Ocearch Tags New Sharks During Gulf Of Mexico Expedition

Ocearch, the innovative nonprofit dedicated to worldwide shark research and tracking, has recently concluded an expedition to the Gulf of Mexico, adding several new animals to their already impressive stable.

The organization, which was founded by Chris Fischer in 2011, is well known for pioneering research into the migratory patterns and habits of mature sharks worldwide. Several of the animals they have tagged, including great white sharks Katharine and Mary Lee, have become social media celebrities, yet Ocearch also works to track other species, including bull sharks, tiger sharks, and hammerheads.

This month, Ocearch wrapped up its first-ever expedition to the Gulf of Mexico, as CBS News reports, and what whey found there may confound some who haven't recently visited the region. While many people perceive the gulf to still be struggling environmentally following the widespread damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Ocearch found the area off Texas to be anything but. According to Fischer, local anglers say the region is "rebounding, full of life," and somewhat counter-intuitively, the gulf's widespread oil rigs have become a boon for the local ecosystem.

Oil and gas companies operate some 4,000 active rigs in the gulf. Though the damage from a spill can be devastating, the presence of these platforms also comes with an unexpected benefit. Each rig has, over the past few decades, essentially created its own artificial reef, allowing unusually strong ecosystems to form around them. As apex predators, the sharks sit atop this system, preying upon and managing the food chains that coalesce around the unintentional reefs.

While oil rigs can be controversial at any time in their operational cycle, their shutdown creates another conundrum. Already established as an artificial reef, a retired oil rig can either be left in place or removed for scrap by its parent company. While operating corporations are most often interested in removing their asset and recovering its scrap value, researchers like Fischer see greater benefits to leaving the structures behind to be permanently reefed.

The gulf presents a welcome habitat for sharks not only due to the abundance of these structures but also due to the relative lack of finning in the region. This brutal practice is responsible for mass shark fatalities worldwide and involves indiscriminate anglers cutting off fins while the sharks are still alive, discarding the rest of the animal to suffer an agonizing death without the ability to swim. It is against this threat, among others, that Ocearch campaigns.

The group managed to affix GPS tags to four sharks while in the gulf, including two tigers and two hammerheads. They aren't the first Ocearch sharks to swim in the region, as Katharine and other great whites have been recorded there, yet their tracking data will hopefully reveal another facet of the gulf's ecology. Observers will be able to follow the sharks on Ocearch's popular website, while they will provide data that researchers haven't had in the past, as Earth Touch notes.

Ocearch hopes the sharks will reveal not only their own habits but also the impact of the gulf's oil rigs and what ecological factors pose real threats to the animals. While Fischer points out that it is unusual to do such pioneering work in this day and age, he also notes that it is vital. Ocean ecosystems depleted of sharks would have drastic impacts worldwide, and according to the Ocearch founder, that eventuality is something we should all fear.

[Image via Elias Levy - Own Work via Flickr| Cropped and Resized | CC BY 2.0]