2018 came and went tumultuously for the world in general with many ominous signs for science and the environment, not the least of which is the current partial government shutdown that will be slowing or stalling work by me, many of my colleagues, and countless other researchers working at or collaborating with several U.S. federal agencies. But despite all of that 2018 turned out to be quite possibly my most productive year so far. So in the grand tradition of using the resetting of the calendar to remind myself that I actually accomplished things, here was the year in sharks.
It was yet another busy year of field work, with tagging and survey trips in Florida, North Carolina, and Maryland, as well as an opportunistic tag deployment in South Carolina. All told 21 sharks and 15 Cownose Rays were added to the roster of tagged elasmobranchs, bringing the total numbers tagged as part of the Smithsonian Movement of Life Initiative to 60 sharks and 100 rays. Spinner Sharks were added the list of target species and are already on the board with two tag deployments, including one on a female over seven feet in length caught and released off Ocean City, Maryland. The Cape Fear River shark survey finished out its second season with 49 elasmobranchs of eight species documented, and a lot of great stories from on the water including the dragging of a drumline a quarter mile by something that eventually got off the hook. Successful collaborations were continued with good folks at FAU Harbor Branch, East Carolina University, UNC Wilmington, Beneath the Waves, and charter fisherman Mark Sampson.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that all of these accomplishments in the field were the result of seemingly constant battles with the weather, with what was likely a new record for cancelled or rescheduled days on the water. The days we did get out we were treated to high winds, rain, and at least one mad scramble to the dock with a malfunctioning motor during an apocalyptic thunderstorm. To cap it all off, the North Carolina portion of the field season was officially ended by Hurricanes Florence and Michael.
Not all travel involved field work, and I attended both the AFS Tidewater Chapter Meeting and the first North Carolina Shark and Ray Science Symposium in North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, and the Annual Meeting of the American Fisheries Society in Atlantic City, New Jersey. A real highlight was traveling to João Pessoa, Brazil, for Sharks International, where I met and learned from elasmobranch researchers from all over the globe, read Portuguese much better than I spoke it, and saw some cool tropical critters right next to the hotel between talks. Since my previous international travel has been to Canada (but hey, at least I’ve been to the part that doesn’t always speak English), this was quite the trip for me. There were also invited talks at the UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Science, UMass Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology, and a talk at Marbles Kid’s Museum’s IMAX theater in Raleigh that included a viewing of The Meg, which was a hoot.
2018 saw my best output so far for peer-reviewed papers, with four hitting publication. Two were adapted from work started during my dissertation and focused on the sharks of Pamlico Sound, North Carolina using data collected by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries scientific surveys. With that fantastic data set available to work with, my colleagues from NCDMF, East Carolina University, and I developed a method for mapping potential habitat for six shark species in the estuary, and inadvertently found evidence for a climate-driven expansion of Bull Shark nursery habitat into the area (I also got to work with longtime friend and Southern Fried Science writer David Shiffman on that one). The latter paper has probably gotten more attention than anything else I’ve written. I also worked with colleagues at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and Savannah State University on a paper using behavioral modeling techniques on Cownose Rays carrying acoustic tags to identify areas where they’re in “migration mode” or not, which could be used to identify potential feeding or nursery habitat for these charismatic batoids (useful information for the state of Maryland as they develop the first-ever fishery management plan for the rays). Finally, I chipped in on a paper lead by former grad school labmate Andrea Dell’Apa and colleagues that used survey data and Bayesian habitat modeling to map habitat for Smooth Dogfish along the U.S. east coast, fulfilling my personal quota of at least one dogfish-focused paper per year (though both Smooth and Spiny Dogfish also made appearances in the Pamlico Sound habitat mapping study).
Moving forward into 2019, I’ll be attempting to finish this postdoc strong and hopefully have a more long-term (and preferably shark-related) job lined up at the end of it. There will be more conference appearances and invited talks, with the Southern Division AFS meeting coming up most quickly (shutdown be damned!). And come spring/summertime I’ll be returning to Pamlico Sound for a new North Carolina Aquariums-supported tagging project targeting Cownose Rays and perhaps also the Bull Sharks they’re likely trying to avoid. Thanks as always to everyone who helped make 2018, on a personal level at least, a pretty decent year.