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.
students, but the shark deterrents they are testing.
Made from chemicals emitted by the rotting flesh of dead sharks,
no wonder they're called "repellent." But CCU graduate
Craig O'Connell doesn't mind. For the past few months, he's
off the pier with fellow students, actually hoping for
"bycatch" - sharks, skates or rays - so he can test
repellents for the New Jersey-based company that employs him. The
wants to market harm-free repellents that will help preserve
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
is happy to send them back out into the ocean once they
Most people were scared out of the water when they
"Jaws." Not O'Connell. It made him want to get into
"I want to be an expert on sharks,"
"Shark Week" addict said. "I really
want to dedicate my
life to the marine environment and protecting the
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
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
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
important work, to mitigate the bycatch, not only of
turtles and sea birds, too," Van Sommeran said. "It's
critical part of sustainable fisheries. There needs to be some forward
thinking when it comes to how we're going to fish."
said his enthusiastic student's work is a model for other
"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
environment for the 23-year-old New Yorker. In Bimini a couple
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.
shark-repellent sunscreen (minus the dead-shark scent) or little
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
"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
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
though I know what's swimming in there," he said,