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My Science Works Article

My Science Works Article

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Published by Michael Bear

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Published by: Michael Bear on Oct 04, 2012
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05/13/2014

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My Science Works-Scientific BlogTracking Sevengill Sharks with Citizen Science
|
 
 
 After an apparent increase in reported sightings of sevengill sharks in the San Diego area,scientific diver Michael Bear set up a website to allow divers to log encounters with thisspecies. Although more data is still needed from the diving community, the goal of thislong-term population dynamics study is to identify individual sharks that may bereturning each year, and to establish possible reasons for this new behavior. Here, herecounts how the passion of an amateur evolved into a scientific study making use of advanced techniques for the study of sharks.
 Sevengill sharks,named for having seven gill slits on either side of their bodies, reach lengths of up to 3 m, with an average length of 1.5 m. Sevengills are thought to reach sexual maturity when they reach 1.5 to 2.2 m in length
1
. They weigh up to 107 kg and are known to live as long as 49 years. According to D.A. Ebert, the sevengill shark (
 Notorynchus cepedianus
), a common
 
coastal species of most temperate waters, has often been over-looked as an important apexmarine predator
2
.Currently, the California population of sevengill sharks appears to be concentrated in theHumboldt and San Francisco Bays
3
. These two regions provide nursery areas and safehavens for juveniles. The future of the sevengill shark in this region is highly dependentupon the conservation of these habitats. Although this shark has a wide range, it is subject to intense fishing pressure as a result of  being restricted to inshore waters. Currently the World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists the
sevengill shark as “Data Deficient”: data is lacking in most regions, making it difficult todetermine the overall status of this species. However, it is currently assessed as “NearThreatened” in the eastern Pacific Ocean
4
.
This Study: Why Now?
 In October of 2009, I began hearing reports of encounters between local San Diego diversand sevengill sharks. Having been diving locally since 2000, I thought this unusual, sincethis was the first I had heard of these encounters in nearly a decade. Between 2000 and2006, almost no reports were documented. But in 2008, that all changed and they beganappearing on the dive lists, one here, two there, until it was obvious that something washappening. Around this time, I had my own memorable encounter with a sevengill. I was diving off of Point La Jolla when a large seven-footer (2m) glided majestically between me and my dive buddy, who was no more than two meters away. To say we were startled would be anunderstatement. The reasons for this sudden appearance of sevengill sharks are still unclear.In over nine previous years of diving in the San Diego area, I had never seen one before.The most common theories to explain these unexpected visitations have been prey migration, changes in deep ocean currents, altered mating/pupping habits, global warming,
and El Nino conditions. But not enough evidence exists for a “neat theory” to develop. So, as
a matter of personal interest, I set up a website devoted to informally tracking sevengillshark encounters in the San Diego area(http://Sevengillsharksightings.org), not thinking
 
much would ever come of it. Although I put out the word for submissions on local diving boards, I was unprepared forthe spike in responses that I received. In the first year alone, over 20 separate sevengillencounters were logged by local divers and 17 videos were submitted, to say nothing of thedatabase of high quality photographs that evolved over the months. In the period since then,
 
 we‟ve accumulated a database of over 30 photographs and 36 videos which clearly indicate
the presence of 
cepedianus
in the area.There was no question that something was happening in San Diego in regards to sevengills.It was now a matter of figuring out what, exactly, was happening, and why.
Questions to Ask 
 There are two factors that must be considered when attempting to answer the question
 Aresevengills moving into the area, or does it just seem that way? 
 1. Have any baseline population studies of this species ever been done locally? If so, this would provide the numbers necessary for comparison and the development of an accurateratio.2. Have any studies been done to track the number of divers going into the water over thesame period of time? In other words, is this a case of simply more divers entering the water,rather than more sharks being present?Unfortunately, the answer to both questions above is: no.To my knowledge,
no
 baseline studies have ever been done on local sevengill shark populations by any of the local marine institutions. Unless the studies have been buried inthe archives of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, or are only available on JSTOR, theproprietary academic database. And no baseline studies have been done locally to survey thenumber of divers entering the water, or even being certified here in San Diego, in the lasttwo years.This means, in effect, that I was starting my own baseline study.Here is how it works: When a San Diego diver encounters what he or she believes is asevengill shark (local divers are pretty savvy when it comes to recognizing this species, withits distinctive thresher-like caudal fin and pushed back dorsal fin), the diver visits the website and enters hard data about his or her encounter, such as:
 
Date and time of the dive
 
 Water temperature

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