You Can Track Sharks With GPS
Somewhere in the world, a shark is going about its business swimming in the ocean. You can join marine researchers who are tracking shark’s movements online by using Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) and GPS live tracking software using the ARGOS constellation of satellites.
OCEARCH, an organization focused on researching great white sharks, has a great tool called the Global Shark Tracker that allows scientists and members of the public alike to keep track of the many sharks that have been tagged off the US Atlantic coast and elsewhere around the world.
More than 50 researchers have collaborated with OCEARCH, gathering data using features of the GPS tracking system to generate data on the movement, biology and health of sharks to protect their future and enhance public safety and education. By using the Global Shark Tracker GPS tracking software you can check out some of the most recent shark pings, and by looking at the map you can easily view some of the sharks being tracked off the East Coast.
“The goal of this work is to understand the migratory routes and residency patterns of these sharks to identify ‘hot spots’ in place and time that are critical for mating, giving birth and feeding as well as locations where these animals are vulnerable to destructive fishing. By characterizing and identifying these hot spots, we can help supply policymakers with the data they need to implement effective management strategies that will improve conservation for these species.”
Currently, more than 2,000 sharks and countless other aquatic animals such as alligators, crocodiles and water buffalos are being tracked worldwide and GPS is the key.
Sharks are an “apex marine predator” at the top of the food chain. They are important to the ocean’s ecosystem. They are the trash collectors of the deep, a clean-up crew eating dead fish and other live creatures before they die, decay and pollute the water. The public, though vilify sharks, not seeing them as kind and cuddly creatures like Koala
Another danger to sharks are the longlines used in oceangoing fishing boats. Sharks get caught in these lines along with sea turtles, dolphins and other species of marine wildlife. Laws protecting sharks vary across the world, with the United States among the most comprehensive. According to Cheston Peterson, Ph.D. – a research scientist working for the Apalachicola Bay System Initiative (ABSI) at the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory – the Magnuson-Stevens Act is the primary law governing marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters. He says that “Having the satellite tags and GPS locations of their migrations allows us to see that they can be going across state boundaries or they can even be traveling across boundaries between countries. So the rules change depending upon where the animal in terms of fishing practices and what can be harvested,” says Peterson.
But sharks aren’t the only animal under surveillance. Countless tens of thousands of sea turtles, grizzly bears, rhino, elk, birds and even turtle eggs are tagged with GPS devices for the benefit of scientific research worldwide.
How Does GPS Tracking Work?
The GPS tracking devices are unobtrusive enough to allow the sharks to maintain normal patterns of behavior. When a shark breaks the surface of the water, the device emits a “ping” that is received by a satellite in space. A series of three consecutive pings provides enough information for accurate geo-location. The satellite picks up an average of 100 data points per second, which adds up to a total of 8.5 million a day.
Cheston Peterson and his fellow research scientists use GPS in combination with tags on the shark that ping and which are picked up by a hydrophone, an acoustic receiver. Another tool shark researchers use is a constellation of satellite called ARGOS which track SPOT tags which are attached to the shark. “It does give you a general idea of the habitat they’re using or if it’s just a species that can move a lot that can tell you more about their migration routes. With the satellite tags you’re not getting fine-scale information in terms of pinpointing an exact location,” says Peterson.
That is where GPS fills the geolocation gap. “We’re just taking GPS locations with a handheld Garmin GPS to keep track of our location and then we can backtrack calculate the estimated location of the shark based on the signal strength directly to the compass heading of the signal as we’re tracking,” he adds.
Sharks Are Endangered
More than 100 million sharks are killed every year around the world, many only for their fins. Shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in China. Sharks are “finned” and thrown back into the sea alive, where they die a slow and agonizing death. So far legislation to ban finning in the United States has failed.
According to Dr. Peterson, “Worldwide, sharks are in decline. Some populations are limited to just certain countries but, sharks as a total group are in decline across the globe. We do have some species of sharks now listed on the Endangered Species Act. Oceanic White Tips are about to be listed,” says Peterson.
Why are Sharks and Other Animals Being Studied?
There are many unknowns about where sea creatures live and how they behave. Tracking sharks and other animals give marine scientists and wildlife biologists a better picture of marine habitat that can then be applied to fisheries law, for example. If a species is endangered, the law can be amended to prevent fishing it. A 2011 study in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology – “A Review of Shark Satellite Tagging Studies” – GPS tracking of sharks was found to be useful in understanding where sharks live, congregate and how they migrate.
