'We're gonna need a bigger boat': Alaska SeaLife Center studies rare Pacific sleeper shark
How exactly do you study a Pacific sleeper shark, a species that research suggests might live to 200–300 years old? Scientists at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward say first you have to catch one small enough to fit in your boat.
Scientists at the ASLC have wanted to study the species to investigate how sleeper sharks fit into the cold water marine ecosystems of Alaska, as well as how the sharks are affected by fishing in the area.
Heading the research study is Dr. Markus Horning, senior research scientist at the center, who is working with co-investigators Dr. Amy Bishop, Richard Hocking and Jared Guthridge. The group is working closely with co-principal investigator and shark expert, Dr. Christopher Lowe, from California State University at Long Beach.
According to a release from the ASLC, the research team began fishing for sharks in 2018 with the intention of finding sharks under 6 feet long, which would be optimal for tagging and releasing them into Resurrection Bay allowing researchers to monitor their movements and gather data.
The Pacific sleeper shark is a marine predator and researchers found through their study these sharks may be a key predator for young Steller sea lions. Not much is known about these sharks, but Horning stated they might be one of the oldest vertebrates on the planet.
"Often times, when so little is known about a species, it can be very helpful to begin initial studies under ‘controlled access conditions’, in other words: in a lab," Horning said.
Thirteen sharks caught were too big for the enclosure they had intended for their research. Those sharks were tagged and released.
Finally, researchers caught a small male shark that was about 5 feet long on July 1, according to the ASLC, with a little help from a local fishing captain Andy Mezirow.
“Successful sleeper shark captures were rewarding after much trial and error, but we continuously found animals that were too large for our study. We were either going to need a smaller shark or a bigger boat,” noted Horning.
The ASLC is hoping to have five sleeper sharks for brief periods of time to study their metabolism and basic biology. The sharks are a closely related to the Greenland shark which has been known to live for hundreds of years.
“If findings from recent studies on the Greenland shark transfer to Pacific sleepers, these animals could maybe reach an astonishing age of 200-300 years old,” said ASLC scientist Dr. Amy Bishop.
For those worried about how catching the sharks will affect them, fear not. Horning said in a blog post, " [...] for those that might have questions about the study animals’ welfare: all our work is quite vigorously scrutinized by our institutional ethics committee, and is conducted under the authorization of this committee and by a research permit issued by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game."
The pilot project is funded by the North Pacific Research Board and the team will continue their studies throughout the summer.
Horning joked they are also accepting donations for a bigger boat.
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