Researchers working to protect shark population, food sources in North Carolina

Published: Aug. 13, 2020 at 5:28 PM EDT
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BEAUFORT, N.C. (WITN) - With 50 species of sharks that can be found right in North Carolina waters, researchers are working hard to protect the ocean’s top predators and their food sources.

And early morning surveys out in the Back Sound off of Beaufort are essential in their data collection process.

One way researchers can get a clearer picture, is by analyzing the eating habits of the sharks they study.

"Sharks play a very important role here in our ecosystem, especially in North Carolina. It's really important to figure out what sharks are eating because of that role," adds Plumlee.

Blacknose, Atlantic sharpnose, bonnethead, and blacktip sharks are among the most commonly studied species of sharks in our state.

And while their role as the top predator in the ocean hasn't change, over-fishing is having a drastic impact on the shark population.

Decreasing in both abundance and size by up to 50% over the last 50 years, their ability to reach full maturity is being compromised.

"The back sound serves as an estuary for sharks. So juvenile and young-of-the-year sharks live back here," Plumlee explains.

And it's where researchers are using a new technique to study their diets.

A simple, non-lethal fecal swab allows the sharks to be released freely, without being harmed.

Samples can then be tested against an older technique using the shark’s stomach contents to see if the data matches.

"We're going to run DNA analysis on some of the stomach contents, along with the matching fecal swab, so we can see does the fecal matter match what's inside the stomach of the shark," explains Ryburn.

What that does, is give researchers data that's critical during the summer months when shark populations are at their height in our state.

“When they are competing with each other, do they separate and change what they eat? And if they do change what they eat, what is their forage habitat and what prey items are important to them?” Plumlee asks.

But because North Carolina sits on a bio-geographical break, there are both warm and cold water shark species in the water. Most averaging between three and five feet.

Protecting those habitats is key to health of the shark population and ecosystem as whole.

And with the Back Sound providing a wide variety of habitats for all types of marine life, researchers say thosse mornings on the water are critical to their mission.

"This is really important so we can help future generations of sharks to prolong and hopefully improve their populations," Ryburn urges.

The UNC Institute of Marine Science has been studying sharks in North Carolina waters since 1972, making it the longest running shark research program in the nation.

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