Before “Jaws” with its depiction of a giant, vengeful, man-eating creature of the deep; before Shark Week, Discovery Channels’ eight-day ode to all things sharks; and well before the over-the-top gratuitous sci-fi series “Sharknado” films, there was, just off the coast of North Carolina, “shark survey.”
Not as glamorous, perhaps, as the mindless entertainment evoked from creative minds the likes of Steven Spielberg, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City has achieved in the research world a treasure trove of data about shark species caught off the coastal waters of North Carolina.
Think of it as a kind of national archives of sharks — the result of 50 years of information compiled from catching the finned wonders using the same method of baiting in the two same spots in the Onslow Bay area of the Atlantic Ocean.
“Long-term data that has been consistent in methods that do not have gaps is extraordinarily rare,” said Steve Fegley, a retired research associate professor. “A lot of what we do: we can conduct research, we can sample for a couple of years, but then the questions we have about what’s going on, we really should be sampling for decades. What’s remarkable about this dataset is the methods that are used are consistent and the sampling is unbroken.”
The inception of the program goes back to the late 1960s when the late marine zoologist Frank Schwartz followed his curiosity from the lab to the waters outside of Beaufort Inlet.
The first year Schwartz put hooks in the water to catch his research subjects was 1972.
In those early years, the focus was solely on the fish.
Enter Fegley, who, before Schwartz’s death in 2018, came with a background in statistics, decided to take a look at the data researchers had collected over numerous trips.
“I started analyzing the dataset and participating in going out on the shark trips themselves,” Fegley said. “I started analyzing the data in ways it had never been analyzed before.”
Fegley wanted to show that, within that data, there was a host of information, things no one was talking about.
Around this time, Joel Fodrie, now the associate professor in charge of the institute’s shark survey, joined the ranks.