tree for dinner.

PE: What is the shark population along the New Jersey coast and what can people do to protect themselves from negative shark incidents?

ML: Use common sense and leave the water if bait fish are present, don’t swim at time sharks are feeding, don’t swim or surf at river mouths.

PE: What should a swimming or wading person do if a shark makes an appearance?

ML: Leave the water slowly and quietly if large sharks are seen or you are requested to do so by a lifeguard.

PE: How many shark incidents are reported annually in New Jersey?

ML: Unprovoked incidents are very rare. The last incident in New Jersey was in July 27, 2008. You can download the Global Shark Attack File (an Excel File) and see for yourself www.sharkattackfile.net/incidentlog.htm

PE: Why and how did the SRI come to be in Princeton?

ML: Princeton had an unusually large number of divers living in area, many of whom were “shark” people: Stan Waterman, a legendary underwater filmmaker and camera man who shot the footage for ‘Blue Water, White Death”; Peter Benchley, author of “Jaws”; Dean Fessler and myself (both of us worked for several years with white sharks in South Africa); and the late Dr. Maurice Coutts of Princeton University, who also studied bull sharks around the world.

There were also a number of members of the Explorers Club in the area (the executive committee members are field scientists from a variety of disciplines) and our DNA studies were initiated by post docs at Princeton University. To this day most of our board of trustees are fellows of the Explorers Club.

To create value for sharks, we presented them as living natural resources for ecotourism, capable of contributing significantly more income to a local economy when alive, particularly in developing countries. By so doing continuing revenues were generated for and by local fishermen who might otherwise slaughter the sharks for immediate gain.

SRI produces peer-reviewed scientific publications which legislators require a sound scientific basis to make or change laws. When Shark Research Institute was formed 30 years ago, there were no other organizations in the USA that were conducting research on sharks and using the results to secure protective legislation for them.

PE: What are the benefits of being in Princeton?

ML: The libraries (Firestone) and multiple superb libraries in New York (Natural History Museum, Medical libraries), and Princeton is less than an hour from the ocean.

PE: How was the initial funding raised, who supported it, and, given that sharks are perceived as menacing, how difficult was it to get funders?

ML: Foundations prefer to support “safe” projects, and bleeding edge research with sharks — with few exceptions from courageous and visionary foundations — was viewed with alarm. Most of our funding came (and still does) from corporations, schools, and private citizens.

PE: What were the initial challenges that organization faced and how were they addressed?

ML: No scientific equipment that we needed was being manufactured, so we modified some existing equipment for our use, but for the most part designed and manufactured the equipment ourselves with help from engineers in South Africa and at Rutgers University.

PE: How and why did you become so involved with sharks?

ML: As a diver, I always loved sharks; to me they were like living sculpture and moved with incredible grace. I was well aware that the negative hype and outright lies about sharks was threatening their survival and such nonsense needed to be eliminated before it was too late.

PE: What was the catalyst to create an organization to study and protect sharks?

ML: Shark populations were plummeting worldwide.

PE: What are some of SRI’s quantifiable successes since it started (perhaps comparing data compiled over the year)?

ML: Tracing migration patterns of species in order that we were able to concentrate conservation efforts in areas where the sharks were at most risk. Securing international protection for whale sharks, basking sharks, white sharks, sawfishes, porbeagle sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks, scalloped hammerhead sharks, great hammerhead sharks, smooth hammerhead shark, manta rays, devil rays, all three species of thresher sharks, both species of mako sharks, giant guitarfishes, and wedgefishes. And assisting with bans of the Shark Fishing Trade in 14 U.S. states and three territories

PE: What were some of the surprises, revelations, and discoveries that you and the organization encountered over the years?

ML: That many people and nations have come to see sharks are critically important living natural resources to be protected.

PE: What are the continuing challenges and, again, how are they being addressed?

ML: Human greed. People and corporations that value money more than a healthy planet. We are still working on fixing this. At the same time, we are also heavily involved in educating younger generations, passing the torch and our knowledge and expertise to them.

PE: What do you hope to achieve in the near future and why is it important?

ML: Passage of the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act. It closes the loopholes in previous laws intended to protect sharks.

As part of its regional education program, the Shark Research Institute is presenting Fossil Shark Tooth Hunts in New Jersey on Saturdays, August 21, September 18, and October 9, from 1 to 3 p.m. in which “all participants find plenty of shellfish fossils, some shark teeth, and a few find fossil teeth of Moasaurs.” Cost is $10 per individual or $20 for a family. Registration and social distancing protocols required.

