Harbor Branch Scientists Assess Sharks and Rays in Lagoon

Two FAU Harbor Branch scientists, along with collaborators, are assessing the health and abundance of sharks and rays in the Indian River Lagoon.

Dr. Matt Ajemian (left) and Adam Schaefer conduct a health assessment on a shark as part of their ongoing study.

By carin smith | 10/11/2016

The Indian River Lagoon (IRL), an estuary of national significance and one of the most biodiverse in North America, is home to a myriad of species – including everything from phytoplankton to dolphins and seagrasses to sharks. Two scientists with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI), along with their collaborators, recently captured, sampled, and tagged nearly 100 sharks and rays in the IRL, including two endangered smalltooth sawfish and several spotted eagle rays, a protected species. The achievement comes as part of a new study aimed at finding out more about the sharks and rays that inhabit the IRL, in an effort to better understand how anthropogenic factors like algal blooms and rain events affect these predators.

“The IRL has lacked consistent sampling of sharks and rays over the years, preventing an understanding of how this impacted environment is potentially influencing these important species,” said Matt Ajemian, Ph.D., FAU Harbor Branch assistant research professor and principal investigator. “Now that we’ve acoustically tagged these animals, we’re able to find out where they go through the Florida Atlantic Coast Telemetry (FACT) network, a collaborative monitoring effort led by FWC and supported by other institutions to gain a better understanding of the movement patterns of a variety of aquatic species.”

The research is being made possible through proceeds from sales of the “Save Our Seas” specialty license plate, granted through the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation and awarded to Ajemian and FAU Harbor Branch epidemiologist/co-principal investigator Adam Schaefer, MPH. Sharks and rays, with their slow growth rate, late maturity and low fecundity, are among some of the most sensitive marine vertebrates to ecosystem shifts. This study allows scientists to evaluate the health of these sentinel species by measuring things like length and weight, taking blood and microbial swabs and utilizing acoustic transmitters to track movement.

The project aims to characterize and develop physiological baselines for sharks and rays in the IRL and adjacent waters. Ajemian and Schaefer are collaborating with Kim Bassos-Hull of MOTE Marine Laboratory on spotted eagle ray sampling, and the project will provide a multitude of other opportunities for scientific collaboration on both local and regional scales.

For more information, contact Carin Smith at 772-242-2230 or carinsmith@fau.edu.