Testing the waters: experimenting new tools in shark conservation

Some days our work takes us to pretty amazing places. Last Saturday, I dropped off our shark project coordinator, Jarrett Corke, at the fishing wharf in West Head, southwestern Nova Scotia. His mission: to head out to sea on the Atlantic Ocean for two weeks to work alongside the pelagic longline fishermen on the M/V No Excuses to research the use of materials that could deter sharks from biting their hooks.
Why would he do that you may ask? Well, one of the most serious conservation concerns facing sharks is their incidental catch in many kinds of commercial fisheries – commonly called bycatch. Whether they’re caught purely by accident or for their valuable fins, the end result is that we’re losing somewhere around 100 million sharks per year globally! Most populations of large sharks, many of which are the ecological equivalent of the world’s top terrestrial predators like lions and wolves, have declined by over 80-90%! These are alarming and unsustainable rates that will result in unknown ecological changes in our oceans.
In order to ensure these shark populations and our oceans are not negatively impacted, it’s important we find ways to avoid or deter unwanted sharks from the fishing gear or, if found alive, that they are released in the best condition to ensure their survival.

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Jarrett (right) and No Excuses crew members examining experimental gear
© Tonya Wimmer/ WWF-Canada

This is why we’ve shipped Jarrett off to sea. Guided by the expertise of Captain Lynden Peters along with his crew, Jimmy, Trevor and Darren, Jarrett will work with them to deploy the experimental gear to see how it affects the catch of sharks and the target species, swordfish and tunas. Developed by a US collaborator, Kieran Smith, this gear adds pieces of zinc and graphite to the fishing hooks. Upon emersion in salt water, the zinc and graphite react and create an electric field that sharks, unlike other fish, can detect and tend to avoid. The hope is that the electric field created will convince sharks to eat elsewhere.
This is a win-win situation because finding a solution will not only help shark populations, it will also help fishermen from many fleets, including the pelagic longline fishery, in their quest to avoid or deter a species they mostly view as a nuisance. Sharks eating bait, removing hooks from lines or getting caught on hooks and nets can represent a significant loss of money in these operations. The fishermen are as keen as we are to find a solution.
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© Tonya Wimmer/ WWF-Canada
Jarrett Corke onboard M/V No Excuses as it leaves port

This is groundbreaking work – from the materials being tested with a commercial fishery to the unlikely partnering of an environmental organization with local fishermen to tackle one of the most pressing conservation concerns facing our oceans. From the moment our feet hit the deck, the fishermen were keen to find out more about the gear to be tested and quickly went to work trying to figure out how they could attach it to their hooks. Of course they were also very keen to learn that Jarrett knows how to cook!
The work we do is always more effective and more meaningful when we get to cooperate with great people who are experts in their field. We’re very lucky to be able to work with these gentlemen and appreciate their efforts to help us protect our oceans.
Thanks fellas! We wish you fair winds and calm seas!