MOREHEAD CITY — Hooking a huge shark and bringing it aboard a boat is a sight not everybody has had a chance to see. But Dr. Frank Schwartz of the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences will get his 1,000th chance to do so on May 26.
Dr. Schwartz, a marine zoologist with 41 years at the IMS, will be going on his thousandth shark-catching trip that day, all as part of his ongoing research on sharks and their behavior. Dr. Schartz said he hopes the weather’s decent and the sharks are biting.
“The season starts in late April,” he said. “We’ve caught it just right so far.”
Dr. Schwartz heads out bright and early on each trip, which is a day-long affair. He and his crew of six to seven – not including IMS students tagging along for the research experience – head for two locations. First, they go to a spot a half a mile off Shackleford Banks. Then, they move south to a trawler station near a navigation buoy.
Dr. Schwartz and his team use longline fishing gear baited with natural bait to hook sharks for research. Once they get the sharks aboard, they quickly tag them, record their sex and dimensions, and release them again. The entire process is only a few minutes in and out of the water for the sharks.
Dr. Schwartz said they usually have between two to six students with them on their trips. Not every student comes back for another tip.
“It (the trip) is where we sort out the good ones from the ones who get seasick,” Dr. Schwartz said.
Some people he’s been out with try taking pills, like Dramamine, to stop an upset stomach, but after so many trips at sea, the doctor has seen those drugs don’t always work. Sometimes they even have unexpected side effects. Dr. Schwartz said one trip they came back to the dock to find one of their crewmembers missing. They discovered the crewmember had jumped overboard and swam to shore, hiding in the bushes. The seasick medicine he’d taken made him hallucinate that his wife was going to kill him.
Dr. Schwartz has been studying sharks, as well as rays and many species of fish since he came to IMS. He said he got into shark research because nobody else was doing it.
“We were getting shark bites and nobody knew what species was doing it,” he said. Dr. Schwartz started his research by studying the bites being received and determined blacktip sharks were the No. 1 biters in North Carolina, with bull sharks coming in at No. 2.
“We’ve had about 28 bites since the turn of the century,” Dr. Schwartz said. “Today most people survive a shark bite if they get to medical attention.”
There are 52 species of shark found off the coast of North Carolina at one time or another. Dr. Schwartz said many of the species come and go with the seasons.
“In the winter, the dogfish and basking sharks are most common,” he said. “In the summer, the sharpnose and blacktips are the most common.”
Dr. Schwartz had been studying sharks before he came to IMS, when he was working in Maryland. However, the number of species there couldn’t compare to the number he found here. Dr. Schwartz has found many migratory species of shark travel up the coast to Nova Scotia during the summer, stopping to mate in North Carolina. In the winter, they move south toward Florida. Dr. Schwartz said they’ve seen the sharks split into schools of the same sex while they’ve been on the move, though some species are loners.
“We’re trying to learn their migratory patterns, exactly where they go along the coast,” he said. “This is difficult because there aren’t as many commercial shark fishermen as they’re used to be.”
Dr. Schwartz and his crew tag the sharks with simple tags that have contact information should a fisherman land the shark. However, the doctor said federal regulations have driven many people out of commercial shark fishing with shortened seasons and poundage limits that make it unprofitable.
“We have one guy in Wilmington left,” Dr. Schwartz said. “It’s ‘Last of The Mohicans’ as far as North Carolina. I can’t convince the feds these (shark populations) go in cycles. Their councils make decisions without knowing what’s going on.”
Dr. Schwartz disagrees with the opinion shark populations are in serious trouble. Dr. Pete Peterson, also with IMS, was part of a study in 2003 that was later published in Science magazine. The study said overfishing of sharks was causing an explosion in the ray and skate populations because of a lack of predators, which in turn was hurting the shellfish populations with the rays, particularly cownose rays, eating the scallops and oysters.
Dr. Schwartz disagrees with Dr. Peterson and the other scientists from the study. He said the reason for the data showing fewer numbers of various shark species was because they had moved out of the study area.
“If you went out in January, you’d catch dogfish,” he said. “You have to wait for the season for them to show up.”
Dr. Schwartz said the explosion in the ray population was due to shellfish regulations. He said more waters in North Carolina have been closed to shellfishing in recent years due to pollution.
“The number of oystermen have been going down,” he said. “More waters are getting declared polluted, so fishermen can’t get them (the shellfish), but the rays can.”
Dr. Schwartz said the additional food is the reason for the growth in the ray populations. He said he’s seen schools of rays on the move that have numbered in the thousands.
“I published a paper in National Geographic 20 years ago saying the rays were declining,” he said. “I recently made a retraction, saying their population is growing exponentially.”
Sharks and rays aren’t the only sea creatures Dr. Schwartz studies. He said while many scientists specialize in their field of expertise, he works with all kinds of sea creatures, though he specializes in fish. The doctor has a collection of 450 fish specimens from around the world on display at the UNC campus in Chapel Hill.