Unique study of Otago sharks launched
Scientists and school students are seeking the sharp eyes of Otago locals to spot as many sharks as possible, in the first ever study dedicated to different sharks in this region.
The public are being asked to register any shark they see along the Otago coast this summer for Shark Spy, a detailed scientific study of the many shark species in the area.
The study by the New Zealand Marine Studies Centre based at the University of Otago involves both the public and students from five Dunedin schools joining monthly boat trips to spot sharks and egg cases and gather information on them.
It’s the first systematic scientific study of multiple species of sharks that has been carried out in the area, outside the gathering of fisheries data.
Sevengill sharks can grow up to 3 metres in length. They are common in the Otago Harbour, especially in summer.
Spying to solve shark mysteries
Project lead Rob Lewis, who is a scientist at the Centre, says there are several shark species along the coast at different times of the year, many of which are missing baseline information, and scientists want to know more about them.
The scientists are encouraging anyone out on the water this summer to take photos and videos of any sharks they see so that the information can be recorded. “The more sightings we get the more data we have to help us understand more.”
"The only recent evidence we have of shark activity in the area is people saying when they have seen one. There is a wealth of knowledge out in the community but it has not been captured," Rob explains.
"There’s a lot we don’t understand about why we are seeing certain sharks at certain times of the year. We are collecting data to get a baseline and hopefully we can get a better estimate of what animals we should see where and when.”
Another sevengill shark spotted in Otago waters.
Rob says what scientists do know is that there are many unusual behaviours with several shark species that appear in the Otago area.
One is the blue shark, usually found a long way off shore in other parts of the world, which appears basking on the surface close to shore in Otago.
Similarly, thresher sharks appear near the shoreline, when elsewhere they are more commonly open ocean dwellers. “It could be foraging, mating or pupping that brings them in.”
Rob (centre) with students onboard a research vessel.
An important role to play
The students, ranging from year 5 to 10, are from Macandrew Bay primary school, and four colleges to date – Logan Park, Queens High School, Otago Boys High School and Bayfield High School.
Their role in the study is to go through a scientific process that is linked to the curriculum when they collect, interpret and then critique data on the sharks and then look at the next stages of the project.
The students have learnt how to identify shark species, estimate its abundance, note the time of year, the size (ascertained from underwater video footage), the age and population structure.
Rob says the study is raising the students' awareness about local sharks and giving them a different perspective about sharks to what they may have learned before.
“It helps them to put it in a context of how sharks fit in an environment, and understand why it is important we save these animals or have these animals.”
For example, footage collected by these schools has shown that Spiny Dogfish, a common species where juveniles and adults usually live in different schools, mix together as one population off the Dunedin coast during winter. ”Is this something we should know more about for the conservation and management of this species and its environment?”
Rob says the information being gathered will help build a longer-term picture of shark species movement on the coast. “Ideally the longer a project continues the more powerful the data becomes.”
Students are learning about shark anatomy as well as habitats and behaviour.
How locals can help
The Centre is encouraging boaties, fishers, surf life savers and all water sport users to contribute any sightings information to the study.
Shark spotters can upload photos to iNaturalist and note the season and any other identifying information such as size or gender.
All information collected by Shark Spy can also be viewed on iNaturalist by simply searching for the project ‘shark spy’. Information can also be directly emailed to: email@example.com.
A shark captured on the baited remote underwater video (BRUV) that is part of the study.
About the project
Shark Spy is run by New Zealand Marine Studies Centre, University of Otago with support from the Otago Participatory Science Platform.
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