Q&A with a Shark Scientist
Last week, shark-tagging nonprofit OCEARCH concluded Expedition Lowcountry off the southern coast of South Carolina. SCDNR marine biologist Bryan Frazier served as chief scientist on the expedition, working with around a dozen other scientists to study the large sharks targeted by the research trip.
We checked in with him to ask about the expedition and what it feels like to work with such awe-inspiring animals.
Q: OCEARCH’s first visit to South Carolina waters just wrapped up last week. Was it a successful trip?
Bryan Frazier: It was definitely a successful trip! The weather didn’t cooperate and we didn’t get to fish as much as we would’ve liked, but we did manage to tag two white sharks and two tiger sharks.
Q: Were there any highlights of the expedition for you?
Bryan Frazier: The definite highlight for me was being onboard when we tagged "Savannah," the immature female white shark. It was the first live white shark I’ve seen.
Q: What are some of the research projects that will benefit from the samples collected on this expedition?
Bryan Frazier: In addition to the movement data that we will get from these sharks, data was collected for reproductive biology of tiger and white sharks (University of North Florida), nutrition (Georgia Aquarium), trophic ecology, i.e. what do they eat (SCDNR and Woods Hole), capture stress (UMASS), bite force (University of South Florida), bacterial communities of sharks (that live on their skin, University of South Carolina-Beaufort), contaminant loads (methyl-mercury, flame retardants, Cape Canaveral Scientific), parasites (Auburn University), population genetics (College of Charleston), and sensory data (Georgia Southern University). In other words, for four sharks, we collected a lot of data!
Q: Why is it important to learn more about these large predators?
Bryan Frazier: Sharks are the apex predators in our ocean, yet we know very little about their movements. They play an incredibly important role in regulating populations below them through predation, a role that ultimately keeps the prey populations healthy. Since they are at the top of the food chain, they can also give us an idea of the overall health of the system.
Q: What have we already learned from this kind of work about white sharks in South Carolina?
Bryan Frazier: We’ve learned their movements are far more complex then we imagined. We see the coastal movement patterns of the sharks that we thought overwinter here, but we also see white sharks spending the summer offshore, which we did not know occurred. The male white shark we captured, “Hilton,” was in active reproductive mode (motile sperm, sharks are usually only in this state for a month or two), meaning white sharks could be mating off the Southeast!
Q: What does it feel like to be up close with a large shark?
Bryan Frazier: It’s definitely something special, to know you are there with an animal that is one of the largest predators in their environment!
Q: How will SCDNR continue shark research in the state?
Bryan Frazier: The SCDNR will continue to do baseline monitoring of our shark populations, while also building our programs to allow for research on movement ecology, life history studies, population genetics, etc. as funding and collaborations allow.
Q: Should beach-goers be concerned about large coastal sharks in South Carolina waters?
Bryan Frazier: Definitely not, shark bites are an incredibly rare event, and when they do occur in SC, they are typically minor (i.e., a few stitches). While sharks can inflict incredible damage, humans just aren’t on their menu. The last fatality we had in SC due to a shark bite was in the 1850s.
Follow Hilton, Savannah, Beaufort & Weimar
Track the sharks tagged on this trip in real time on the OCEARCH global Shark Tracker, available free online and for download on Apple and Android platforms.