N.C. COAST | Shark fins could become a more common site in the Atlantic Ocean, according to a new study.
In the early 1990s, shark populations had declined to dangerously low levels due to overfishing and lack of a management plan. To respond, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) implemented a fishery management plan for sharks and started monitoring them.
The results of those efforts are not quickly evident because sharks — particularly large ones — are slower to mature and reproduce at lower rates than many other fish. A team of researchers led by a graduate student at William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS) combined data from six different shark surveys and created a model that indicated the management efforts have been effective.
“The context of shark population status over the past few decades has been pretty doom and gloom,” said Cassidy Peterson, the graduate student who headed the project. “It’s been a story of all of these big shark declines in abundance into the 1990s and because they’re so slow-growing and slow-reproducing, the story sort of was that they weren’t going to increase in abundance anytime soon.”
To evaluate the comeback, the team estimated trends for larger species such as blacktip, sandbar, spinner and tiger sharks, as well as smaller ones such as the Atlantic sharpnose, blacknose and bonnethead sharks. Since the management plans were enacted, according to the researchers, every species but bonnetheads has seen population increases.
A good sign?
More sharks in the ocean is likely a positive sign for biodiversity, said Rob Latour, a VIMS professor of marine science who worked on the study. While sharks have struggled, species they hunt such as rays and skates have boomed.
Now, with sharks returning, there is a chance for the ecosystem to return to its former state.
“Sharks are viewed as being the apex predators of the food web,” Latour said, “and as such they have the ability to regulate food web dynamics in a top-down manner, if you will, so their re-emergence could be viewed as positive.”
Vacationers taking a dip in the Atlantic are more likely to have an encounter with sharks, Latour added, but the possible comeback isn’t a sign swimmers should be more afraid this summer — especially after the spate of shark attacks off the N.C. coast in 2015.
“With more sharks there does come an increased probability of encounters,” Latour said, “ but in the grand scheme of things, you have a far greater chance of getting in a car accident on your way home from work. ... Just use smart tactics.”