In Florida’s Sarasota Bay, GPS is being used to study bottle nose dolphins. Researchers needed data about dolphin behavior and habitat to suggest an amendment to the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) protecting them from capture for “public display, research, and the military” according to a study.4 “The US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) accepted that bottle nose dolphins inhabiting many of the bays, sounds, and other estuaries adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico form discrete communities that under the MMPA need to be maintained,” says the study.
The University of Miami (Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science) has been a leader in tracking the world’s shark population. Scientists there are studying a wide variety of shark species, including White (Carcharodon carcharias), Tiger (Galeocerdo cuvier), Great Hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran), Bull (Carcharhinus leucas), Nurse (Ginglymostoma cirratum), and Blacktip (Carcharhinus limbatus).
Does Tagging Sharks Hurt Them?
The short answer is no, GPS tags do not hurt the sharks that they are attached to. The tags are designed to attachto the sharks fin which are mainly composed of cartilage and where there are no nerves to transmit pain. “Every aspect of our data gathering process is designed to minimize harm to our research subjects. We use special fishing and tagging gear intended to reduce stress, shorten handling time and promote shark safety,” according to the Rosenstiel School.7
Scientific Research Clashing With Public Needs
In Western Australia, shark researchers are at odds with local officials who have used GPS tracking data to find and kill sharks in populated beach areas. The Department of Fisheries gave scientists permission to tag sharks “to study their spatial ecology and act as a warning system to predict if sharks were swimming too close to beaches.”8
“Tagging provides an early warning system, and by killing that shark you are killing the early warning system,” shark policy expert Christopher Neff told the
Guardian at the time. “It’s a step backward for science and for beach safety.”
Steven Cooke, a biology professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University says “We’re trying to get the public excited and share what we do, get them supportive of science and conservation. And at the same time, we’re giving a segment of that broader public the ability to do harm. Having a conversation about this is step number one.”
Fears Over Hackers and Poachers Using Wildlife GPS Data
In North America, India and Africa computer hackers have managed to tap into GPS data. They are using it to track and kill endangered wildlife. Officials are concerned.
In India’s Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve in the Satpura Hills of central India Bengal tigers are being tracked and studied by scientists trying to protect the rare cats. They are among only 2,500 tigers surviving in the wild. According to the Times of India in 2013 poachers hacked into the collar data of one such animal. Doing this makes it easier for poachers to find the animal, eliminating the dangers encountered when tracking it down.
In this case the tracking computer server encryption and e-mail security prevented the cyber poachers from getting the tiger’s location. For safety, the scientists who protect it moved it to another reserve. But the potential remains for poachers to circumvent the precautions.
Wildlife-trafficking around the world is worth $7.8 to $10 billion per year according to the World Wildlife Fund. 9 Bengal Tiger parts are worth an average $2,000 in online
sales. Whole tigers can be worth $50,000.
In Canada and the United States, GPS and digital mapping technologies are making it easier for legal hunters to stalk and bag wild game. But some are using the tech to illegally poach endangered animals or exceed the bag limit.
Wildlife researchers are fighting back against poachers by using GPS technology against them. In South Carolina, one poacher broke wildlife hunting laws 56 times by using GPS to track ducks and deer out-of-season and at night. Ironically, wildlife officials put a GPS transmitter on his vehicle and tracked him breaking the law.
In South Africa, GPS transmitters are embedded in Rhino horns, which are highly prized as an Asian aphrodisiac. They are worth more than $30,000 per pound. Any irregular movement triggers an alarm and officials can come to the rescue.12
Even sea turtle eggs are on poacher’s shopping list. Researchers in Nicaragua have devised a method of stopping egg poaching, they created fake turtle eggs – called the InvestEggator – packed with a GPS locator. 13 The poachers can then be easily tracked and arrested.
Where Can I Track Sharks Online?
With GPS anyone can go on-line and see where sharks and others animals are being tracked around the world in real time. The OCEARCH Global
Shark Tracker web site is one such place. They even have an app. Go to: www.ocearch.org/tracker/.
The University of Miami also has a shark tracking web site:
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