On Jan. 12, Albion student snorkelers were exploring off of the coast of the Dry Tortugas, a group of seven islands located 78 miles from Key West, as part of their January-term biology course (the reporter was a student in the course). With high visibility in the warm coastal waters, biology professor Jeffrey Carrier, course instructor, pointed out fire coral to avoid and a sea cucumber to inspect. Suddenly, calls of “Shark, shark!” filled the air: Kelyn Carlson, Grand Rapids junior, had spotted a nurse shark pup, or “neonate,” in the shallow grass beds.
Named after its discoverer, “Baby Kelyn” was the first newborn nurse shark to ever be seen in this location. In the past two decades, only three live neonates have been found. While the pup was quickly released after handling, its future, and the future of other sharks, are in treacherous waters.
While nurse sharks have no commercial value and are not threatened, excessive fishing has caused some shark populations to diminish.
Along with seeing fewer sharks in the field, Albion students will also be missing the dogfish shark on the dissecting trays in the science complex this year due to the shark’s newly threatened status.
According to the Species Survival Network (SSN), populations of spiny dogfish, the sharks used in comparative anatomy, have declined by 99 percent from the Northwest Pacific during the last 50 years. The species matures at 20 years, birthing young only after reaching this late maturation. The fact that sharks both mature late and have few offspring is a poor reproductive strategy that leads to diminished populations, according to Carrier.
“Commercial exploitation of certain shark species is the greatest risk they face,” Carrier said. “World-wide fishing restrictions are in place for many shark species, but it may be the case of too little, too late for some particularly vulnerable species.”
Carrier, who began his shark, research as an undergraduate at the University of Miami, has focused his studies on nurse sharks, which can exceed 12 feet in length and dwell in warm, shallow waters in the eastern Pacific and Western Atlantic oceans.
“Why do some dog-lovers prefer Labs? It just seems that we (researchers) are more attracted to some species more than others,” Carrier said.
Since he began teaching at Albion College 30 years ago, Carrier has been an advocate for shark research. In the eighties, nurse sharks were first brought to the college and shipped in freight from the Florida Keyes. Until winter break, the aquatic tank in Putnam contained two female nurse sharks, one of which exceeded four feet in length, according to Mary Applegate, Grandville junior, who helped to care for them. Over the years, however, the types and numbers of sharks held for research have changed. More sharks have stayed in the tank at times, including species of leopard sharks and white-spotted bamboo sharks for various research projects.
“Sharks really are majestic creatures,” Applegate said. “I remember the first time (I interacted with them). One shark came to the surface and made the typical sucking behavior during feeding…It made me jump backwards since I was not prepared for that at all.”
According to Carrier, his research has included wound healing, growth rates and aspects of behavior, and sensory system functions, among other topics.
Research and public education is an important factor in aiding the survival of the species, according to Carrier.
“I once witnessed an elderly woman – in front of a class of mine – beat a dead shark on the rocks with an umbrella,” Carrier said. “That act was revealing in terms of her ignorance and the broad fear and disrespect for an animal she simply misunderstood.”
There are currently no legal regulations for conservation of the spiny dogfish species, which has been classically used as in dissection courses since 1922. However, Dale Kennedy, instructor of biology, has decided to no longer use the species in her comparative anatomy course due to their shrinking numbers, although the specimens are still available for $16.50 for a barrel of 10.
According to Kennedy, videos, virtual dissections or alternate species such as bowfins may be used in place of the spiny dogfish.
Carrier emphasizes that even the non-science major at Albion should be concerned.
“Since the oceans are so vast, I fear that the aquatic canary in the cage may cease to sing, and it will be beyond our capabilities to respond,” Carrier said. “The oceans cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface. You can bet that as the seas go, so goes Mother Earth.”