Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Researchers Tag Ten Whale Sharks in Gulf of Mexico

Effort represents the largest number of individuals
tagged at one time in the northern Gulf

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in a
collaborative effort with several fisheries-based agencies,
successfully tagged 10 whale sharks during two recent trips in the
Gulf of Mexico. This represents the largest number of whale sharks
tagged at one time in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The tagging effort is a joint venture between the University of
Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, National
Marine Fisheries Service, Mississippi Laboratories, Flower Garden
Banks National Marine Sanctuary, On the Wings of Care and LDWF. The
team is hoping the project will reveal precious information about
the little-studied fish.

“Historical information on whale sharks in the northern Gulf of
Mexico is lacking,” said LDWF Assistant Secretary Randy Pausina.
“We’ve had great success with many other fish tagging ventures and
hope that this effort has similar results, providing a wealth of
data to assist in the conservation of this species.”

Despite being the largest fish in the ocean, the whale shark is
one of the most elusive animals to scientists due to their
offshore, nomadic existence. They are extremely difficult to find
outside of a few known seasonal hotspots; therefore, obtaining data
on this species is extremely challenging and expensive.

“If the tags stay on for a significant amount of time, we will
learn a great deal about how these sharks use the waters of the
northern Gulf of Mexico, as well as where they go in the winter
time, which is still a mystery to us,” said Dr. Eric Hoffmayer, a
Research Fishery Biologist with NOAA Fisheries Service, who has
been studying whale sharks in the northern Gulf for 10 years. “It
is still unclear whether whale sharks are residents in northern
Gulf waters or simply seasonal migrants from the Caribbean Sea or
beyond. Hopefully the data acquired from these tags will shed some
light onto this research question.”

One of the most accurate and useful tools for studying whale
shark movements is telemetry, which involves attaching satellite
transmitters to the sharks. Other behavioral information beyond the
shark’s movements can be inferred by assessing oceanic and physical
conditions around the shark.

The satellite tags provide temperature and depth data every 10
to 15 minutes as well as an estimated position each day for the
duration of the tag. The deployment periods for these tags ranged
between four to 12 months. In addition to the standard satellite
tags, three position tags were also deployed, which send real-time
location estimates to the satellite when the shark surfaces and the
satellites are overhead. These tags should report for up to six
months.

Funding for the satellite tags was provided by the International
Foundation for Animal Welfare and World Wildlife Fund.

“Another important factor contributing to the success of this
project and our whale shark research over the years has been the
participation by the public in our Whale Shark Sighting Survey,”
said Jennifer McKinney, Research Technician with the University of
Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. “After
receiving several reports from the offshore community about whale
sharks in region, we mobilized a trip to conduct the tagging. Due
to public participation, we knew exactly where to focus our efforts
and therefore had great success.”

The Whale Shark Sighting Survey can be found at www.usm.edu/gcrl/whaleshark. The survey has been an
increasing success over the years, in which the general public has
been actively involved in the whale shark research program through
their participation.

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