What you can do to help declining shark populations

Help scientists keep track of sand tiger sharks with Spot a Shark USA.

July 26, 2018

NC Aquariums launch citizen science program to collect data on sand sharks

Here’s your chance to be a citizen scientist and help in the conservation efforts for one of the iconic species along the east coast of the United State and the Gulf of Mexico. We’re talking about sand tiger sharks. Because the population of sand tiger sharks along the coast dropped by more than 75% in the 1980s and 1990s, the shark is now listed as a Species of Concern under the Endangered Species Act.

In an effort to gain more information about the sand tiger sharks’ recovery and improve conservation work, the North Carolina Aquariums joined other agencies to form the Sand Tiger Shark Consortium and launched Spot A Shark USA. It’s a program that allows citizens to help sand tiger shark conservation efforts by uploading shark images and even adopt a shark. The citizen science program encourages divers, snorkelers, and others to share images on the Spot A Shark USA website.  The photos are added to a database that runs recognition software to identify each shark by unique spot patterns.

“Sand tiger sharks have brown patterns along their sides that can be used to identify individuals, just like we use fingerprints to identify people,” said Avery Paxton, one of the lead field researchers for Spot A Shark and a scientist with the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation.

“Once the shark is identified, that information can be combined with the location where the image was taken to give scientists an idea of what areas of the coastal ocean the shark uses for its home as well as where individuals move over time.”

Are shipwrecks providing pupping grounds to female sharks?

Researchers are especially interested in finding out how important the shipwrecks of the Graveyard of the Atlantic are to mature females as well as investigate potential pupping grounds. The location of sand tiger shark pupping grounds are currently unknown and a critical life history mystery.

The Spot A Shark USA website is easy to use. Once on the page, visitors simply click the “Share Now” button to upload their shark images. Contributors must also provide the location and date the image was taken. The website also provides suggestions about the most effective way to photograph a sand tiger shark so that its spots are visible.

“We are asking for all images, both new and old,” said Paxton. “Because sand tigers are highly migratory we don’t know what happened in between photos so this will give us a sense of where the shark is moving.”

Once images are uploaded, visitors are given the opportunity to nickname and “adopt” the shark in their photo. They will receive updates on that shark when it is spotted by other divers and their donation will aid research efforts.

“North Carolina is one of the top global wreck and shark diving destinations and divers come from all over the world to experience sand tigers on the amazing shipwrecks off the coast,” explained Hap Fatzinger, director of the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. “Directly engaging divers in conservation research to contribute data highlights the power that zoos and aquariums are playing in conserving these iconic sharks.”

 —Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!