Raptors in the sky, sharks in the water

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Christopher Reel
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
F-22 Raptors soared over head, while members from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, Southeast Fisheries Science Center, Panama City Laboratory, shark population assessment group, assessed the youth shark populations off the shores off Tyndall Air Force Base in St. Andrew's Bay and Crooked Island Sound April 25.

The group is responsible for the assessment of shark populations in U.S. Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico waters.

Every year, they perform assessments up to two days every month from April through October looking for catch data for all coastal shark species. They began sampling in the waters off Tyndall in 1994 as part of the Gulf of Mexico Shark Pupping and Nursery Survey.

"The ultimate intent of the GULFSPAN survey is to examine the distribution and abundance of juvenile sharks in coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico and to continue to describe and further refine shark essential fish habitat as mandated by the Magnuson-Steven Fishery Conservation and Management Act," said Dana Bethea, NOAA, SFSC, Panama City Laboratory research ecologist.

Sharks are a vital component of the marine ecosystem because they feed on a wide variety of fish, shellfish and mammals, explained Bethea. If one removes a species or suite of species from any level in the food chain, there will be a trickle-down effect. Since the food web is very complex, it is almost impossible to predict exactly what might occur, but it is safe to say that with loss of such important predators, there will be noticeable ramifications.

"While Tyndall does not have ownership of the gulf or adjacent bays, what we do on the land can have a huge impact on the surrounding water bodies," said Wendy Jones, 325th Civil Engineer Squadron Natural Resources wildlife biologist. "We rely on NOAA to monitor the health and diversity of the marine resources around Tyndall."

The Atlantic sharpnose, bonnethead and black tip shark are the most common catch in Tyndall's waters, explained Bethea.

"The main activities of the group include demographic modeling and stock assessment, but fisheries both the bottom long-line and gillnet observer programs are housed here," Bethea said. "We monitor the biological data, such as age, growth and reproduction, in addition to ecological data, such as feeding habits, habitat attractions and movement patterns.

This data is conducted in support of stock assessment and fisheries management.

These assessments help determine the past and current status of fish populations, the amount of fish and provide the data, which will help make predictions about how a species population will respond to current and future management measures.

"Stock assessments support sustainable fisheries by providing fisheries managers with the information necessary to make sound decisions for the conservation and management of fish populations," Bethea said. "A healthy fishery will contribute significantly to the U.S. economy and provide recreational fishing opportunities to current and future generations."

They assess shark populations through Southeast Data, Assessment and Review.

"SEDAR is organized around three workshops," Bethea said. "First being a data workshop where datasets are documented, analyzed and reviewed. The second is where quantitative population analyses are developed and refined and population parameters are estimated.

"The third and final is a review workshop where a panel of independent experts reviews the data and assessment and recommends the most appropriate values of critical population and management quantities," she said. "SEDAR stock assessments are species specific and happen about once a year, depending on the species of shark. Our next assessment will be this June for both Atlantic sharpnose and bonnethead shark."

With information from these assessments, Tyndall adjusts land management practices to reduce any potential negative impacts on marine life in the surrounding waters.

"With this information, Tyndall uses the best management practices to reduce pollution and stormwater runoff into the bays," said Jones.

Most shark stocks are generally healthy, said Bethea.

If a stock is determined to be unhealthy, management will step in and create guidelines for commercial and recreational fishers.

"The best thing the public can do is follow these guidelines," Bethea said. "In addition, the public can practice safe catch and release as well as educate themselves in species identification."