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Local shark season kicks off and UNF shark biology monitors local populations

Dr. Gelsleichter and UNF biology students on the research boat as featured on WJXT Ch. 4 News4JaxMay kicks off shark season in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia, as sharks commonly move into the area when waters start to warm. Local meteorologist Richard Nunn recently took a ride on the UNF research boat to visit local sharks with Dr. Gelsleichter and UNF biology students - watch on WJXT Ch. 4 News4Jax

Since 2009, the University of North Florida’s Shark Biology Program, directed by Dr. Jim Gelsleichter, biology associate professor, has been monitoring local shark populations to identify areas that serve as critical habitats and to monitor the abundance of sharks in the waters from the Altamaha River in Georgia to the coastal and inshore waters in St. Augustine, Florida.     

The Shark Biology Program is funded by NOAA Fisheries and has sampled over 5,000 sharks from over 15 species to date. The most abundant sharks in the local areas are the Atlantic Sharpnose shark, sandbar shark, blacktip shark, bonnethead, blacknose shark, scalloped hammerhead, and finetooth shark. The size of sharks in First Coast waters can range from 1 foot to over 16 feet in length.

UNF research has demonstrated that the estuaries and bays of the First Coast provide protection and serve as critical habitats for newborn and juvenile sharks from several species. These locations are referred to as “nursery grounds” because of the abundance of smaller, younger sharks. Most inshore areas on the First Coast serve as nursery habitats for Atlantic Sharpnose sharks, blacktip sharks and sandbar sharks.

The research also demonstrates that portions of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway serve as nursery habitats for the scalloped hammerhead shark, a critically endangered species that is also prohibited from harvest in Florida.

UNF’s shark program is also examining a nursery area for bull sharks in the Altamaha River. These sharks often return to these nursery grounds on an annual basis in a process known as “natal philopatry.” It is important to identify these nursery habitats so they can be protected from any factors that could interfere with their important function. 

Although it can vary from year to year, shark abundance on the First Coast has not changed significantly over the past 12 years. This indicates that the local shark population is largely stable. Overall, shark populations on the east coast of the US have experienced significant recovery from record lows that occurred between the late 1970s and early 1990s because of overfishing.  Still, some shark species have exhibited slower rates of recovery and are still in need of protection.

Because of the local healthy shark population, it is not uncommon for a small number of shark bites to occur on the First Coast on an annual basis, typically between zero and seven bites. Overall, Duval County and St. Johns County rank 4th (46 attacks) and 5th (44 attacks) for the most unprovoked shark “attacks” that have occurred in Florida waters since 1882. Blacktip sharks and spinner sharks have been implicated in most of these attacks.