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Shark Expert George Burgess Discusses Plight Of His Favorite Species

Oct 11th, 2016 | Category: Coastal Corner, MDC News
George Burgess

Shark Expert George Burgess

When George Burgess talks about sharks, everybody listens – especially whenever he visits New Smyrna Beach, the so-called “Shark Bite Capital of the World.”

Burgess is the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Fla. He is also the web editor of the International Shark Attack File (http://www.sharkattackfile.net/), which documents shark bites around the world each year.

In addition, Burgess leads Project Shark Awareness, a program aimed at teaching educators about elasmobranch life history, ecology and the fishery management and conservation needs of the group.

Burgess recently addressed the public and fellow scientists in the annual Sh.O.R.E. (Sharing Our Research with Everyone) forum in New Smyrna Beach and sat down with Marine Discovery Center writer/naturalist Lisa D. Mickey for a question-and-answer interview.

Here’s what he had to say about sharks:

Q: If you were to describe the current status of the world’s shark population, what would you say?
Burgess: Shark populations, as well as their relatives, skates and rays, are generally in decline around the world — the result primarily of overfishing, but also of habitat loss. In certain regions where we have better resources, like the United States, we’ve been able to address some of those concerns through implementation of fishery management measures, which in some cases, have been quite severe because we caught the problem after it was too late. But there’s hope for the future. For instance, on the east coast of the United States, the populations in general are increasing. There are still some species that are going to take a while to get back, but for some, like the black-tip, their population trend is definitely upward and we’re getting back to where we should be.

Q: As water temperatures rise, what effect, if any, will it have on sharks?
Burgess: It already is having an effect and we’re seeing that, as well as an effect on other animals. With warming waters, we’re seeing a lot of tropical and subtropical species moving father north than they have in the past and their abundance is increasing. Since most of the sharks that we see along our coastline are subtropical or tropical species, those animals are now appearing with greater frequency in northerly waters in the summertime and they’re going to stay there longer into the fall. The practical effect of that is some of those species are animals that bite humans, so in short, we can expect to see more bites occurring in more northerly areas and in fact, we’re already seeing that. A few years ago, there were attacks by white sharks in Russia in the western Pacific. Russia is quite north and they had never seen an attack and yet, they had two or three.

Q: We think of sharks being in warmer waters. Is something changing in their own biology to allow them to be in colder waters now?
Burgess: All species, including sharks, have their own temperature preferences. That’s why there are more shark bites in New Smyrna Beach than in the Arctic Circle. That said, some shark species are cool-water lovers, like the white shark. You see more of them in cool and northerly waters than we see here. Others can’t visit colder waters because it’s simply out of their range. The result is the animals still have their same preferences, but the world around them is changing.

Q: Will sharks move into more places where we traditionally have not seen them?
Burgess: We are seeing some movements – more up the coastline. Areas in our northern latitudes on both coasts of the Atlantic and the Pacific are beginning to see more tropical species farther north and so these form the northern boundaries of distributions. What we’re seeing is changes in distribution patterns with range extensions occurring more regularly to the north for these tropical and subtropical species. On the other hand, cool-water species that live in sub-Antarctic waters can’t move as far south as they once did because their winters are now warmer. We’re seeing retraction of the range for some of those animals, which also cause problems.

Q: Are we now hearing more about great whites because there are more of them or because we now have tagged animals that can be monitored?
Burgess: There’s no doubt that the publicity associated with some of these high-profile operations are influencing that, but we all have a camera in our hands almost all the time. Everybody now is a reporter and an observer and as soon as we record something, we don’t just sit on it. We go on social networks and share them right away. For anybody who sees anything now, there’s going to be documentation of it. We can communicate so quickly now with social networking. The reality is, we’re seeing more because there are more of us looking and there are more humans on the face of the earth each year than the previous year. That means each year, there are more observers out there looking and recording.

Q: Is that good for science and for scientists like you?
Burgess: It’s good for us in science that we’re getting to see a lot of rare animals or rare occurrences, and that’s pretty neat. On the other hand, it gives a very distorted view sometimes of what reality is simply because people don’t always connect the dots correctly. People sometimes say, “We’re seeing a lot more white sharks and we’re under siege of white sharks.” No, we’re just doing a better job of reporting what we’re seeing and there are more of us looking. As it turns out, white shark populations are slowly on the increase and that contributes too, but we’re not under siege by white sharks. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, a great white in Cape Cod might have been seen by one or two people on a fishing boat and they might have told somebody about it. Now, they take a picture, it goes to social media and makes the main TV station for the 7 o’clock news.

Q: What’s been the biggest discovery about sharks in recent years that excites you?
Burgess: There are so many things going on. Our understanding of genetics now has helped us have a much better understanding of relationships of animals, including sharks, so that’s pretty cool. Our technology with tagging is now allowing us to do lots of neat things – not just seeing where they go, which unfortunately, is the goal of some of these pseudo-scientific things – but to know what depth they’re going, what temperatures they prefer when they’re feeding, and things like that. That’s cool from the behavior standpoint. The most impressive thing I think is the turnaround in public opinion about sharks that has occurred over the last 25 years to the point where people are now concerned about the fate of sharks and rays. That’s a matter of public outreach and citizen science. You can’t just be an ivory-tower scientist anymore. You’ve got to interpret your information to the public because they are powerful opinion makers and voters who help enforce policy. So, the advent of social media and the Internet have made it a lot more agreeable to meld the scientists with the general public, having them work together for common goals.

