Researchers Say Gulf Sharks In Trouble

A shark attack usually makes major news headlines, but the threat that humans pose to sharks isn't as highly publicized. Researchers say people are the main reason for the dramatic drop in the shark population in recent years.

For 12 hours the Tommy Munro became a floating classroom, sailing the Gulf of Mexico. Professor Eric Hoffmayer and students from the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory focused their interest on an animal surrounded by mystery and fear.

Hoffmayer said, "Sharks are hard to get a hold of both in the field and hard to keep alive in captivity and because of that it's really hard to study these animals. There are a lot of things that you can do with birds, reptiles, and mammals that you cannot do with sharks because of the nature of these animals."

To give his students better insight into the lives of sharks Hoffmayer invited aboard fellow researcher Mark Grace of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Grace says sharks are the victims of public misconception, and people should realize that these predators at the top of the ocean food chain are important to our ecosystem.

"Sharks typically were viewed as a nuisance species. They were viewed as a valuable commodity. They don't have the public interest say that perhaps dolphins would or turtles," said Grace.

"Without sharks in a given area you may have a population explosion of other types of fish that may have effects all the way down the line."

Researchers feel unregulated commercial and recreational fishing during the 70s and 80s devastated the shark population.

"What we saw early on was the basically most of the species in the coastal areas were in the declining mode, since management has gone into effect we've seen some stabilization," said Grace.

"We really don't know how many are out there and we've seen decreasing in species that may have been common 10, 15 years ago that we rarely see in these waters," said Hoffmayer. "So if we don't start learning more about these animals, more about the management of these animals, we may lose these some day."

To save the sharks the government began regulating shark fishing in 1993. Researchers say they're busy tracking the movement of dozens of species, but the process is slow.

"Because sharks are so long lived and they take a lot of years to reproduce, we're not seeing any significant trends at present as far as increases or decreases go but the research is going to have to go on for several decades," said Grace.

Next year Professor Eric Hoffmayer hopes to extend the course on sharks from three to five weeks and perhaps his inspire his students to get involved in saving the sharks.