URI Tracks Mako Sharks


A mako hooked on bluefish bait.

First published in the Providence Journal 9/6/20. Story and photos copyright Hugh Markey.

URI Professor Brad Wetherbee seems to think his favorite shark may need a better press agent. “Makos are like a high-performance car, like a Lamborghini. They’re fast, fast, fast,” he says, lightly pounding the rail of the boat for emphasis. “Certainly, these makos are impressive animals. They get to be 13 feet long and 1400 pounds. They can catch about anything, whereas white sharks… they might be big, and get in the news, but…” His voice drifts off.

Wetherbee’s enthusiasm for makos is why he continues to catch and tag them with transmitters in a project that he began back in 2004. It’s also why he’s up before dawn on this day to pilot the 35-foot URI boat Hope Hudner toward the waters between Point Judith and Block Island.

Bringing a mako to the surface.

“(Makos) start out down south,” Wetherbee says. “In the winter, some of them are off the Carolinas. And then towards the end of May, or the middle of May, they start showing up in off Maryland. Then from May until June, they start moving up the coast, past New Jersey and Long Island. From there, they start showing up in Rhode Island waters. By the end of the summer there may be mako sharks that are up off Nova Scotia, Newfoundland. At the end of the summer and even later into the fall, most of them head south to that cycle again.”

As the trip continues, a pod of half a dozen Atlantic white-sided dolphins performs seemingly choreographed dives through the waves. “For some people, that sight alone would be worth the price of admission,” Wetherbee says.

“Makos are overfished. Everyone wants to go after them.” Tagging the sharks provides a plethora of information about their movements, such as which country’s waters they will pass through. “Our indications are that some of ours have traveled through 27 different countries.” Each time the shark is near the surface, the transmitter signals the animal’s location. Since the start of the program, Wetherbee’s sharks have produced some 60,000 signals, which paints a picture of how the fish spend their time.  He has partnered with the Guy Harvey Research Institute for his tagging and tracking. The Institute maintains a web site that allows scientists and lay people alike to watch the movements of makos and other tagged animals. (Find the site at  http://www.ghritracking.org/ ).

URI Senior Bailey Jenkins keeps the shark under control while the tagging instruments are readied.

The ocean is surprisingly calm this day, and after a short ride Wetherbee arrives at what he only half-jokingly calls his “secret spot”. With him are URI seniors Bailey Jenkins and Colby Kresge, who quickly prepare the fishing equipment once the boat stops. (All those aboard are masked against the Covid virus.) “This is part of what you can do if you come to URI,” Wetherbee says. “If you’re able to do things like this as an undergraduate, it’s a pretty good deal.” Bailey Jenkins says the tagging has made her realize that “sharks are just the most important animals.” Kresge, a sport fisherman himself, says he’s also working on a project involving photographing sting rays. “We get to do a lot of stuff, working with makos, blue sharks, and others.”

“This is like cave man fishing,” Wetherbee says. “We just throw on a hook and bait and fish. People think we’re crazy. We’re just a few miles from shore, not where we’re ‘supposed to be’. We’re just using handlines.” The team uses circle hooks, which are designed to hook the fish in the corners of their mouths for safe release. The hooks are baited and tied to a nylon rope with a heavy wire leader. Then they’re tossed overboard, along with a float like those used in marking lobster traps.  After that, it’s hurry up and wait as the boat drifts with the waves. The trio take turns dunking a bucket of frozen chum (ground fish) in the water, creating a slick of oil and tiny pieces of fish. The chum is intended to create a widespread scent field that will attract sharks from the 120-foot water.

URI senior Colby Kresge.

Less than 30 minutes pass before the first strike. “There’s a mako!” Jenkins calls as one of the floats begins to splash back and forth in the water. It’s time to secure the lines and be sure they won’t get tangled. A moment later, the shark comes off. “We got his attention anyway,” Wetherbee says.

Shortly after that, another shark takes the bait. The rope is grabbed and pulled up. At first, the animal feels heavy but not particularly active. A moment later, though, it appears to realize that it’s been hooked. That’s when it makes a break for it, the rope flying through the crew’s gloved hands. At one point, they must release their grip on the rope to avoid injury. A moment later the fish seems to pause, and the

process of pulling it to the surface renews.

Dr. Brad Wetherbee (center) places the transmitter on the dorsal 

This time the team is successful, and soon a five-foot female mako is hauled onto the deck. Jenkins and Kresge quickly move to subdue the head and the tail while Wetherbee gathers his tagging gear. Makos have a distinctive bullet-shaped head and row after row of teeth, continually moving forward and replacing old ones. Their eyes are large and black, and the skin tones are white, silver, blue, and black, well suited for hunting.

They take a series of measurements and Wetherbee quickly places the tag on the dorsal fin. The device, which may last several years, will send signals to a satellite which will allow Wetherbee to track its movements. The tracking he does will aid in state and federal decisions regarding fishing limits and other protections for the sharks. “Everyone would like to be able to fish for mako for years to come,” Wetherbee says.

In less than five minutes, the shark is back over the side. The ropes that held it in place are removed, and with one angry flick of its tail she fades into the darkness. The crew baits the hooks, throw the floats over the side, and the process begins again.


The author pilots the Hope Hudner.

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