A group of entrepreneurs participating in shark tagging. Summit at Sea, April 2011.

Everyone knows about the show Shark Tank on ABC where would-be entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of investor “sharks”. However, it’s safe to say far fewer people know what takes place in the real shark tank — the world’s oceans. In the past 50 years, 80% of all sharks have disappeared, and if we don’t do something quick, the extinction of this great species is imminent. What’s the major cause? Humans, perhaps? You guessed it. Nearly 1.5 billion hooks are set to catch large pelagic predators, including tunas and billfish, catching and killing them faster than they can reproduce. The practice of “shark finning” involves killing some 100 million shark each year simply to slice off their fins for “shark fin soup” and disposing of the rest of the shark back into the ocean.

In early April, I had the pleasure of attending Summit@Sea, a 3-day conference at sea aboard a cruise ship. This was not your daddy’s business conference, but an off-the-radar mashup of 1,000 energetic, kick-ass entrepreneurs, thought leaders, non-profit gurus, and everyday do-gooders looking to positively change the world… all by thinking hard and playing hard. The cruise kicked off with Richard Branson discussing his modus operandi and new plans for Virgin Oceanic and followed with a non-stop menu of content presentations. Attendees mixed in morning yoga, meditation, island adventures and the whole party ended with a bang as the The Roots and Axwell performed until 5 AM in the morning on deck as the boat returned to Miami’s port. Summit Series, now in its fourth year, took up the cause of protecting our oceans for this year’s conference theme. Prior to the event, attendees were asked to post their ideas for helping to solve the ocean’s biggest problems to the Summit website. The ideas were unique and insightful, and as one of the participants, I was invited to join a small team of attendees and marine biologists from the University of Miami’s RJ Dunlap Convservation Program to go shark-tagging during the conference. This is where I got religion about the importance and plight of sharks.

Shark-Tagging @ Summit at Sea 2011 from KOR Water on Vimeo.

So what exactly is shark-tagging? As the team from the University of Miami explain, by catching and tagging sharks with satellite transponders, researchers are able to understand the migratory routes and residency patterns of vulnerable shark species, such as Hammerhead, Bull and Tiger (FYI: the satellite transponders are small, painless and harmless to the sharks). Each time a tagged shark surfaces to the top of the ocean waters, researchers are able to map location and migration over time. By identifying “hot spots” in place and tie that are critical for mating, giving birth and feeding, the Miami researchers can help promote policy that will improve protection for these sharks. The sharks’ near real-time movement can be viewed online using Google Earth on the Miami website. As an example, check out the journey of Hanna, a tiger shark recently tagged on February 19, 2011.

KOR Water CEO and Co-Founder Eric Barnes with a fish at Summit@Sea.

Our team of 20 set out in the early AM in the coastal waters of the Bahamas. Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, our fearless leader with the University of Miami, downloaded our instructions and gave each of us a role to play in the shark-tagging exercise. First came the setting of bait, which somehow called for the tradition of kissing the stinky dead bait for good luck and for which I was so honored. Scrum cages had been set earlier in the morning to ensure that a bounty of sharks would be trolling the waters. It didn’t take long to catch our first shark, a good-sized 8+ foot tiger shark. As the team pulled the resistant shark on board, our group of volunteers performed a series of measurements, tests (drawing blood even), and tagging of the shark. It’s important to note that the hooks used to catch and tag sharks are inverted so they easy exit with no damage to the shark. Further, a water hose is immediately inserted into the sharks mouth to provide oxygen and quickly calm the shark during the tagging. Our shark, the first of four we caught that day, was out and back in the water in a matter of 3-4 minutes.

Shark-tagging was a once in a million experience I’ll never forget. Sometimes it takes us getting so close to the problem in nature to truly capture our attention and fly into action. It’s been said we know more about outer space than we do our own ocean. As Dr. Neil pointed out to us, the plight of the shark is “the canary in the coal mine.” As goes the shark, so goes the rest of species in the ocean. I encourage you to explore the incredible resources on the University of Miami’s website to learn more about ocean protection and how you can play a role.

Resources

Virtual Shark-Tagging Expedition

Shark-Tag You’re It – Ideas to Save the Ocean

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