Shark study reveals 'surprising discoveries'

Last updated 10:34 12/08/2014
great white shark
CLINTON DUFFY/ DOC

White shark with acoustic tag.

shark
WARRICK LYON/ NIWA
TRY TAGGING THIS: NIWA scientist Malcolm Francis tags white shark with acoustic tag.
shark
TRACKED: Tracks of three SPOT-tagged white sharks tagged at Stewart Island. Coloured dots are average daily positions (long gaps between dots indicate one or more days without satellite fixes). Blue line = 1,000 m depth contour.

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A decade of shark hunting in New Zealand waters will help protect the protected species.

NIWA and the Department of Conservation have been tagging and tracking great white sharks around the Chatham Islands and Stewart Island since 2005.

The project, aimed to find out more about the great white sharks that inhabit New Zealand waters is coming to an end as scientists tackle the final phases of data analysis.

The information gathered on the distribution of sharks will now be compared with the distribution of commercial fishing to figure out where and when the sharks are at greatest risk of being caught by fishing gear.

NIWA fisheries scientist and shark expert Dr Malcolm Francis said since 95 sharks were tagged, the team has made some surprising discoveries made.

Dr Francis said the initial aims of the project were to find out how mobile the sharks were, how far they travelled and where to, and their habitat requirements.

"We found that most migrate to the tropics during winter. The first one or two we saw do this came as a real surprise. They go between May and July and return between December and March, spending more time out of New Zealand waters than in," Francis said.

Last week, a 3.3m-long great white named Pip by the researchers, arrived in New South Wales near Sydney, with tracking data showing she took 20 days to travel 2020km from the southern Snares Shelf. She has since moved steadily northwards, and recently entered Queensland waters.

Another shark, a 3.7m female named Caro, has been hanging around Stewart Island for several months but is expected to begin her overseas migration shortly.

The New Zealand tagging also showed that the sharks travelled in a remarkably straight line on their migrations, averaging about 5kmh or 100 km per day, but have done up to 150km a day.

In the afternoons they tend to spend time at the surface but also make regular dives between 200 and 800m - the record depth is 1246m.

"We don't know why they're doing that, we assume they're feeding. We also don't know how they navigate in a straight line or why. It's a big puzzle and not one we are likely to work out,'' Francis said.

Department of Conservation shark scientist Clinton Duffy said comparing the shark movements against commercial fishing activity could help identify key risk areas for the species.

The tagging programme has involved the use of acoustic tags, useful for determining how the sharks use their habitat near seal colonies, pop-up tags that gather data on light, depth and temperature, and electronic tags attached to a shark's dorsal fin to track their movements.

Mr Duffy has a database of more than 100 sharks identified from their colour pattern and the shape of the dorsal fin.

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Some familiar faces are seen each year at tagging time, because many sharks return annually to the same place, he said.

However, the researchers also see new sharks each year at Stewart Island, indicating that there are some residents and some transients. This makes estimating the size of the population, and whether it is changing, very difficult.

"Biologically white sharks are fascinating; the opportunity to tag them and find out their migratory behaviour over the past decade has been incredibly interesting and valuable," Duffy said.

- The Southland Times

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