Scientists emphasize growing importance of shark tracking in Gulf of Mexico

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Many types of shark frequent the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including an increasing number of white sharks.

When a 1,264 pound example of the specimen pinged just 4 miles off the coast of Cape San Blas in late April, she created a small stir on social media — with a post showing her location having been shared dozens of times on Facebook.

The shark, named Maple, was tagged by researchers with OCEARCH, a Park City Utah based nonprofit organization that helps tag the animals to gather data that can be used by scientists to study shark behavior.

Bob Hueter, OCEARCH’s chief scientist, remembered tagging Maple a little less than a year ago.

“She was very memorable because she had a big bite mark on her left side that was not that old,” Hueter said. “It didn't happen when we were dealing with her, but something had happened to her sometime in the previous week or two.”

Pulling up the shark’s file, Hueter couldn’t help but comment on Maple’s size.

“Oh yeah, she’s a big girl,” he said. “We tagged her in Nova Scotia in September 2021.”

But while her 11 and a half foot length is by no means short, adult female white sharks, which are typically larger than males, can grow to be anywhere in the range of 14 to 16 feet long. Because of this, OCEARCH categorized her as a sub-adult.

It is not unusual for large white sharks to make their way into the Gulf of Mexico searching for food in the colder months, Hueter said. White sharks are not thought to breed in the area.

Maple had been in the Gulf’s waters since December when she pinge off of Cape San Blas. Since late May, Maple has been making her way back up to the cooler waters of the Canadian Atlantic Coast. She pinged in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on July 23.

With overall white shark population numbers on the incline, white shark sightings in the area are likely to become more common, Hueter said, though he stressed that the animals posed very little threat to locals in the area.

“The ones in the Gulf tend to be pretty good-sized,” he said. “They tend to be large, not the little younger ones, but the older ones. And they've always been there. I mean, I remember examining one wrapped up in commercial fishing line here around ‘92.”

“But there’s nothing to fear,” he continued, “especially from white sharks in the Gulf of Mexico… They’re not generally right up on the beach like they are in other parts of their range.” 

According to Gavin Naylor, the director of the Florida Program of Shark Research, OCEARCH is among leading organizations tagging sharks in the area.

“It’s a super helpful service,” he said. “They have television cameras and all sorts of stuff.”

This data, he said, can be helpful in determining migratory behaviors and other location-based observations.

But perhaps what large organizations like OCEARCH contribute the most to the study of sharks is their ability to capture and tag large numbers of the animals, with more funding than other sources due to their extensive public outreach efforts.

“It's a little bit like if I stuck a tag in you,” he said. “You'd probably be out for lunch, come back, work, sit at the desk, go off, go home, have supper, watch TV or whatever we do. And that would just be your life. But to know what humans in the Panhandle are doing, we'd have to tag 10,000 of you.” 

Hueter said he was glad to hear of Maple’s local fame. A few decades ago, he explained, the shark might have been better described as infamous.

“It's been very gratifying to see the effect of our work on public perception of sharks because when I started this field, decades ago, sharks had a very negative image as a result of things like Jaws,” he said.

“And we've been able to help transform that public perception to one of understanding, respect and even appreciation of the role sharks play in the ocean, so that when people follow these animals, the animals have a name that we've assigned to them, they are actually curious. They think it's really cool.”

OCEARCH’s most recent expedition back up to Canada was postponed after their crew began experiencing some technical difficulties. However, the crew plans to be back in Atlantic Canada tagging sharks by the year’s end.

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