Monday, May 16, 2011

Adopt-a-Shark: corporate execs get hands-on treatment to study sharks

Getting people to make a personal connection with an endangered animal like a shark can actually be quite challenging. For most people, they are physically removed from the animal - the odds of them seeing a shark while wading at the beach are somewhat remote. So, many public aquariums and grass-roots shark conservation groups have established "adopt-a-shark" programs wherein people can make a donation to a specific shark species and feel, in a sort of charming and cute way, a connection with the animal.

However, at the University of Miami, Neil Hammerschlag, director of the university's RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation program, has taken the adoption a step further by having representatives of one of the program's key donors roll up their sleeves and get up close and personal with the recipients of their corporate generosity.

Hammerschlag has an adopt-a-shark program to help support his shark research. Price of adoption: $2,000 which pays for one satellite, or SPOT, tag destined to be attached to a bull, hammerhead, or tiger shark. While that might be a bit steep in price for most folks, to date Hammerschlag has had 20 adoptions/shark taggings. Wells Fargo Bank has been a major supporter of the research program, donating up to $40,000 to date.

Corporate donations are sometimes made, touted to the press, and soon forgotten, so to impress upon the people of Wells Fargo who were involved in the donation process the importance of his work, Hammerschlag invited a handful of Wells Fargo executives to assist him and several of his graduate students with the actual tagging of several sharks in Florida Bay.

Using baited circle hooks attached to weighted buoys (which allows a caught shark to continue breathing normally while swimming in a circle - a process less traumatic on the shark compared to reeling it in), a lemon shark was eventually snared and brought up alongside the boat.

As reported by the The Miami Herald, this is when the Wells Fargo execs were put to work.

"The professor and students would wrestle the shark onto a large, plastic litter and lift it into the stern of the boat. Sea water would be pumped through a hose in the shark’s mouth to enable it to breathe and, hopefully, stay calm.

One of the volunteers would use a syringe to squirt water into the shark’s eye to check its reflexes while another measured the animal. A small piece of dorsal fin would be clipped to check for toxins in its diet; Hammerschlag said there’s a link between cyanobacteria in the ocean and diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

A fourth volunteer would have to extract a small piece of muscle for biopsy with a device that resembled a melon-ball scooper. Captain Curt Slonim would take a blood sample. Then a tag would be implanted in the dorsal fin.

The triage went flawlessly, with researchers and volunteers performing their assigned tasks in less than five minutes. The shark got an external streamer tag, but not the SPOT. [SPOT tags were reserved for bull, hammerhead, or tiger sharks.] Then the crew slid it off the transom into the bay."

“Working with sharks is a great opportunity to advance and promote ocean conservation,” said Hammerschlag. "Sharks are exciting. They are a rich addition to the resources on our planet. They bring attention to ocean-related issues.”

The Wells Fargo execs seemed to agree. Said Dale Rim of Wells Fargo's corporate communications department,
“It’s great to be part of the environmental movement.”

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