Q: What are the plans to help the sawfish shark population? Their numbers aren’t good, so what can you do?
Burgess: The small-tooth sawfish, in particular, is basically in the hands of Floridians because the remaining population is only in Florida. That’s particularly important because it’s at our doorstep and we’re the guardians of most of the critical environment. It’s particularly important that citizens take their part in this animal’s recovery. Of course, that means as an endangered species, you can’t keep or harm any of these animals. The message to citizens is that these animals need to be kept in the water when you catch them and when you see them in the water, you need to report them and spread the word to your neighbor. They literally can’t afford any losses. The other part is that recovery is going to take time. We have to be patient and we can’t expect it to happen overnight. It’s probably going to take a century. That means that all of us have to work on faith. We’re not working for our pleasure; we’re working for the pleasure of our great, great grandchildren. It’s a labor of faith and love that we’re doing for future generations. Not so coincidentally, what we’re doing to make things better for sawfish will also make it better for other species that use the same nursery areas – most of the major game fishes, food fishes and invertebrates that we consider important and want to eat, like the crabs and lobsters. All of these animals use the same kinds of areas as the sawfish. If we do a good job of saving sawfish habitat, we’re going to do a good job of saving habitat for other things, as well. That will have a major economic benefit for the state of Florida and the United States.

Q: Are most of the shark bites here in Volusia County a case of mistaken identity by the sharks? There are lots of surfers’ hands and feet in the water around the jetty at Ponce Inlet.
Burgess: That’s true, and contributes to almost any bite here in Florida. During this time of year, we’ve also got the so-called mullet run going on and we have all of these masses of mullet hanging out in an area for a week or two weeks before they move offshore to spawn. If you’re in the water in a place that has a higher chance of encountering sharks — like the surf just south of Ponce Inlet — your chances are even more enhanced if you find yourself on top of a school of mullet.

Q: But we recently had a shark bite farther south at Bethune Beach.
Burgess: Mullets are up and down the east coast and this is the time of year that we see these big masses of mullet. Most of the female mullets are reproductively ripe. They’re what we call roe mullet, and they’re loaded with reproductive product called roe deposits, which make them energy rich. They can be a better bite. All of these predators, whether they’re sharks, jacks, tarpon or porpoises, if they can get their mouth around a mullet, they’re going to go after it. It’s basically Free-Burgers-At-McDonald’s Day.

Q: Are we seeing a decline in shark finning around the world?
Burgess: Remember that the term “finning” officially applies to the practice of taking the fins off the shark and throwing the body back into the water. The process of taking fins and retaining the body is not wrong. It’s the full utilization of the animal and that’s fine. It’s the wasteful practice of throwing the animal back and not using the full protein value – and of course, the ethical practice of throwing the animal back alive, that becomes torturous. That’s the problem. In general the true practice of finning has declined a lot in recent years in most countries where they have put in regulations, like the United States, but in the open sea and in third-world areas, it’s another story. The good part is in third-world countries, the flesh is more valuable there than it is here. We don’t particularly enjoy shark meat that much here. In those countries, that carcass is going to feed a village. Nobody is going to throw back a big chunk of protein. But yes, in some areas of the world, the act of cutting off the fin and throwing the animal back is still under way.

Q: What’s the greatest misconception about sharks?
Burgess: The biggest one is that they’re all out there to eat us. That’s just simply the hype and the myth, and the misrepresentation in media that we often see. But as we all know, shark attack is really a rare phenomenon even though that’s difficult to say in New Smyrna Beach, the Shark Attack Capital of the World. The reality is, even in New Smyrna Beach, the chance of an individual of being attacked is pretty low unless you’re taking a surfboard out into the surf zone right by the inlet. If you move down [the beach] or out of New Smyrna proper, your chances of being bitten are a lot less. Only six people a year die from a shark attack worldwide. We average about one death a decade in Florida, although we do have a number of hit-and-run bites here in New Smyrna. They are quick grabs and let-goes by smaller sharks, such as black-tip sharks. The injuries generally are not severe and there’s usually not tissue loss or loss of function to the individual, although it doesn’t make you feel any better when you have to get stitched up. Most of the attacks occur on surfers, but I haven’t talked to a surfer yet who has been bitten who blames the shark and who doesn’t say they want to get back into the water as soon as they can. For many surfers, a scar from a shark bite is a badge of courage and something that probably works pretty well at the bar on a Friday or Saturday night.

Q: What amazes you the most about these creatures that you study?
Burgess: The amazing thing about sharks is there are always things you’re going to learn about them. They’ve been around for a long time — for more than 400 million years and they’ve had a long time to develop. Their senses, in particular, are highly developed — much more than ours. They can detect electromagnetic fields and changes in pressure. They’ve just had a long time to fine-tune the things that they do and because they’ve been around for so long, a great diversity has developed between different groups. No two sharks are created equal and the more we study them, the more new things we find that are interesting about them. I’m a little biased. I kind of like sharks. They are really fascinating creatures and one of the most ancient ones that are still with us. It’s always intriguing when you have something that is sort of a living fossil.