Sleeper Shark Science 2020

My forearms were starting to burn as hand over hand I pulled in the 950ft of line from the depths of Resurrection Bay. The first 3 lines we pulled in were empty, save for the salmon heads we used as bait, but this one sounded different. The whir of the hauler was a bit louder, a bit deeper. We all were quietly thinking the same thing… I think we may have a shark.

Heading out of the harbor to see if we caught any sharks!

For the last two years, we have been visiting this spot on the east coast of Resurrection Bay to try to catch Pacific sleeper sharks. In a typical year of research, we would have started fishing in late May, but this year things are a bit different.

First, we weren’t even going to have a research season this summer.

Our original grant from the North Pacific Research Board funded two summers of fieldwork in 2018 and 2019. The project, a collaboration between the ASLC and California State University Long Beach Shark Lab, aimed to jumpstart a coordinated series of innovative studies to explore the behavior and physiology of this enigmatic species. The main goal of the work was to study the shark’s metabolic rates, or the amount of energy used by an animal in a specific amount of time, by bringing small sharks to the ASLC for short a duration. Of the 23 sharks we caught, only two were small enough to transport, but we successfully maintained both animals in temporary captivity at the ASLC for a period of 2 weeks and collected truly unique data on their physiology during that time.

With our demonstrated success from 2018-19, we submitted a proposal to NPRB requesting a small amount of supplemental funding. The goal of that funding would be to enable one additional field season in 2020, and to add another 1-3 small sharks to our sample size for metabolic rate data. We received the good news that we were selected for funding in May …two months into the coronavirus pandemic. Safety protocols were drafted, personal protective equipment (PPE) were purchased, and finally, on July 10 we got back out on the water.

Again and again I coiled the line in the large bucket. The floats came up first, and Taylor—the graduate student from CSULB leading the physiology component—expertly removed them while the line was still running. Finally, a dark shape started to emerge from the cloudy deep…

“It’s a shark!”

Markus, Taylor and Amy working with a 274cm shark along side the research vessel.

After just 2 days of fishing, we’ve already caught 2 sharks in 2020! Both were too large for our metabolic study (274cm and 335cm females), but still contribute key information on genetics, health and physiology of this species. We plan to fish through July and into September, thinking good thoughts of small sharks.

Our team is incredibly excited to have another summer season of shark research and discovery. Every shark we catch adds a little bit more to our understanding of this species. Knowing how many sharks there are, how much energy they need to carry out normal life, and what it might mean if they are removed from the food web –through bycatch or predation—will help us work towards sustaining a healthy ocean.

However, this project also continues in a time of uncertainty. Due to being closed for two months, the lack of summer visitors, and travel restrictions caused by COVID-19, the Alaska SeaLife Center is facing devastating loss of revenues. It is possible, without a change of course, that the center could close its doors permanently in October.

The Sleeper Shark Project exemplifies the mission of center—to generate and share scientific knowledge and promote understanding and stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems—and also reflects the truly unique and integrated opportunities for research the center can provide for Alaska.  

The shores of Seward, looking south down Resurrection Bay.

Our project is possible due to the unique location of the ASLC in Seward.

It is possible because of the pumps that bring cold waters from the depths of Resurrection Bay into the pools, where we can house 6ft animals for a short period of time.

It is possible because of the first-class husbandry team that provides care for many Alaskan fish and invertebrates.

It is possible because of our amazing education staff that can bring the discoveries of this project to the public through exhibits, and school programs.

It is possible because our researchers are collaborative and are dedicated to training new scientists.

While the majority of research we do is funded by external grants, our success, and ability to continue exploring, discovering, and sharing information about Alaska’s oceans is interwoven with the overall financial conditions of the ASLC. The Alaska SeaLife Center is committed to continuing our science and research mission work, but these programs need your help. Please consider a donation during this time of crisis to support our ongoing research mission, and become a hero of marine conservation. 

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