Marine research goes to new depths as shark tagging gets underway

Image courtesy of Colin Speedie and the Swiss Shark Foundation
Image courtesy of Colin Speedie and the Swiss Shark Foundation

SHARKS visiting Scottish waters are to have their secrets revealed by a new tracking project beginning tomorrow (July 20).

Marine biologists from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the University of Exeter hope to gain an insight into the sharks location and behaviour during the summer - when they can be seen feeding in large numbers at the surface - using satellite technology.

Around 20 basking sharks - a breed that regularly passes through the Irish Sea - will be tagged in the waters around Hebridean islands Coll, Tiree, and Hyskeir, near Canna - the only places where displays of social and courtship behaviour such as breaching and following nose-to-tail have been observed.

The animals will then be tracked for a period of several months, after which the titanium tags will naturally detatch, and the data collected will help scientists understand if the sharks travel to deeper water around Scotland and further afield over the winter. The tagging work will also help determine whether an area between Skye and Mull, recently identified as a potential new marine protected area, is an appropropriate site.

Dr Suz Henderson from SNH, who is managing the basking shark tagging project, said: “We’re really lucky to have the world’s second largest fish visit our waters every summer but we know very little about their movements throughout the rest of the year.

“We want to know how the sharks use the waters between Skye and Mull and how long they remain in the area. We’d also like to find out how important this area is in the life cycle of the sharks, and if some areas are used more than others. The results from this project will help to answer these questions.”

Dr Matthew Witt of the University of Exeter said: “This is a fantastic opportunity for us to find out more about the movements and lifestyles of these fascinating creatures. This is a hugely challenging project – not least because we are at the mercy of the weather and sea conditions – but the results will prove invaluable in our quest to uncover the secrets of these giants of the sea and help to protect them.”

Members of the public are being asked to keep a wether eye out for tracking tags, having detached from the sharks, over the coming months. “The tags might be washed up on beaches after being released from the sharks and if we are able to retrieve them they will provide us with additional information” said Dr Henderson.

To track the basking sharks online after they are tagged, go to http://www.snh.gov.uk/about-scotlands-nature/species/fish/sea-fish/shark-tagging-project/