By Jacob Schmidt
How do undergraduates at Washington State University Vancouver spend their spare time? Some study, some hang out with friends and family, others catch the latest movies and almost all consume copious amounts of coffee. For seniors Greg Harris and Dennis Jones, another activity takes a bite out of their time: Harris and Jones catch sharks.
Using their backgrounds as students in the environmental science program, Harris and Jones have devoted their time and resources to researching the sevengill shark population in Willapa Bay off the Long Beach Peninsula. Conducting basic population studies, the two aim to have the sharks reclassified from bottom-fish status. Current state policies classify all shark species as bottom-fish, despite their low reproduction rates, allowing individuals to catch and keep up to 15 sharks per day depending on the fishing location.
Harris and Jones’ interest led them to create the Northwest Shark Preservation Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of sharks. The organization currently has six WSU Vancouver undergraduate students assisting with research, tagging, fundraising and grant writing. For those involved, it’s not simply a fishing expedition, but a chance to dive into a one-of-a-kind research experience.
Harris is a “shark nut”—a self-proclaimed title that he credits with getting him involved with researching the sevengill shark population.
Harris’ fascination with sharks prompted Steve Sylvester, associate professor of molecular biosciences, to forward Harris an email from a reporter with the Chinook Observer who had questions about sharks in Willapa Bay.
Sylvester, who is acting as an unpaid consultant on the project, had previously served as an advisor for Harris’ environmental science internship and knew of his capacity for research.
“I worked with Greg in my lab and was very impressed with his work ethic and drive,” said Sylvester. “Sharks are not my area of research, but I’m able to help Greg by contributing a general knowledge of science and allowing him to bounce ideas off me. Down the road there might be a study that will fit my expertise that we can connect directly to the university, but for now I am simply supporting our students.”
Sylvester’s tips led Harris to Kelly Barnum, a fishing guide who leads catch-and-release shark expeditions departing from the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge on Long Island Slough. Barnum noticed the unusually high number of sevengill sharks in Willapa Bay and invited Harris and Jones to tag along on his next trip.
What started as a one-time trip turned into a full-fledged research project after Harris and Jones witnessed the large congregation of sharks in the bay. After only one expedition, they were hooked.
“There is really nothing more exciting than seeing a 10-foot shark and actually putting your hands on it and investigating,” said Jones. “I’ve been a fisherman all my life, and I still get excited when these magnificent creatures come up alongside the boat.”
Casting the line
Although Harris and Jones’ first encounter with the sharks left them with a new sense of excitement, conducting research on the shark population has proven challenging. Previous research on sevengill sharks has been limited, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as “data deficient” in its conservation status.
Motivated by this lack of information, Harris and Jones mapped out a plan to conduct population studies on the sharks in the bay. The two contacted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and received ribbon tags and DNA-sampling kits.
The tools provide the basis for the mark and recapture method Harris and Jones use to estimate the shark population size. After a shark is caught, the team attaches a ribbon to serve as a visual identifier that the shark has previously been captured, clips a piece of fin for DNA testing and releases the shark back into the bay. The population size can then be estimated by comparing the number of marked sharks to the proportion of marked sharks caught during the next trip.
“Once we have the first shark on the line, we bring it to the side of the boat, rope off the tail and tie it to the boat—effectively immobilizing the shark,” said Harris, describing the capturing and marking process. “We then tag, take DNA samples, photograph and take measurements. This whole process usually takes less than 10 minutes. We try to do it quickly to minimize the stress on the shark.”
Through gauging the size of the bay’s shark population, Harris and Jones hope their efforts can offer insight into behavioral patterns and breeding timeframes of sevengill sharks. In turn, they hope to use this information to develop policies supporting conservation of sharks.
In August, they submitted a proposal to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife proposing a catch-and-release policy that would close angling of sevengill sharks statewide. After several months of public comment, the proposal is undergoing review by the WDFW.
Effecting such a change in policy does not come without a full day’s work from Harris and Jones. On trip days, the two rise from their slumber around 2 a.m., gather their gear, make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge and meet up with Barnum to put the boat in the water. It takes a half hour to reach the shark hotspots in the bay, and once there, Harris and Jones spend six to seven hours catching, tagging and sampling.
“It makes for very long days,” said Harris. “Then we come back home, take care of all our gear, sit down and study for classes the next day.”
Reeling in support
The work of Harris, Jones and the NWSPS has garnered significant support from wildlife enthusiasts and the scientific community. Researchers from Tasmania to South Africa have contacted them to offer advice and share research data.
“In their research, they have stumbled onto other scientists around the world who are interested in their work and where the research may lead. This project is really encouraging them to put their science knowledge base to work and to mature as scientists,” said Sylvester.
Harris and Jones’ research gained regional attention after being featured in Horns and Hooks, a western outdoor adventure magazine owned and operated by WSU alumnus Rex Peterson, class of 2000. Their work has also been featured on the outdoor fishing television show “Hawg Quest” and online at the Examiner.
More recently, Harris has been invited to speak at both the Columbia River Maritime Museum and the Portland Aquarium to discuss sharks of the Pacific Northwest and conservation efforts. Additionally, NWSPS has been asked by the Oregon Coast Aquarium to assist in a live-specimen capture that will take place later this spring. Further increasing the work of NWSPS outside of the region, Harris has been inducted into the American Elasmobranch Society, an invite-only professional society dedicated to the scientific study of living and fossil sharks.
Harris and Jones have also ensured that NWSPS acts as an accessible resource for educating the community on sharks. Current projects include Oceans 101, a section on the NWSPS website that hosts shark facts and marine science articles, and Shark Bait Club, which will offer coloring pages and comic strips educating elementary- and middle-school students on sharks and other marine topics such as ocean pollution.
Currently, NWSPS has undertaken the search for grants and funding sources. Harris and Jones hope to expand the scope of their research and use the funds to purchase new equipment for spring expeditions.
Most WSU undergraduates look forward to May as the end of the semester, with some eagerly counting down the days until graduation. For Harris and Jones, they look forward to May as the start of the shark season and the beginning of new marine science research endeavors.
Team members of Northwest Shark Preservation Society (left to right): WSU Vancouver students Dennis Jones and Greg Harris, Mike Fujimoto, unofficial NWSPS mascot Wyllow Fujimoto and Elizabeth Whitney.
This article appears in the Spring 2013 issue of NW Crimson & Gray Magazine
NW Crimson & Gray magazine is a quarterly magazine produced by Washington State University Vancouver that highlights the WSU Vancouver community and higher education in SW Washington. Subscribe for free or download the issue online.