Following hot on the heels of our Caribbean Reef shark acoustic tagging project we are excited to announce a fantastic new project on Lemon Sharks of the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Lemon Aid is a project spearheaded by the Sharks4Kids team, renowned underwater cameraman and shark expert, Duncan Brake ( www.cameramanunderwater.com ) and his wife, Jillian, herself an expert shark, educator and skilled camera operator (https://www.sharks4kids.com/shark-team-leaders ) in collaboration with Big Blue Collective, the TCI Film Festival and the Edward Garland Youth Centre. It is supported by TCI’s DECR (Department of Environment and Coastal Resources).
Philip Shearer – co founder of Big Blue Collective and BB Shark team leader –
“Having Duncan and Jillian come down here is fantastic. It was obvious during our time together at the annual Film Festival, that we are on the same page regarding action, education and conservation. Sharks are vital to these islands and our oceans. Knowledge is power. The more information we have, the more we can communicate that information through the community, the stronger the position we will be in to protect what we love”.
Our initial two-week assessment in May 2022 focused on specifically on the shallow seagrass tidal flats and the mangroves around Mangrove Cay, Donna Cay, and Little Water Cay. All areas we have been guiding kayak and paddleboard ecotours over the last twenty-five years.
The presence of sharks is a great indicator of a healthy ecosystem and mangroves are an essential part of the life cycle of these perfect little predators.
Around the highest of the full moon tides every year, pregnant female Lemon sharks navigate the oceans into the shallows almost beaching themselves to give birth to their live young (measuring only half a meter in length) in the protected and productive mangroves that they once grew up in.
Project Lemon Aid aims to establish a base line population survey of juvenile lemon sharks at sites around the Turks and Caicos Island in order to investigate if the females return to the same mangrove areas they grew up in. The first stage of this research involves tagging the baby to sub-adult lemon sharks in the inshore waters with a focus on key mangrove habitats.
Sharks4kids team member Candace Fields (Shark Scientist from Nassau, Bahamas) said-
“It is truly a privilege to be able to be a part of this project here in Turks and Caicos. Not only are we able to gather crucial baseline data about the lemon shark population here but we also can involve students in the field work enabling them to get hands on and learn experientially right in their own Islands!”
Mangroves and tidal flats
Those of you who have had the pleasure of exploring these bountiful areas are familiar with the fact that we often and commonly see juvenile Lemon Sharks swimming across the shallows.
What we really don’t see and haven’t seen are adults, specifically females, coming in from the deep to give birth. We know from places like Bimini in the Bahamas, where Duncan and Jillian live and work, that this is exactly what happens.
Part of this project therefore is to build out a picture of the Lemon Shark populations, their movements, numbers, and genetic relationships.
Using the same techniques and data collection for size and DNA as we had with the Reef Sharks, we went about finding and catching little Lemons using smaller drum lines and hooks. Working in water only 2-3’ deep we were firstly limited to data collection during the higher tide windows but secondly Duncan and Philip also realised that with patience we were able to catch the small juveniles with hand nets rather than hooks – a much less stressful process, allowing them to be placed into large Igloo coolers on the vessel where the team, Candace, Kaylam, Trish, Jillian could carry out the science of measuring and tagging.
The data collected from these research trips will also be used and made available to help establish projects that can be used by local students that have an interest in pursuing a career in Marine Biology, Conservation or Ocean Science like Luis.
Luis Adrian Serpas, a local student studying marine biology in Grand Turks who joined the team-
“doing this in my backyard is pretty cool, not having to travel to another country in order to do research when these resources exist in the waters that surround our Islands”.
Pit tags / micro chips
New to us and the TCI was Duncan’s and Jillian’s introduction of the use of tiny pit tags – essentially microchips, that we injected under the skin of the individual animals. These tiny unobtrusive tags allow for very quick tagging with minimal stress to the shark. No bigger than a pencil lead, these tiny chips have designated numbers assigned then assigned to the shark tagged. A scanner is run across the outside of their body confirming that information.
In years to come, as this project grows, every time we catch a “new” shark, the very first thing we will do is scan the individual. They either have a tag or they don’t. Those that do, will provide us valuable information on growth history, movement, and habitat. Those that do not have one, will get one. Over time, as out network or scanned and biometrically analysed sharks grow, we should start to get a picture of how many share the same DNA, how long they stay in the mangroves and if caught elsewhere, where they were born – giving us a range.
Which leads us to asking, where are the adults? Considering how many juveniles are commonplace across the TCI, it is amazing that we see relatively so few adults. Now for the first time, perhaps we can get a better understanding of their TCI lifecycles.
Jillian Morris (Founder and President of Sharks4Kids) stated-
“it has been great to return to Turks and Caicos to expand our outreach. Getting the local community involved is critical for conservation to be successful.
The first baby lemon shark caught for the project near Mangrove Cay was a male the team have named “Turks” coming in at around 65cm in length. The first female of the project named “Caicos”, was almost 10 cm smaller and would have been born within the last couple of weeks.
Last but least, the one shark that kept getting away. Time and time again eluding Duncan’s and Philip’s net. On the last day we caught him. “Pete” a feisty male perhaps born last year was measured and tagged by Edward Garland Youth center student Willesnsky.
If you are interested in supporting the project; providing more opportunities for local students to get in the field, you can “Adopt and Name A Shark” for a donation.
Please reach out to [email protected] for more information. In return you will get a photograph of your very shark, information on its measurements, where it was caught etc and whenever the sharks tag is recorded again, we will send you an update.