After several decades of decline, great white sharks in the North Atlantic are finally on the rise. That’s great news for ecosystem health, even if it freaks out beach goers. But scientists still know little about the migratory patterns of young sharks, which is a challenge for conservationists. Now, a group of researchers think they’ve located a shark “nursery”—the first found in the North Atlantic.
The multi-discipline research group Ocearch led by Chris Fischer, former host of the TV series Shark Wranglers, has conducted 26 expeditions looking for and tagging great white sharks. In the last two weeks the team has found and tagged at least nine great white pups near Montauk, Long Island.
“[This is] definitely the nursery, likely the birthing site,” Fischer tells Jeff Glor at CBS This Morning. “Probably the most important significant discovery we’ve ever made on the ocean.”
The scientists believe young great whites spend their first 20 years in this region. Though the area may also be the calving grounds for the sharks, this is not yet confirmed.
This past spring, the return of a tagged female shark dubbed Mary Lee, after Fischer’s mother, to New York waters tipped off scientists that the area may be important, reports Story Hinckley at The Christian Science Monitor.
“The strategy at the time was get a tag out on big mature animals, and when you get one on a big female, 18 months later, she should lead you to the holy grail of the research, the birthing site,” Fischer told CBS.
Great whites can have between two and ten pups in a litter. And though the researchers have not seen a great white actually give birth, the number juvenile sharks in the area indicates that the birthing site is likely very close.
When researchers spot a great white, they use chum and a fake seal to attract and lead it onto a hydraulic platform attached to their 126-foot research vessel, according to Sarah Emerson at Motherboard. The platform lifts the shark out of the water and—in a 10-minute drill reminiscent of a NASCAR pit stop—a team weighs and measures the shark, takes a blood sample and muscle biopsy, looks for parasites, and uses a power drill to cut a hole in the animal’s dorsal fin to attach a tracking device. The researchers say the process does not injure the animal in any way.
Whenever the shark’s dorsal fin breaks the ocean surface, it pings its location, which Ocearch tracks. The public can also follow the movements of dozens of sharks tagged since 2013 with the organization's live Shark Tracker.
The newly tagged pups include animals named Hampton, Montauk and Gratitude. “We've learned a lot about the adult sharks in recent years, but the pups are still a complete mystery,” Tobey Curtis, lead scientist and Fisheries Manager at NOAA Fisheries says in a press release. “Tagging these baby white sharks will help us better understand how essential Long Island waters are for their survival.”
According to Samantha Schmidt at The New York Times, experts believe that shark mothers choose the area around Montauk, part of the New York Bight, because the shallow waters provide plenty of prey. The area’s bays may also give the young sharks, some only 70-80 pounds, protection from other sharks and adult great whites, which can weigh up to 2,400 pounds. As the first shark nursery found in the North Atlantic, the site joins an exclusive list of other breeding grounds including eastern Australia and South Africa, she reports.
Now, Emerson says, the researchers are interested to learn if the tagged pups are related to any of the adult sharks they’ve tagged near Cape Cod. That would indicate that the sharks mate up north before giving birth near Montauk.