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Making Catch-And-Release Safer For Sharks

Scientist Jeff Kneebone tags a juvenile sand tiger shark in Quincy Bay off Wollaston Beach.
Courtesy Jeff Kneebone
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Scientist Jeff Kneebone tags a juvenile sand tiger shark in Quincy Bay off Wollaston Beach.

Say the word “shark” to a New Englander these days and the mind jumps straight to great white sharks, which have seen a remarkable increase here in recent years.

But great whites aren't the only sharks around. And it turns out we know little about many of the sharks that frequent New England's waters.

Now there’s a new effort to understand how catch-and-release fishing of sandbar sharks impacts their survival.

“We want to know if the catch and release processes is harming the fish in any way, and if it is, we want to work with fishermen to try to figure out what is it about the capture event that is causing the sharks to die,” Jeff Kneebone told Living Lab Radio.

Kneebone is a fisheries scientist with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium and much of his research focuses on figuring out where sharks are and what they're doing as they move around the region.

Twenty years ago, Sandbar sharks had a large population off the mid-Atlantic coast. When the population dropped, it became illegal to catch and keep them. But fishermen still are allowed to pursue them using catch-and-release fishing.

Given the sharks’ susceptibility to population declines, Kneebone wants to know more about what happens after they are caught and released. When they die, why?

“Is it how long they're being fought? Is it how they're being handled when they're landed on the beach? Is it where they're being hooked?” he said.

To do this, Kneebone is traveling this summer to Cape Cod beaches with fishermen to observe how they fish for sandbar sharks, which are also known as brown sharks. He’ll write down the details of how the fish was caught, handled, and thrown back. He’ll also attach a small data logger to each fish.

“They collect really high-resolution data about the animal’s swimming behavior,” Kneebone said. “It can be likened to like having a Fitbit on a shark.”

At the end of the project, he hopes to provide recommendations to fishermen about how to do catch and release fishing so they can keep “the welfare of the animals in mind.”

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Web content produced by Elsa Partan.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.