Virginia Tech professor, Discovery Channel team up on great white shark research expedition
When asked a couple of weeks ago to reveal his summer plans, Francesco Ferretti divulged that he intended to spend nearly three weeks on the Mediterranean Sea.
But the assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment wasn’t going to be working on his tan or sampling the region’s finest wines. On the contrary, he had something much more adventurous on his itinerary.
Ferretti, a faculty member in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, is the lead investigator and scientific director of an unprecedented expedition to study great white sharks in the Sicilian Channel, a relatively small waterway between Sicily and the coast of Tunisia.
The primary goal of the expedition? To place a tag on an animal that weighs on average between 1 and 2 tons, features approximately 300 serrated bladelike teeth, and swims at speeds up to 35 miles per hour.
Ferretti notes that no Mediterranean great white shark ever has been tagged, so if successful, he expects to celebrate in a big way.
“I may swim back across the Atlantic,” he said, laughing.
This expedition came about largely because of a $52,000 grant from The Explorers Club Discovery Expedition grant program. The Explorers Club partners with Discovery Inc. to allot grant money to scientists and researchers who conduct projects that reveal new knowledge about the planet and its inhabitants, including regions undergoing environmental or cultural change.
Crew members from the Discovery Channel are joining Ferretti’s team to film footage for a potential documentary, provided the expedition ends in success.
“This is an unprecedented expedition to detect, film, and, for the first time, tag Mediterranean white sharks,” Ferretti said. “This is one of the most endangered and least known white shark populations globally that we would like to know better to promote effective conservation and recovery programs.”
Ferretti left the U.S. on June 5 to spend 19 days in the Mediterranean, with his team headquartered in Marsala, Sicily, a small coastal town on the western end of the island. His colleagues are a team of eight scientists from Beneath the Waves, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting ocean health; Stanford University; Oregon State University; Stazione Zoologica, a research institute in Naples, Italy; and La Sapienza, a university in Rome. In addition, four graduate and research assistants are part of the expedition, which is using cutting-edge technology to compile data about the Mediterranean population of great white sharks currently considered by many researchers to be endangered.
Count Ferretti among that group. He has been studying sharks since his days as an undergraduate student at Polytechnic University of Marche in his native Italy. Specifically, in relation to the great white population, he and his team have looked at historical and statistical data for shark sightings and catches in the Mediterranean.
That analysis revealed a population in decline. Ferretti, who also is affiliated with the Center for Coastal Studies and the Global Change Center that are housed in Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Sciences Institute, believes that these sharks are unfortunate victims that get caught in the nets of commercial and local fishermen in search of other species of fish.
“From that analysis, we could demonstrate that white sharks have been declining quite substantially in past decades mainly because of industrial fishing, but also because of a lot of coastal fishing,” Ferretti said. “The Mediterranean is one of the most exploited regions on the planet. There are a lot of people, there is a lot of fishing, and because of humans’ impacts on habitat and fish populations, many shark populations are in decline, particularly the white shark.”
For that reason, Ferretti has put together a “dream team” of personnel for this expedition. A Virginia Tech graduate assistant, Jeremy Jenrette, is collecting environmental DNA by testing water samples to determine if white sharks are present. Another Hokie graduate assistant, Brendan Shea, is manning baited underwater video units, all in an attempt to find the elusive creature. Two graduate assistants and students from other schools have been involved as well.
The expedition allows the students to test their skills in other areas, too. For example, Jenrette, who graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in biochemistry and is pursuing a master’s degree in fisheries science, plays a part in flying a drone.
“I’m also developing an AI (artificial intelligence) program that can detect sharks from video footage,” he said. “During the expedition, we are using GoPros (a type of camera) for underwater video surveillance, and I am responsible for developing software that can analyze this footage and determine if sharks are present in them or not.”
“I have experience in both of these areas as a biochemist and as a certified drone pilot,” Jenrette continued, “but I have never put these experiences to the test in the field at this massive scale.”
Shea, who is pursuing a doctorate in fisheries science at Virginia Tech as an Interfaces of Global Change Fellow, will also be multitasking while helping tag sharks.
“I’ve been fortunate to be on several major shark research trips throughout the Caribbean with our partner on this project, the nonprofit ocean research institute Beneath the Waves,” Shea said. “But this trip is on a scale like nothing I’ve ever done before. We are using a huge suite of tools to find the sharks, and if we are successful, we’ll truly make history, which is an amazing thing to consider and would be a game-changer for the conservation of Mediterranean white sharks.”
The expedition certainly offers the students the experience of a lifetime and should enhance their career opportunities after graduation. This particular opportunity is one that none of them takes lightly.
“I feel incredibly privileged to have this opportunity, and am so grateful to Dr. Ferretti and the university for making this all possible,” Shea said. “I don’t know many graduate students who have the opportunity to do something like this, and I don’t take it for granted. Being given this chance just motivates me to work harder and harder to make this expedition as successful as possible and to learn more about one of the most amazing predators in this region before it’s too late.”
Ferretti feels that the best chance for success is now. He chose the Sicilian Channel and this time of year largely because of the presence of bluefin tuna in the channel. Sharks normally prey on seals and sea lions, but the Mediterranean Sea lacks a large presence of these prey, so Ferretti believes that great white sharks in the Mediterranean feast on bluefin tuna.
“Bluefin tuna is very important in the Mediterranean,” Ferretti said. “It’s the major spawning ground for eastern Atlantic populations of bluefin tuna, so every year, bluefin tuna migrates to the Mediterranean Sea for spawning and reproducing, and this is what attracts a lot of predators. We think that white sharks are following this prey.”
“With this expedition, we’re going at the peak of the tuna season, and from our analysis, the peak of the white shark occurrence,” he added.
The tagging of a shark or multiple sharks represents the key to the success of the trip. Scientists have tagged sharks in other locales throughout the world, but not in the Mediterranean, according to Ferretti. These satellite tags, placed near a shark’s dorsal fin, allow researchers to track the animal’s migration patterns, learn more about preferred environments, measure dive depths, record water temperatures, measure swimming speeds, and much, much more.
This helps scientists and researchers develop efficient conservation plans to prevent the species from becoming extinct.
“Our hypothesis is these particular sharks are endemic to the Mediterranean,” Ferretti said. “They do not go outside into the Atlantic Ocean, but this is a hypothesis and tagging the animals will help us answer this question.”
“If this is a strictly Mediterranean population, then their conservation status is even more at risk,” he continued. “Hundreds of millions of people go to Europe every year for tourist reasons. It’s a high-density populated area. There is a lot of coastal development, and there is a lot of fishing as well. We’re trying to conserve one of the most endangered populations on the planet in one of the most dangerous places on earth. We just don’t want them to go extinct.”
The extinction of this population of great white sharks could be devastating to the Mediterranean ecosystem. The removal of an apex predator like the great white shark could create a top-down effect throughout the food chain, resulting in the decline or even extinction of other species.
Scientists like Ferretti want to know just how big of a role that is — which makes this expedition to one of the world’s most beautiful spots more important than any vacation.
“It’s very exciting, fun, and very important,” Ferretti said. “Lots of people will be looking to see what we can do, also because they understand the challenge. This is a high-stakes and high-risk expedition.”
If you’d like to learn more about the white shark chase by Francesco Ferretti and his team, including how you can help support the expedition with a donation, please visit Virginia Tech’s crowdfunding website here.
Story by Jimmy Robertson