URI researcher tags, tracks sharks

Brad Weatherbee

Brad Weatherbee is a University of Rhode Island researcher who works with a team to tag and track sharks.

"It's really interesting learning what they do and where they go and who they interact with and those kinds of things," Weatherbee said.

Great whites seem to be what most people think about when it comes to sharks, and they're definitely out there.

"There's white sharks off Rhode Island. They go up to Massachusetts, so they're passing by," Weatherbee said.

But Weatherbee focuses on other more common species that hang out off the Southern New England coast.

"Close to shore there's sandbar sharks. There's sand tiger sharks. They get to be a decent size. They don't bite people very often. But they're around, and there's quite a few of them. And if you go farther offshore there's a lot of blue sharks, very common, blue sharks. There's a lot of mako sharks, and there's thresher sharks that are pretty common," Weatherbee said.

And that's where Weatherbee comes in.

For the past few years, he's gone out with a team from the Guy Harvey Research Institute of Florida to catch mako and tiger sharks off Mexico and in the Caribbean and put satellite trackers on them.

"You can track them almost in real time. You can look on the computer and see where the shark was today or yesterday or all along," Weatherbee said.

He uses a computer to check the progress of makos his team tagged off Maryland in May.

"What we were expecting is that they're supposed to come up the coast and come up to Rhode Island and Massachusetts in these continental shelf waters, but they've been surprising in what they've done," Weatherbee said.

Instead, some have gone way out in the Atlantic.

"This is what we're trying to find out. Nobody knows where they go. Everybody presumed they go up here (off New England), but we tagged five of them and none of them went to that school," Weatherbee said.

But others he tagged a couple years ago have made the more predictable migration from down south to New England.

The goal of Weatherbee's work is to help protect sharks by learning more about them.

"Sharks play an important role in marine ecosystems. They're top predators, so they have a lot of interactions with a lot of different species so they influence a lot of organisms out there. So they're important for the health of the ocean," Weatherbee said.

"From a conservation point of view, sharks have been over-fished heavily around the world and a lot of the populations are in peril or the populations have dwindled quite a bit. So, it's important to manage those populations," Weatherbee said.

Weatherbee is also interested in what he says is scientific reality versus public perception.

"Sharks aren't particularly dangerous," he said. "The number of people that get attacked by sharks, the number of people that get killed by sharks, is way out of proportion of people's fear of it. It's pretty irrational."

And through Weatherbee's work, you can know more about what may be swimming near you.