Block Island to be focus of shark study in 2021

Thu, 12/10/2020 - 5:45pm
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Jon Dodd has been fascinated by sharks his entire life.

So much so that his fascination led to the creation of the Atlantic Shark Institute based in Wakefield, Rhode Island, of which he is now the Executive Director. Born and raised in Rhode Island, and later graduating from the University of Rhode Island with a Marine Biology degree, Dodd now studies the sharks and how they “survive so many [factors] and be adaptable.”

Rhode Island’s waters are home to a large presence of sharks, which may be a surprise to some, as sharks migrate along the east coast north to Canada.

Block Island has also recently become a location for ASI’s shark research efforts due to the island’s unique location. ASI is implementing expanded research initiatives around the island, which will focus on white sharks starting in the 2021 study season. Acoustic receivers and underwater video cameras will capture the movements and habits of great white sharks. At the moment, there are seven acoustic receivers strategically placed around the island’s waters to ”listen to any shark that has any acoustic tag,” said Dodd. This past summer was the second year the acoustic technology was used in Rhode Island waters. An eighth acoustic receiver will be added for the 2021 season starting in May and will be taken out in November, along with underwater video cameras, which are called Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems, or BRUVS.

“The receivers listen for tagged sharks. If we tag a shark with an acoustic transmitter, it stays on the shark for about 10 years. The acoustic transmitter is like your social security number — a unique number — and if a shark swims by with an acoustic tag, the receiver picks it up and holds it in the computer. We get a real sense if that shark swam through or took up residency,” said Dodd, noting that the receiver can identify a shark’s name, size, weight, sex, location, and when that shark was in that location. “The more receivers we have, the more we can get a sense of what these sharks are doing,” added Dodd.

With the addition of BRUVS for the 2021 season, this technology can capture movements and details about the sharks, specifically other sharks that may not have an acoustic tag.

A very small percentage of sharks have been tagged. What else is going on if you can’t be there to see it? Enter BRUVS: A BRUV is a small pyramid, three feet by three feet, and you lower it to the bottom with a rope attached that goes up to the surface with a buoy,” said Dodd. “On that BRUV, we have GoPro cameras and bait attached. You lower the BRUVS and leave them down for one hour, and you get fish and sharks interested in the bait source. It is an interesting way to do an assessment of what is underwater that we are not detecting on these acoustic receivers.”

Island resident Jules Craynock is a volunteer for the ASI. He shared with The Block Island Times the importance of the upcoming studies. Craynock has served 37 years in federal service (five years with the U.S. Navy and 32 years with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and has completed graduate studies and programs related to underwater acoustics, marine mammal biology and oceanographic field operations.

“The study is important, and could really take off. The [sharks] are part of our environment here,” said Craynock. “Block Island is a unique location of a major movement of sharks that come into our coastal waters.”

Dodd said the study is “starting to fill in pieces of a puzzle that no one has seen; the sharks are underwater and we don’t know what they do. Each year we get a more complete picture around Block Island.”

Dodd also expressed considerable concern with the future of sharks and conservation measures, primarily speaking to mako and white sharks as they are a “slow growing” species; some mako females can take up to 20 years to sexually mature. Sharks’ fins are considered a food delicacy in some countries. Overfishing for their fins is “not sustainable,” said Dodd. There’s also the fear and misunderstanding that is tied into the nature of sharks’ existence and persona, which was fueled by the famous movie, “Jaws.”

“For a long time after, sharks were just decimated. Everyone who killed a shark was a hero. The reality is, if you look at populations, there were more sharks then” than today, said Dodd.

“Sharks are endangered,” said Craynock, but to understand the extent “comes down to real data.”

To continue its shark studies, ASI, a non-profit organization, relies heavily on the support of volunteers and donations to continue its work.

“Our biggest need for ASI is our supporters. All of these efforts and all of this research is based on getting [financial] support from restaurants, stores, business owners, individuals and groups because this research is expensive,” said Dodd.

“The more help we can get here on the island, [the more] it benefits the island. All we have are anecdotal accounts of what is happening around Block Island. We have fishermen, people on the local waters, but it’s’ never been looked at scientifically,” added Craynock.

“The goal of the Institute is to answer questions. The facts and the situations these sharks find themselves in keep changing. A species that may have been healthy 20 years ago can be endangered today,” said Dodd. With consistent research, understanding and probing into the shark’s underwater lives, the studies on sharks around the island is critical for long term stability of the sharks, adding another “piece to the puzzle.”

For those who are interested in getting involved or donating, check out atlanticsharkinstitute.org, or email Dodd at jonfdodd@gmail.com.