European Space Agency's new shark tag could revolutionize research

Recently developed device could track tagged sharks for 50 years

By Ginger Gadsden - Anchor

PONCE INLET, Fla. - What does the European Space Agency have to do with great white sharks?

It's delicate and dangerous work-- capturing and tagging great whites so they can be studied in their natural habitats.  The team on the Ocearch research vessel has tagged more than two dozen great white sharks, which are now being tracked wherever they go.

The information gleaned from these sharks has been crucial in learning more about the species.

These tags are how researchers know when sharks like Katherine the Great and Mary Lee are in the area.

But the tracking device currently being used has a shelf life, so after a number of years, the information is no longer available. Mary Lee's tag stopped pinging after about five years because the battery died. 

Now, a group of scientists with the European Space Agency is hoping a new kind of tagging device will give them even more information faster and for a longer period of time.

Shark scientist Irene Kingma was recently on the Ocearch ship off the coast of Daytona Beach hoping her work with the European Space Agency will deliver big time.

There are only five of these devices in the world, and they are all on board the Ocearch with her.

[Web extra: Get a behind-the-scenes look at the Ocearch shark-tagging vessel

This new shark tagging device could be a game changer in studying the great white.

"When you follow the Ocearch sharks, you have a pop up tag that just tells you where you are," Kingma said. "And these tags they have the possibility to do both that and also give you extra information in real time, basically on how deep the shark is swimming and what temperature it is and more kinds of stuff you can add to it. So it gives you more information. You can already collect that data, but you get it afterward after years of deployment but now you can get it in real time.”

Kingma said it may sound out of this world that a space agency would come up with a device to track sharks, but it boils down to technology.

"It's all about chip technology and you need it to send a vessel into space. You also need a certain type of chip and these chips potentially have been used in space because they are very energy-efficient and you're looking for ways to save energy because they turn on and off," Kingma said.

In reality, she said that kind of technology for space is about 20 to 30 years in the future for space voyage, but they can test it out now with these ocean voyages.

"If we get the technology right, they can last up to about 50 years and a white shark lives 70 years, so you know, for a good part of their lives you can follow them," Kingma said.

Being able to track a great white for 50 years could produce a wealth of data that would not only tell researchers about the species, but also their ocean habitats.  

Kingma said having that kind of information would put scientists over the moon.

"It's one of the, let's say, coolest things I've ever been involved with, it's sort of like space agency, space sharks, how cool can you be?"  Kingma said.

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