Research unravels the mystery of sharks and what brings them to Myrtle Beach

(The lines are baited with Mackerel, as Coastal Carolina University students set out on a shark tagging trip on Winyah Bay. Photo: Sharon Tutrone)

Shark research off the Myrtle Beach coast reveals valuable information on the movements of these ocean predators and why they like the Carolinas.

“We have seen up to 10 different kinds of sharks in Winyah Bay,” said Dr. Dan Abel, a marine biologist at Coastal Carolina University.

Abel, who started the research program more than 15 years ago, takes a group of undergraduate and graduate marine biology students out to Winyah Bay to study Juvenile Sandbar Sharks.

“One of our aims is to simply look at the demographics of shark populations,” said Abel. “How stable are they? What factors influence the presence and absence and the diversity of sharks in ecosystems.”

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Coastal Carolina Marine Biology students bait the hooks on a recent shark tagging trip to Winyah Bay. Photo: Sharon Tutrone

The process of tracking sharks is tedious and precise. Abel and his students bait 25 hooks on a line that is 150 meters long. The line has floats and anchors at both ends. Once the lines are in the water, they soak for 30-45 minutes. The students then hand pull the line in, hoping they have a shark on one of the hooks.

“We typically catch as many as zero to 10 sharks per long line,” said Abel. “When we do catch a shark, depending on its size we usually identify and measure it in the water, then we tag and release it.”

This type of tag-and-release research can tell a lot about different shark biology.

“We learn possible migration movements, growth rate estimates, habitats they utilize, and possible population estimates,” said Caroline Collatos, a graduate student in the marine science department.

Depending on what the group’s goals are, Abel said, they put a tag in the shark’s dorsal fin or place acoustic telemeters in the abdomen of the shark.

“Acoustic telemeters are little pingers,” said Abel. “We make a two-inch incision in the abdomen and put a double A battery-sized instrument inside, sew it back up, and it will ping every 60 to 90 seconds. In order for us to get information on where the shark is, it has to go by an acoustic receiver. Fortunately, there’s a ray of receivers up and down the coast and worldwide.”

Acoustic tagging allows CCU students to track the movements of return visitors to Winyah Bay.

“Acoustic tagging has shown Juvenile Sandbar Sharks return to the bay for up to a month at a time. We think they use the bay as a seasonal habitat to feed, grow, and escape predation from larger sharks,” said Collatos.

Collatos says Winyah Bay is a habitat for mostly Juvenile Sandbar Sharks.

Atlantic Sharpnose sharks, Finetooth sharks, and Blacktip sharks also visit the area.

To learn more about the Coastal Carolina shark research team’s findings, click here.