Most people flee from sharks, but biologist Jon Forrest Dohlin wants to play tag with them off Long Island.
He will be observing as other researchers attach satellite and acoustic transmitters to as many sharks as they can find this month in a two-week expedition led by the New York Aquarium and Ocearch, the nonprofit behind the global shark tracker. They want to find out if sharks are making the waters here their nursery, their playground, their summer hangout and why.
“What I really, really get excited about is that kids . . . get really excited about the idea that there is an intact ocean wilderness surrounding this incredibly urbanized area,” said Dohlin, director of the aquarium in Brooklyn.
From Saturday to Aug. 26, Ocearch’s research ship, the MV Ocearch — equipped with a shark-sized lift — will search for the great predators off Southampton, Shinnecock Bay and Montauk.
It is Ocearch’s first foray into New York waters, but its tagged sharks have pinged off Long Island in the past few years. Mary Lee, a mature great white shark tagged in 2012 off Cape Cod, was in the Hamptons in May.
Ocearch wants to focus on juvenile great whites to get a sense of their range and how humans, from fishing to metropolitan area shipping lanes, affect their survival.
Ocearch has tagged five great whites on the East Coast so far, and based on some of their migratory patterns, researchers suspect that Long Island serves as a nursery area. The group is trying to build up its observations.
“Not only will this expedition benefit New York in terms of helping change the perception of sharks from that of fear to one of curiosity and fascination, but it will allow the rest of the world to follow along on the Global Shark Tracker and learn about sharks at the same time as our scientists,” said Chris Fischer, Ocearch’s expedition leader. “The data coming from these sharks will help us understand the ecosystem off New York and manage the area toward a balanced abundant future.”
The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the aquarium, already has conducted shark research involving Long Island waters. The past four years, researchers have tagged and tracked more than a dozen sand tiger sharks in the Great South Bay, which they believe is a nursery for the fish. According to researchers, only a handful of sand tiger shark nurseries have been identified, including one off Massachusetts.
Dohlin said the sharks’ presence is a sign that laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act have succeeded, helping fish stocks and threatened species rebound.
The aquarium is especially interested in nabbing mako and blue sharks. Their numbers have been decimated worldwide by the shark fin industry.
Dohlin said one goal of the mission is to get a better sense of how many sharks are out there and obtain data to guide efforts to ban or regulate the shark fin industry. Many countries are trying to stop the slaughter of upward of 90 million sharks a year just for shark fin soup. Shark fin soup is considered an aphrodisiac and delicacy in some cultures.
“The real key piece right now is to get out there and get the sort of snapshot and picture of what is going on right now,” Dohlin said. “What is the shark population out there? How well are they doing? Are we providing some very special or specific habitat that we need to be aware of, that we can protect, that will have a much larger impact than just right here in local waters? That’s the exciting thing that we’re doing.”