White Shark Researchers Tap Data From Electronic Tags to Gain New Insights Into Survival Rate for Young Sharks

May 09, 2018

Juvenile white shark tagging
Photo courtesy Steve McNicholas
Monterey Bay Aquarium and its research colleagues have been tagging juvenile white sharks in southern California since 2002. Now they’ve gained new insights into white shark survival from those data tags.

Tagging in Southern California and Mexico shows most shark deaths due to unintentional capture in fishing gear, highlighting value of best practices that support protected species’ recovery

Researchers in the United States and Mexico have tagged juvenile white sharks for nearly two decades, tracking their movements in coastal waters of the Northeastern Pacific. Now—drawing on methods used to study mountain lions, coyotes, moose and other terrestrial animals—they’ve tapped those data in a new way, gaining the first empirical estimate of annual survival rates for young white sharks and quantifying the role fishing plays in the rate of white shark deaths.

The study, “Juvenile survival, competing risks, and spatial variation in mortality risk of a marine apex predator,” published today in the Journal of Applied Ecology, confirms that unintentional capture in fishing gear (bycatch) is the greatest cause of death for young white sharks, a protected species in both Mexico and the United States.

More broadly, data from pop-up archival tags (PAT tags)—which have been used worldwide to track tens of thousands of individual ocean animals, including white sharks—represent “a widely-available, untapped data source that could dramatically increase our understanding of marine population ecology,” said lead author Dr. John Benson, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska.

Benson, who primarily studies terrestrial predators, conducted the white shark study as a postdoctoral researcher at Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium— together with colleagues at California State University, Long Beach; Aquatic Research Consultants in San Pedro, Calif.; and the Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education (CICESE) in Baja California—has been tagging and tracking juvenile white sharks since 2002.

Research Results at a Glance

Data from 37 sharks tagged since 2002 revealed that:

  • The overall estimated annual survival rate for young white sharks was 63 percent. Though this study did not address broad trends in the white shark population in the Northeastern Pacific, the researchers note that protection of white sharks in 1994 has likely resulted in a reduction in fishing-related mortality. The increase in juvenile shark sightings over the last 15 years may be an early indication of a positive sign for population recovery.
  • Fisheries bycatch was the main source of mortality for juvenile white sharks in the region, highlighting the need to follow best practices related to incidental catch in coastal commercial and sport fisheries. Only two young white sharks tagged by researchers died of natural (non-fishing) causes.
  • Overall mortality risk for young white sharks was lower for larger animals.

According to Benson, the paper adds to scientific understanding of white sharks, and shows how models that estimate survival rates for top predators on land—data obtained from radio telemetry and tracking collars—can be applied to ocean species that carry PAT tags.

“We always learn things from adjacent fields,” said Dr. Salvador Jorgensen, principal white shark scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and senior coauthor on the paper. “Before coming to the aquarium, John made his name studying mountain lions in Southern California. We were excited to see how the methodologies John was using for land-based predators could be applied in the ocean.”

Taking a New Approach

Benson realized that data from PAT tags opened the door to a new approach to estimate survival rates for young sharks, using what are called known-fate models.

“Because the PAT tags record detailed data on temperature and diving, it is possible to reconstruct the fate of the shark in the final minutes of each track,” said Jorgensen. “We’ve looked at these data for years and often noted when a tag ended up on a fishing boat or in the stomach of a larger predator. Surprisingly, nobody had yet connected the dots to use this information to estimate a critical demographic rate: annual survival.”

The technique hinges on being able to determine the fate of individual animals—data that PAT tags provide. If a tagged shark was eaten by a predator, or if it died in a fishing net, the tag recorded those data.

By applying known-fate models to those data, researchers estimated survival and mortality rates for the population at large. They also determined that fisheries bycatch was the main source of mortality for juvenile white sharks in the Northeastern Pacific, and that juveniles were at significantly greater risk of mortality when in Mexican waters.

Protections are in Place

In California, it is illegal to target and land white sharks, and coastal waters are permanently closed to all gillnets within three miles of shore. In Baja California and throughout Mexico, targeting and landing white sharks is prohibited all year. However, gillnet fishing in coastal waters is still permitted for other species. Data from the study show that juvenile white sharks are an estimated nine times less likely to get entangled in California compared with Baja.

“We are learning that the gillnet regulations in California, although originally designed to protect sport fishing interests, have done a lot to protect juvenile white sharks,” said Dr. Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at CSU Long Beach and a coauthor of the paper.

The study also revealed that juvenile white shark mortality in gillnets is reduced when nets are checked by fishermen every 6 to 12 hours, so the young sharks can be released alive.

“In terms of reducing white shark mortality, avoiding setting nets close to shore and checking them frequently appear to be the best practices,” Lowe said.

Coauthor Oscar Sosa-Nishizaki, a professor at CICESE, stressed that engaging with local fishermen in Mexico is critical to reducing mortalities and improving recovery prospects for the Northeastern Pacific white shark population.

“It’s the best way to go,” he said. “Mexican fishing communities play a vital role in enabling this research as well as helping us solve any issues as they arise.”

CICESE doctoral student Emiliano García-Rodríguez, another coauthor, added: “It’s very important to work with the fishermen, because we want to know whenever they incidentally catch a white shark.”

“This research suggests the importance of a collaborative approach to management in California and Mexico, and opportunities to innovate on best practices that can support fishermen, research and protections for white sharks,” Jorgensen said.

Other co-authors on the study include John O’Sullivan, director of collections at Monterey Bay Aquarium; Chuck Winkler of Aquatic Research Consultants; and Connor F. White, white shark researcher with CSU Long Beach.

Additional information about this study and other white shark research is available on the aquarium’s Future of the Ocean blog.

Citation: Juvenile survival, competing risks, and spatial variation in mortality risk of a marine apex predator (2018). John F. Benson, Salvador J. Jorgensen, John B. O’Sullivan, Chuck Winkler , Connor F.

White, Emiliano Garcia-Rodriguez, Oscar Sosa-Nishizaki, Christopher G. Lowe. Journal of Applied Ecology.

About the Monterey Bay Aquarium

The mission of the nonprofit Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the ocean. It is the most respected public aquarium in North America, and an innovator in living exhibits, public programs and social media–engaging nearly two million visitors a year and millions more around the world. It is a leader in science education, creating programs for young people and the adults who guide them as it nurtures a new generation of science-literate, conservation-minded young people to tackle the environmental challenges of the 21st century. And it is an influential global voice for ocean conservation, combining active programs in marine science, with policy initiatives and public outreach to secure the future of the ocean. Its science is the foundation for the sustainable seafood movement worldwide, and integrated with its policy and outreach programs, is shaping a sustainable future for global fisheries and aquaculture. Learn more at montereybayaquarium.org.

About the CSU Long Beach Shark Lab

The mission of the Shark Lab at California State University-Long Beach is to study the physiological and behavioral ecology of marine animals, emphasizing the effect of human activity on the ocean; to utilize and develop innovative technology to answer challenging questions important for the conservation and restoration of depleted populations; and to train the next generation of marine biologists. Learn more at https://www.csulb.edu/shark-lab.

About CICESE

The mission of the Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education is to generate knowledge and develop technologies that may contribute to the solution of national and regional problems through basic and applied research and the development of human resources at the graduate level, in the areas of biology, physics, computer science, ocean and Earth sciences, within a framework of responsibility, ethic and leadership for the benefit of society. Learn more at http://eng.cicese.edu.mx/.

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The mission of the nonprofit Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the ocean.