Grant provides financial support to promote marine conservation

A grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund (DWCF) will provide financial aid for a project aimed at conserving endangered oceanic sharks, an undertaking of the R.J. Dunlap (RJD) Marine Conservation Program at The Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

“It is a big grant, so it attracts a lot of attention,” said Austin Gallagher, a co-principal investigator of the study. “We feel really lucky to be recognized.”

The RJD program was one of nearly 100 projects worldwide to be awarded a grant by the DWCF. The fund awarded more than $2 million to various conservation programs that benefit habitats and species.

The RJD team’s study, which is aimed at protecting oceanic white tip sharks, will evaluate how overfishing may put the species at risk and identify mating and feeding areas.

“The hammerheads have declined over 80 percent in the last 15 years,” said Neil Hammerschlag, UM assistant research professor and director of the RJD Program. “Oceanic white tip sharks were one of the most abundant on the planet and have now declined over 99 percent.”

The study, which Hammerschlag said will begin next year, will use Smart Position or Temperature Transmitting (“SPOT”) satellite tags to track the sharks. The devices will recognize when a shark surfaces and detect its position.

To receive the grant, the team had to demonstrate its experience in the field.

“Neil and myself have authored a lot of scientific papers on this topic, and we have been putting satellite tags on different species,” Gallagher said. “We have tagged 70 sharks and five different species in the last two years.”

The team plans to determine the hot spots where the sharks feed and mate.

“We are using noninvasive tools to look at their blood hormones to determine areas where they might be reproducing,” Hammerschlag said.

According to Gallagher, the conservation of an endangered species depends on the protection of its female members.

“I am most interested with reproduction, personally, but we have seen so far that sharks are pretty damn picky about where they mate,” Gallagher said. “Not a lot is known … we want to see if a pattern emerges.”

Each week, the team uploads the shark’s location to a website allowing individuals to follow its movement. This information is available to students and local and international governments to aid in planning conservation strategies.

“It is important to show that you don’t want to just track the sharks but that you want to test a scientific hypothesis,” Gallagher said.