Shark Season in the Gulf

It’s summer, and the second summer since BP changed the Gulf of Mexico forever. From the deep microbes to the highest mammals, nothing is the same. Something of our home is bouncing back but we know it will take time to reveal what we’ve lost.Among our worries is the population of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus, or el tiburon ballena) in the Gulf. Although the first report of a whale shark in the northern Gulf of Mexico occurred in 1933, a northern Gulf of Mexico whale shark monitoring program was only started in 2003. But in 2010, BP’s oil coated an area where more than a third of northern Gulf sightings have occurred. This oil could have coated the gentle giants, and their gills, as they slurped up plankton and small animals near the sunny surface. As of 2011, sightings were down to 50-70% of pre-BP sightings, which concerned scientists like Dr Eric Hoffmayer of USM / NOAA.Following the status of whale sharks this summer are Bonny Shumaker from On Wings of Care, along with the GCRL at University of Southern Mississippi, and Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in the northern Gulf, looking off Ewing Bank, and Dr. Para_sight, working with the Georgia Aquarium and the Mexican government, Mote Marine Laboratory, University of South Florida, Georgia State University, Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, looking afuera in the southern Gulf near the Yucatan. Photo copyright On Wings of CareBonny reports on her sightings: “unlike previous summers, there have been no sightings reported by fishermen or oil platform workers…Trying to be as scientific about this as possible, we combined all of our sightings…and from them we made a “statistically optimum” flight path. That path took us first to the Ewing Bank area, about 160 miles south-southwest of New Orleans, then eastward along the shelf about 75 miles, northeastward almost to Sackett Bank, then back to the Mars and Ursa platforms to catch up with some of the biologists who were there working with tuna, to tell them of our findings — and very excitedly, as we had lots to report! Near Ewing Bank a pod of about 35 dolphins, then ten whale sharks all in close proximity…these sightings seemed a huge relief to us, and to the marine biologists. Time will tell the state of health of these populations and of the fish and plankton they need in order to survive.”(read and see the rest here)Meanwhile, off the Yucatan, Dr. Parasight of Deep Sea News reports on the wonders of the southern Gulf:”By way of preface, this is a fascinating area: a rare example of tropical upwelling on the west side of an ocean basin. The prevailing currents come up along the coast from Belize to the south and race through the Yucatan channel between Mexico and Cuba. As they curl to the west around Cabo Catoche and into the Gulf of Mexico, they bring up deeper, nutrient rich water onto the narrow shelf, which sponsors a rich – sometimes staggeringly – pelagic community. Other complexities of the local geography, especially the islands of Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy create a mosaic of diverse other communities including coral reefs, rocky reefs, sea grass meadows and sargassum communities. It really is a pretty cool place, biologically speaking.”(read more here)The summer sun shines on our giant friends. Both of these far flung explorers have been happy to look after these gentle giants of the Gulf. In the northern Gulf, it seems that only immature sharks hang out near places of upwelling, like Ewing Bank. Off the Yucation, “afuera,” aggregations can reach up to 150 individuals. Since 2009, Mexico declared the site of large shark aggregations a Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve. No such reserve exists for the northern Gulf. You can watch a wonderful 2010 video on the tagging project here: Scott Eustis is GRN’s Coastal Wetland Specialist.

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