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November 9, 2007

Defending the sharks

CCU graduate student works on new repellent

If you see a group of Coastal Carolina University students huddled around some plastic bins on Springmaid Pier in Horry County, stand upwind. They stink.

Not the students, but the shark deterrents they are testing.

http://www.myrtlebeachonline.com/news/local/story/244457.html Made from chemicals emitted by the rotting flesh of dead sharks, it's no wonder they're called "repellent." But CCU graduate student Craig O'Connell doesn't mind. For the past few months, he's been fishing off the pier with fellow students, actually hoping for the "bycatch" - sharks, skates or rays - so he can test the repellents for the New Jersey-based company that employs him. The company wants to market harm-free repellents that will help preserve the shark population.

The students scoop the sharks - Atlantic sharpnoses, these days - into the water-filled bins and turn them over on their backs to put them into a coma-like state. Then the students squirt an eyedropper of "semiochemicals" into the bin near each sleeping shark's face, hoping for a reaction.

The sharks usually seem to want to jump out of the bins, and O'Connell is happy to send them back out into the ocean once they wake up.

Most people were scared out of the water when they saw "Jaws." Not O'Connell. It made him want to get into the water.

"I want to be an expert on sharks," the self-confessed "Shark Week" addict said. "I really want to dedicate my life to the marine environment and protecting the ecosystem."

He's earning his master's degree in coastal marine and wetland studies, and working for New Jersey-based SharkDefense, which wants to market the repellents to long-line fishermen who end up with hundreds of sharks on their hooks by accident.

O'Connell's research isn't designed to help the fishing industry so much as to conserve the sharks, though the repellents do seem to attract at least some species of fish, preliminary research shows.

"Sharks are a critical part of the ecosystem," he said. "They are an apex predator, and they have the ability to regulate other species' populations."

CCU Professor Dan Abel said there are no comprehensive studies showing what would happen if shark populations dwindle, but one study released about six months ago suggests a link between the decline in large oceanic sharks and the scallop population. Fewer large sharks mean more medium-sized sharks, which eat up all the scallops.

Sean Van Sommeran, executive director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif., has never met O'Connell, but wished him luck.

"That's important work, to mitigate the bycatch, not only of sharks but turtles and sea birds, too," Van Sommeran said. "It's a critical part of sustainable fisheries. There needs to be some forward thinking when it comes to how we're going to fish."

Abel said his enthusiastic student's work is a model for other students.

"It's a great example of the scientific method," he said. "It's brilliant simplicity." It also is strengthening the science-student community at CCU, Abel said, because O'Connell gets many other students involved.

O'Connell started swimming with sharks while he researched the toothy predators on school trips to the Florida Keys and in Bimini. It was a new environment for the 23-year-old New Yorker. In Bimini a couple years ago to explore magnets and minerals as repellents, O'Connell met the two founders of SharkDefense, and Abel, as well - a meeting that brought him to the Grand Strand for his advanced degree.

SharkDefense has other plans besides repellents for long-liners. A shark-repellent sunscreen (minus the dead-shark scent) or little repellent grenades that could be launched in swimming emergencies could hit store shelves some day.

Van Sommeran said shark repellents are not new, but some are more effective and consistent than others.

"It's hard to quantify a repellent that will work on all species of sharks," he said. But of the 500 or so species, only a few represent a threat to humans, and statistically, shark attacks are rare.

O'Connell said the company is close with some products, but others still need much more research. In the meantime, he'll be at Springmaid Pier several times a week. He'll always look to the ocean for his passion.

"Even though I know what's swimming in there," he said, "I'm hooked."

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