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Sea Grant Awards $2 Million in Research to Improve Understanding, Management of Highly Migratory Species

Three awards totaling $2 million in federal funding were recently awarded through the 2019 Sea Grant Highly Migratory Species (HMS) Research Initiative, a competitive research process. 

The three funded projects include two targeted studies focused on refinement of a bycatch reduction device for sharks and determining post-release mortality of bonnethead sharks and one broader consortium program that will complete several projects focused on bycatch reduction, increased understanding of life history, post-release mortality and other objectives for multiple species of highly migratory fish.

In its FY 2019 appropriations language, Sea Grant was directed to initiate an HMS research initiative focused on HMS species in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, including the interactions between yellow-fin tuna and oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. This direction, and priorities identified in the 2014 Atlantic HMS Management-Based Research Needs and Priorities document developed by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service in concert with industry and management stakeholders, was used to develop this initiative, which will support research to address critical gaps in knowledge about HMS in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean regions.

More Information on Atlantic highly migratory species can be found on the NOAA Fisheries website. 

Selected Research Projects

Determining Rates of Post‐Release Mortality of Bonnetheads in the Southeastern United States
Applicant: South Carolina Department of Natural Resources
Principal Investigators: Bryan Frazier (South Carolina Department of Natural Resources), Christine Bedore (Georgia Southern University)
Federal funding: $278,310

In summer months, bonnetheads are commonly found in shallow nearshore and estuarine environments, making them highly accessible to commercial and recreational fishermen, however no data exist regarding mortality of released fish. This proposal aims to fulfill these research needs by working collaboratively with forhire vessels (recreational) and shrimp trawlers (commercial) to provide rates of post-release mortality for bonnetheads in these two fisheries, which account for most discards of bonnetheads. Project Objectives: 

  1. Assess mortality rates of bonnetheads captured and released in recreational fisheries and commercial shrimp trawls using pop-off archival satellite tags and acoustic transmitters.
  2. Collect baseline data on sex, length/frequency, capture status (alive/dead), effort and catch of bonnetheads on commercial shrimp trawlers.
  3. Use blood chemistry parameters to quantify stress responses of bonnetheads caught in both recreational and commercial fisheries. 
  4. Construct a predictive survival model based on blood chemistry data and capture data.

Highly Migratory Species Research in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico by The Pelagic Ecosystem Research Consortium (PERC), 2019-2020 
Applicant: University of Maine System
Principal Investigators: Walter Golet (University of Maine), David Kerstetter (Nova Southeastern University), Robert Hueter (Mote Marine Laboratory), Stephen Bullard (Auburn University)
Federal funding: 1,600,000

Abstract: Stock assessments for highly migratory species (HMS) have high uncertainty, largely driven by a lack of information on life history, including data on age, growth, indices of abundance, reproduction, post-release and natural mortality, infectious disease, anthropogenic disturbance, habitat utilization/migratory behavior, and stock structure. The Pelagic Ecosystem Research Consortium (PERC) will begin filling those knowledge gaps by conducting targeted HMS research that will reduce uncertainty in stock assessment models and population status, thereby allowing better allocations of appropriate quotas to promote sustainability. Our goal is to improve the stock assessment, management and sustainability of highly migratory species in the Atlantic by filling in life history gaps critical to improving stock assessment. This proposal focuses on the following five objectives. 

  1. HMS Stock Structure and Life History: This objective gathers critical HMS data from five tuna species (albacore, bigeye, bluefin, skipjack, yellowfin), swordfish, and at least 12 shark species (Atlantic sharpnose, blacknose, blacktip, bull, great and scalloped hammerheads, lemon, nurse, sandbar, spinner, tiger, and white sharks) in the Northwest Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. 
  2. HMS Bycatch Reduction: This objective gathers HMS data from the myriad fishes vulnerable as bycatch in NWA commercial pelagic longline fisheries and from electronic monitoring of shark bycatch in Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fisheries. 
  3. Commercial and Recreational Post-Release Mortality: This objective gathers data from swordfish and great hammerhead sharks in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean (swordfish) and Gulf of Mexico (greater hammerhead) using commercial longliners and recreational fishermen and PERC-led fisheries-independent surveys. 
  4. HMS Life Stage Distribution and Habitat: Using fisheries-dependent and fisheries-independent sampling in the Northwest Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, this objective targets five species of tunas (albacore, bigeye, bluefin, skipjack, yellowfin), other pelagic teleosts including mahi mahi, blue and white marlins, sailfish, swordfish, and wahoo; pelagic sharks including blue, shortfin mako, and white sharks; and up to 11 coastal shark species. 
  5. Offshore Oil Platform Impacts to Biology (Health) and Behavior (Movements) of Yellowfin Tuna: This objective compares biological information on yellowfin tuna aggregated on oil platforms in the northern Gulf of Mexico and those captured in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and Northwest Atlantic.


Refinement and testing of a microprocessor-based shark bycatch reduction device (BRD) using an academic-industry partnership
Applicant: North Carolina State University/North Carolina Sea Grant
Principal Investigators: Sara Mirabilio (North Carolina Sea Grant), Richard Brill (Virginia Institute of Marine Science), Peter Bushnell (Indiana University – South Bend)
Federal funding: $122,472

Abstract: Reduction of shark bycatch in the U.S. Atlantic pelagic longline fishery is a NOAA fishery management priority, as several species are overfished and/or experiencing overfishing including: scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini), dusky (Carcharhinus obscurus), sandbar (Carcharhinus plumbeus), and blacknose (Carcharhinus acrontus) sharks (Hayes et al. 2009, SAFMC 2011, Gallagher et al. 2014). For industry, shark bycatch can reduce catch rates of target species, cause gear damage or loss, and increase gear retrieval times and on-deck sorting of harvestable species. We hypothesize that weak electric stimuli generated by a microprocessor-based BRD could be effective at reducing shark bycatch in longline fisheries with little or no effect on catch rates of non-electrosensitive target species. The National Sea Grant Office monies will allow us to extend previous work by developing the first field-ready electronic BRD prototype. Our specific objectives are to:

  1. engineer and produce prototype electronic shark BRD units suitable for field trials,
  2. confirm the effectiveness of prototype electronic shark BRD units through field trials, and
  3. communicate results to both academic and industry audiences.


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