Jersey scientist shows how sharks are tagged and tracked

Monmouth University Assistant Professor Keith Dunton is on a quest to find sharks along New Jersey’s coast.

“Sharks are around here, all the time, throughout the year, and they are swimming among us,” said Dunton. “Anytime we reel in a shark it’s very exciting — organized chaos is what I call it. We have all our tools and tagging equipment ready to go.”

Shark enthusiast Dunton hopes to better understand the migration and movement of sharks found in the waters off the Jersey Shore. It all starts with catching the animals. Dunton and Monmouth University students fish on the beaches in South Jersey and on boats. Once they reel in the shark, the team takes measurements and determines the gender and species.

“Then we’ll roll the shark over on its side and we’ll do a small surgery implanting the acoustic transmitter within its abdominal cavity. We will then suture the shark up using medical grade sutures,” Dunton said.

Then, the shark gets a brief health checkup before it’s released back into the water. It typically happens in under four minutes. The transmitters last about 10 years, giving scientists a long history to study.

There are acoustic receivers placed in the water all along the coast. When a shark with a transmitter passes by a receiver, it detects the sound. When scientists are out on the water, they use a mobile tracking device to pinpoint the location of the shark, if it is nearby.

“The great thing about these acoustic receivers and these transmitters is they work up and down the coast. So as my fish or shark swims down to, say, Chesapeake Bay, I’ve got colleagues down there that will be able to detect that and report that back to me,” Dunton said.

Since last summer, the professor and his team have tagged nearly 80 sharks with acoustic transmitters.

“Right now, we’re finding that two shark species are really prevalent along the coast — sandbar sharks and sand tiger sharks,” Dunton said.

The scientists also found that a lot of Jersey’s sharks travel south for the winter and return in the spring. Another component of the project is to work with land-based fishermen to ensure the sharks they release survive.

“One of the cool things about the acoustic transmitters are is that if this transmitter pings after the animal is released, we know that that animal is now alive and swimming so they have survived that event,” he said.

Ultimately the professor hopes his work will help protect sharks in Jersey and all over the coast.