CHATHAM – If you use the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s Sharktivity app, you might have noticed some new alerts. Along with the familiar blue square with a white fin indicating a white shark sighting are new yellow boxes that when clicked, offer information on tagged sharks detected by real-time acoustic receivers.
The new feature officially launched on Sept. 14, allowing users to access real-time detection information of white sharks tagged through research conducted by AWSC and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF).
According to Greg Skomal, Senior Fisheries Scientist with the DMF, and AWSC Research Scientist Megan Winton, five acoustic receivers were deployed in Cape waters as a test run that proved successful enough to link the data to the app.
“The real-time receivers relay detection information in real time, which is incredibly valuable for both research and outreach efforts,” said Winton. “The marine environment is really tough on equipment, so a lot of the work this year is focused on figuring out how they’ll perform in Cape Cod’s dynamic coastal waters.”
Along with allowing near-immediate alerts to the presence of tagged sharks in a particular area – for example, a shark dubbed Broken Tail pinged several times during a swim from Nauset to Truro on Monday – the new feature also allows users to learn more about the sharks that have pinged. A click on the Broken Tail ping brings up a photo of the shark, as well as information on other sharks that have been picked up by the receivers.
Both Skomal and Winton heavily emphasize that the sharks appearing courtesy of the receivers are only those that have been tagged as part of ongoing research. Sharks that are not tagged are still in the water but won’t be detected unless sighted.
Winton said the data from tagged sharks offers insight into the overall population.
“As scientists, we use the data collected from tagged sharks to give us an idea of what the population is doing as a whole,” Winton said. “People should think of the data provided by the app the same way, as a proxy for shark activity off the coast.”
Skomal said the connection between the receivers and the app is another step toward ensuring the safety of beachgoers during the busy summer months as well as the fall, which is a peak time for shark activity.
“The way I look at it is that the more information people have, the better. This is just one more way to inform people as to the presence of these sharks,” Skomal said. “It gives you a sense of some of the patterns we see.”
The information gleaned from the acoustic receivers will also be given to the towns where shark sightings are frequent. Any decision on whether more will be purchased will be up to town governments, though their high cost could be a challenge. For now, researchers are pleased with the expansion of outreach offered by the receivers.
“Aside from the scientific benefits, I think this technology is going to be a powerful outreach tool,” said Winton. “The notifications are a great reminder to beachgoers that white sharks regularly occur along Cape Cod’s beaches from the summer into the fall. It’s also going to be a great tool for people to learn more about individual white sharks that inhabit our waters.”
While the 2020 research season saw delays related to COVID-19 and inclement weather, Winton and Skomal said shark activity so far has been similar to what they’ve seen in the recent past. To help scientists better understand shark movement beneath the waves, researchers have tagged four sharks with acceleration data loggers, which reveal swim and feeding patterns.
“It really gives us insights into very fine scale behaviors,” said Skomal.
The challenge is that the tags have to be located once they detach from a shark. Winton spent the better part of the day on Sept. 15 searching for a tag with spotter pilot Wayne Davis and volunteer Jerry Evans, grateful when they got word that the tag washed ashore on Nantucket.
Skomal also noted that technology, no matter the price tag, isn’t foolproof.
“As long as everything is going well, we’re happy,” he said. “There are always setbacks. Anytime you use technology there are setbacks.”
And remember that not every shark off the coast has been tagged; so far, nearly 200 sharks have been tagged and could potentially register on the real-time receivers.
“Always keep in mind that we have not tagged every shark,” Skomal said. “Just because we don’t pick them up on the receiver, doesn’t mean there’s not a shark there.”