UNCW Researchers Join OCEARCH on First-Ever N.C. Shark Expedition

Thursday, June 23, 2016

OCEARCH and a team of scientists, including researchers from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, are on a mission to save the lions of the ocean – sharks.

OCEARCH, recognized as a global leader in shark research, partnered with UNCW, the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, SeaWorld and eight other institutions to implant acoustic tags in sand tiger and other sharks off the coast off Wrightsville Beach.  

The shark expedition, OCEARCH’s first off North Carolina, took place June 15-22. Researchers plan to track the sharks to determine their habitats including breeding, gestation and pupping grounds and their residency time in N.C. waters.

“North Carolina is a crucial component of our large sharks’ success and the success of the entire North Atlantic Ocean,” said Chris Fischer, OCEARCH founding chairman and expedition leader. “That is one of the reasons why we are here. We want to help accelerate and launch the shark science in the region so we can learn more about sharks faster and help them thrive here and throughout the North Atlantic.”

An estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year around the world, said Fischer, and scientists lack the fundamental data to manage them back to abundance.

Successful conservation of shark populations, such as sand tiger sharks, depends on a better understanding of their biology and management of sharks’ critical habitat, said Madeline Marens ’12, a UNCW marine biology graduate student and an aquarist at the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher. Identifying their critical habitats is key to conservation management.

“The N.C. Aquariums and OCEARCH have a similar mission to engage the public in conservation initiatives,” said Marens, who serves as the primary investigator for the N.C. shark expedition.

Scientists tagged five tiger sharks, including a 9-foot female tiger shark named “Carolina” and a seven-foot female tiger shark named “Orlando” in honor of the city. The expedition team did not locate any sand tiger sharks.

The researchers were given 15 minutes to collect blood samples and data, conduct an ultrasound and attach acoustic tags to the sharks before they were released back into the ocean. The data Marens gathered – reproductive baseline, genetic, nutrition and DNA – will also be used for her thesis project that focuses on shark conservation.

Marens’ time at UNCW helped prepare her for the expedition, she said. “In so many of our labs, we were able to go in and get hands-on experience. It really helped shape and drive my passion for this. I never thought I would be out here collecting data about sharks.”

-- Venita Jenkins


Carolina Tiger Shark

Madeline Marens

UNCW graduate student Madeline Marens