For more information on the hunts or the SRI, call 609-915-5211 or visit www.sharks.org.

Shark Safety 101

The Shark Research Institute has mixed common sense and science to create the following set of safety precautions regarding engagement with sharks in the wild and offers guidance that they say can save your life and that of a loved one:

Remain aware of your surroundings and the behavior of marine life nearby. Predators are often close to their prey. For example, dolphins do not indicate the absence of sharks; the opposite is often the case. Watch for signs that bait fish are in the area, such as diving seabirds. Animals that hunt the same prey are often found in close proximity. Their behavior may alert you to the presence of marine predators, such as sharks.

If you suddenly become uneasy, leave the water immediately. Your instincts may be providing a warning of impending danger.

Do not harass or touch any shark, even a small one. Any shark is capable of inflicting injury.

If swimming or surfing do not enter the water when sharks are present, and leave the water slowly and quietly if they are sighted or you are requested to do so by a lifeguard. If sharks are in the immediate area, the risk of injury is increased.

Do not swim, surf or dive alone. Sharks may be more likely to bite solitary individuals, and if you are injured there is nobody to help you.

Do not stray far from shore You are farther from assistance, should you need it.

Avoid swimming at night. There is strong evidence to suggest that sharks move in closer to a land mass (island or shore) following sunset.

Avoid murky or turbid water. Some species of sharks hunt in murky or turbid water, others may bite because of stress, and others may simply fail to recognize an object and bite to find out what it is. It is also difficult to defend yourself from something you cannot see.

Avoid swimming close to river mouths. Freshwater plankton dies and attracts fish, some species of fish spawn at river mouths, and carcasses of dead animals are carried downstream. All these conditions attract predators such as sharks.

Be cautious when swimming in the breakers. Sharks may become stressed due to the low visibility and sudden presence of humans..

Don’t swim close to sandbars. Any natural structure attracts a variety of marine animals and may be a feeding area for sharks.

Be cautious crossing channels between sandbars or on the edge of steep drop offs. These are often feeding areas for sharks.

Avoid swimming or surfing near jetties. These are often feeding areas for sharks.

Do not corner a shark or cut off its path to open water. It may feel threatened and react defensively.

Avoid swimming in areas where birds are diving into the water. Diving birds indicate schools of fish are in the area and the likelihood that sharks in the area is increased.

If schools of fish are milling nearby, do not attempt to chase them from the area. Frightened, darting fish create distinctive sounds that are very attractive to sharks.

If baitfish are leaping at or above the surface, leave the water immediately. Predator fish, possibly sharks, are feeding on the baitfish.

If spearfishing or collecting shellfish, do not attach your catch to a stringer at your waist, and stay alert when removing a fish from your spear. If wade-fishing, do not carry bait on your person. A shark attempting to snatch your catch or the bait, could inadvertently injure you.

If spearfishing, change your location frequently. The vibrations of speared fish attract sharks.

Avoid areas where any type of fishing activity is taking place or offal is dumped into the sea. These areas attract sharks.

The presence of porpoises and dolphins may indicate sharks are hunting in the area. These species often feed with sharks.

Leave the water when pods of dolphin cluster or head inshore This behavior is often associated with the proximity of sharks.

Avoid swimming, surfing, or diving in the vicinity of pinniped haul-outs or rookeries. These animals are the prey of large sharks, including white sharks.

Avoid high contrast swim suits It is thought sharks are attracted to high-contrast objects.

Refrain from excess splashing or making quick, abrupt movements in the water. It suggests an animal in distress.

Do not swim with dogs or horses. Their splashing may attract a predator.

If a shark approaches uncomfortably close, keep it at bay with your speargun or a shark billy. Do not attempt to spear the shark unless you think a bite is imminent. The shark may simply be curious, but if you respond with aggression the shark may react in the same way.

If you are bitten by a shark and you are wearing a wetsuit, don’t remove the wetsuit except to control arterial bleeding. A wetsuit acts as a pressure bandage and restricts the loss of blood.

Take both a CPR course and an advanced first aid course. Many fatalities in the GSAF file could have been avoided if arterial bleeding had been recognized and stopped and basic life support provided until professional medical assistance arrived.

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