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Scientists tag sharks to measure overall ocean health

EASTERN PASSAGE, N.S. – A half-dozen reporters struggle to shoulder their cameras steady. We’re all standing on a boat, jostled by waves, nine nautical miles offshore.

Nearby, in an even less stable boat, a scientist slices a dead-straight line in the underbelly of a writhing two-metre blue shark.

An assistant pumps water through its gills with a garden hose. Someone with a stopwatch yells out 10-second intervals. They need to get this shark back in the water fast.

In goes a tracking chip. The scientist calls for tweezers. She has four stitches to tie before they toss the shark back.

Meanwhile, we reporters are clumsy and top-heavy. Somebody bumps me. I stand on someone’s foot. (It’s a solid foothold so I keep it there.)

We’re struggling to capture a precise, mid-ocean operating room. Everyone on the vessel next to us knows where to be and what to do.

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In less than two minutes, the shark’s back home.

Pressure off, the scientists cheer and high-five. Alongside them, Dalhousie University students join the celebration. This is their classroom for the next few weeks.

The researchers will implant a total of 40 tracking chips in blue sharks. The chips send data wirelessly to receivers spread across the ocean floor and surface. The information gets beamed to satellites, then back down to Dalhousie University’s Ocean Tracking Network.

Over the next two years, researchers will be able to track the blue sharks’ migratory patterns. These patterns can be overlaid with other species already tagged, like great white sharks, bluefin tuna, Atlantic sturgeon and Atlantic salmon.

“This is all about the top predators in the ocean ecosystems,” said David Whoriskey, executive director of the Ocean Tracking Network. “Where they are going, we will know where the ocean is going.”

“If we can understand where these animals go, we can begin to develop our plans in a way that will not impact those things. At the end of the day we have the potential to have … all the benefits of those biological resources, all the industries that depend on those and the new ones that want to come in.”

Whoriskey says offshore mining projects and oil and gas exploration are on the cusp of  a “massive expansion.”

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He says now is an ideal time to capture a snapshot of marine life, to determine areas to protect and identify species in peril.

The Ocean Tracking Network has secured two years of funding, worth $50,800, from Encana Corporation, the owner and operation of the Deep Panuke natural gas project.