The horrifying shark attacks in North Carolina a few weeks ago, and another recent shark sighting in Maryland, do not change the fact that more people die at the beach each year from heat stroke and drowning.
“Obviously [a shark attack] can happen, and it’s very sad that it does, but it’s a pretty rare circumstance,” said Kristin Hannan, a fisheries biologist, who helps keep watch over the health of the shark population for the National Marine Fisheries Services, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Meanwhile, sustaining a healthy shark population is essential for the well-being of the environment. “Sharks are a key component of ecosystem health,” she said. “When you take out predators like that, the lower levels explode. They’re not in check anymore.”
Sharks are always around, she added. People get the idea they suddenly appear, but “nine times out of 10, they’re there and you wouldn’t know it.” Hannan, who has always loved sharks, prefers people focus on “how amazing these creatures are.”
Hannan studies long-term trends in shark abundance, diets, distribution and reproduction in sharks found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and off the East coast as far north as Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. When not searching for them in the ocean, she conducts studies in the lab that provide data about shark populations.
“What we’re trying to do is provide the best available information, and hope that decisions and policies and management gets built on that,” she said.
The sharks Hannan studies can range from less than a foot up to 10 or 11 feet long, depending on their age and species. Atlantic waters hold about 130 species, but 15 to 30 common species tend to show up more often, she said, including the Atlantic sharpnose, the blacktip and the blacknose sharks.
For an annual summer shark survey starting at the end of July, Hannan will travel around the Southeast coast with about a dozen scientists and volunteers, including from the Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Mississippi where she works, and from universities and other NOAA divisions.
They’ll gather data for “stock-assessment scientists,” who put the data into models and examine environmental and other factors to determine management plans for different species.
Baiting long lines with a hundred hooks, the researchers catch and tag sharks, gathering length and weight information before releasing them.
“The goal is always sustainable fisheries,” Hannan said. “Ideally, we’re hoping to show these populations are doing well, and we’re managing them in a productive way to have healthy fisheries.”
It can be challenging to study sharks. “They’re so mobile,” Hannan said. “We’re just trying to get a look at them. Some distributions are huge and wide-ranging and to get a big picture can be difficult.”
Tagging the bigger sharks poses other challenges, Hannan said. Biologists and researchers, aided by a crane-operated sling on the side of their 170-foot boat, work quickly to minimize the animal’s time out of the water, calling out measurements for others to record.
“There’s always a little bit of adrenaline,” Hannan said. “It’s a large, wild animal. We do about the best we can to keep everyone, including the animal, as safe as possible.”
That includes wearing a hard hat when working with the sling, a floatation device when on deck and gloves when handling sharks.
“I’ve learned the way to handle animals to minimize stress,” Hannan said. “And I still have my digits.”
Hannan’s colleague Trey Driggers said he values Hannan’s intellect and organizational skills.
“Kristin often has to work with different, strong personalities and she can navigate those waters easily,” said Driggers, a research fisheries biologist. “If you ask her for help, you don’t have to ask again. And it’s generally done better than you expected.”
Hannan was fascinated with sharks by the time she was six, growing up in Northern Virginia. She remembers trips to aquariums and reading the book, “Hungry, Hungry Sharks.” A lot.
“I had that thing with me all the time,” she said. She took other shark books out of the library and had her parents quiz her on the different species.
For her master’s thesis, Hannan is studying the biology of a deep-water creature known as the Gulf chimaera, which she describes as strange-looking cousins of the shark. “It looks like a mad scientist created them.”
During the upcoming shark survey, Hannan will work alongside a few K-12 teachers who will join the expedition through NOAA’s Teacher at Sea program. Working beside Hannan, they may absorb some of the respect she has for these “cartilaginous fishes.”
“Sharks have been around for millions of years, and they’ve evolved into these incredible beings,” Hannan said. “It inspires awe in people.”
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.