Guests experience a special thrill when they see one of the Tennessee Aquarium’s Sand Tiger Sharks up close. The Secret Reef exhibit, home to four of these big, toothy sharks, affords landlubbers the opportunity to really examine the way the shark’s eyes look back while they slowly cruise through the water.
Sand Tiger Sharks, like almost all shark species, are declining rapidly in the wild. Once abundant in the temperate ocean waters of the world except the eastern Pacific, Sand Tiger numbers have been spiraling downward mainly because of pressure from fishing.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Fisheries Service, Sand Tiger populations along the U.S. east coast dropped 90 percent during the 1980s and 1990s before protections were put in place. “Sand Tiger Sharks are relatively easy to catch, but they reproduce very slowly,” said Jackson Andrews, the Aquarium’s director of husbandry and operations. “Females don’t reach reproductive maturity until they are five or six years of age. They reproduce every other year, and when they do reproduce, they have up to two pups at a time. So, it’s easy to see how their numbers have plummeted over time.”
Protecting these sharks means learning more about their somewhat mysterious movements throughout the year. OCEARCH, a global leader in shark research, launched an expedition in June to tag up to 30 mature female Sand Tigers with a goal of learning more about their breeding and pupping habits. Using an OCEARCH vessel, scientists from Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, Florida Aquarium, North Carolina Aquariums, SeaWorld, Southeast Zoo Alliance for Reproductive Conservation, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington, spent nearly 10 days tagging sharks off the coast of North Carolina.
The Tennessee Aquarium was a partner in this project, providing support to purchase the acoustic tags that were implanted in the sharks. “These tags were very similar to the acoustic tags we are using to monitor the movement of Lake Sturgeon in the Tennessee River,” said Andrews. “Each time a tagged shark passes by a receiving station, information about that animal is recorded. Project managers will get data over a relatively long period of time.”
This new information will help define habitats that Sand Tiger Sharks use for breeding, gestation and pupping. Identifying these critical zones is an important first step for conservation. “Comparing habitat use of pregnant and non-pregnant mature females may highlight areas for proper management and directly benefit the Sand Tiger Mid-Atlantic population,” said Madeline Marens, lead scientist and aquarist with the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.
This is one of many new initiatives aquariums are launching as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Saving Animals From Extinction (AZA SAFE) program. The multiplier effect of collaborative conservation work helps improve the status of many species that are disappearing. “We believe that Sand Tiger Sharks have a place in the ocean and we would like to continue to see them thrive,” said Andrews. “It’s important for us to participate with other organizations in scientific efforts to better understand these threatened animals to help ensure their future survival.”
Families will have an opportunity to learn more about shark research, talk to SCUBA divers while they’re surrounded by sharks, and touch bizarre-looking shark specimens during the Aquarium’s annual Sharkfest event onFriday, August 5.
Sharkfest also features a large collection of prehistoric Megalodon Shark teeth and a chance to meet the Chattanooga filmmakers who produced “Shark Clans,” a top-rated documentary about Great White Sharks that aired during Discovery Channel’s Shark Week 2015.
After feasting on facts while talking to shark divers underwater, kids can get a tough-looking temporary shark tattoo and a “shark hawk” or mermaid hairdo. The Sharkfest frenzy concludes with a tasty frozen treat from Coldstone Creamery.
Guests can register for Sharkfest online at: https://community.tnaqua.org/events/member-programs/summer/2016/shark-fest-2016