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At Carolina, Shark Week lasts for decades

Researchers at Carolina's Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City conduct the longest-running shark survey in the United States.

Like many boats leaving North Carolina’s Crystal Coast in the morning, The Capricorn has all the hooks, lines and skilled fishermen necessary for a good day on the seas. But the measure of success of this journey isn’t what comes back in the nets — it’s what’s written down in a notebook.

For more than 45 years, researchers from Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City have been catching as many sharks as possible, recording myriad types of data and physically collecting data (which is analyzed in a lab later), before quickly returning the sharks back to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s the longest-running shark survey in the United States. Researchers compare current data against observations from years and decades ago to monitor overall ocean trends. They also frequently share their findings from over the years with other marine researchers.

“Some of the trends that we’ve documented from our survey are that we’ve lost some of the largest shark species that used to be caught on our survey, which means that we don’t see them in the water nearly as frequently as we once did,” said Martín Benavides, a Ph.D. candidate and shark researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences. “The smaller species are now becoming much more common.”

During the shark survey trips, researchers cast a mile-long line in the Atlantic on two separate occasions to catch sharks. A team of trained fishermen help bring them safely on the boat. Researchers then measure the sharks, document their species and attach a tag to them for potential follow-up study in the future.

“Sharks are really important for any ecosystem because they structure marine communities,” Benavides said. “There’s a lot of concern that we’re starting to see shark populations increase, however, this should be a sign of optimism, from my perspective. Because that means that our ocean ecosystems are healthier.”