Scientists to track tiger sharks in Port Royal Sound

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comApril 9, 2014 

When the S.C. Department of Natural Resources tags tiger sharks in Port Royal Sound later this month, they also will appear on the OCEARCH map.

State marine biologists believe Port Royal Sound has the largest concentration of sharks on the East Coast and hope a new study will help explain why.

Scientists from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources will work with OCEARCH to tag and track about 30 tiger sharks as they migrate in and out of the sound.

OCEARCH is a nonprofit organization that tags shark fins with small satellite trackers, which "ping" the sharks' locations when their fins breach the surface.

The group tracks those pings in real time on an online map, and scientists use the data to learn more about shark habits, which are still largely a mystery, according to Bryan Frazier, a DNR marine biologist.

OCEARCH already tracks several species of sharks and is known most for its work tagging great whites -- a pair of which frequent the waters off the Beaufort County coast.

Tagging tiger sharks will help expand the breadth of data scientists can use to understand them, Frazier said. About 10 of the trackers will be listed on the OCEARCH map, so the public can study the sharks, too, he said.

At this point, it's nearly impossible to say how many tiger sharks frequent Port Royal Sound, Frazier said.

"We think it's in the hundreds, but that's difficult to tell," he said. "Until we get some data, we can't really make an accurate estimate of anything like that."

Sharks could be drawn to the sound because of its unique floor, according to Chip Michalove, captain of Outcast Sport Fishing on Hilton Head Island.

"Port Royal Sound is the deepest natural channel on the East Coast," Michalove said. "Not only is it the deepest, we also have the most structure."

The ledges, caves and coral that make up the floor become home to smaller fish and creatures. Those fish then become meals for larger fish -- all the way up the food chain to large sharks, he said.

When the DNR scientists arrive later this month, Michalove will take them out on the water. Sharks will be returning to the sound's warming waters at about the same time.

A champion shark fisherman, Michalove conducts private charters during the summer to fish for sharks and other sport fish in the sound. On any given day, his boat will see or catch three to four sharks, Michalove said.

"Everything starts moving up here about the end of April, then it catches fire," he said. "When they come in, and it's just the tiger sharks, you can just catch one after another after another."

If all goes well, the program could be expanded to more sharks next year, Frazier said.

Analyzing all that data will be complicated, but fishing for a shark is pretty simple, Frazier and Michalove said. It just demands a bigger rod, reel and boat, according to Frazier.

As for bait?

Possibly chunks of barracuda or bonito, Michalove said.

"We often use other shark (meat)," Frazier added. "It's a shark-eat-shark world out there."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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