Animal Welfare

Learn more about the measures we take to ensure both human and animal safety.

We are committed

The RJD Program is committed to protecting the health and safety of all individuals involved in its research and outreach, including the animals. All staff, students, interns, volunteers, and participants receive shark handling and safety training. In addition, we are always brainstorming new ways to improve our efficiency and decrease shark stress exposure.

IACUC Approved

The University of Miami ensures that all faculty and staff comply with federal and state guidelines concerning the use of animals in research and teaching through the Institutional Animal Care & Use Committee (IACUC). Working in conjunction with the Division of Veterinary Resources (DVR), the IACUC is accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) and meets monthly to review protocols. IACUC members include participants from all University campuses and the general community.

The IACUC’s mission is to:

  • Review and approve animal use protocols;
  • Ensure that investigators and staff are properly trained;
  • Ensure that research and teaching activities conform to best practices as defined by The Guide For the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals;v
  • Inspect animal care and use facilities to ensure compliance with federal regulations and policies;
  • Review the animal care and use program semiannually; and
  • Investigate concerns raised by faculty and staff regarding the humane care and use of lab animals.

To contact the IACUC, e-mail iacucsupport@med.miami.edu or call 305.243.2311.

Powerpoint Presentation

Special Considerations and Precautions

Drumlines & Circle Hooks

Using custom-designed fishing units called drumlines, hooked sharks can swim in large circles. Circle hooks reduce the incidence of deep hooking. These strategies increase efficacy of catch and release fishing.

Hook Timer

Each drumline has a timer attached, which records how long each shark has been on the line. With this data, we can better gauge fish stress levels, and adjust our tagging procedure accordingly.

Water Pump

If the shark is brought aboard for tagging and sampling, a water pump is placed in its mouth that pushes fresh ocean water over its gills. This allows for continued breathing, and reduced stress levels.

Blood Sample

Just like at the doctor’s office, a quick blood test can reveal a wealth of information without an invasive procedure. This is one of the methods used to conduct non-lethal sampling.

Satellite Tags

Utilizing the latest satellite tag technology, we can gather invaluable data without compromising the life of an endangered shark. The tag is attached with the utmost consideration to shark health and safety.

Sonogram

During special expeditions, sharks will be quickly and painlessly inspected via sonogram for pregnancy. This is a cutting edge, non-lethal method for studying shark reproduction.

Rapid Processing Time

To minimize stress to the sharks, our team works like a race car pit crew to quickly tag and sample the shark before releasing it back into the ocean.

Medical-grade Equipment

The biopsy, finclip and tagging tools are medical-grade, and cleaned with ethanol between uses. While sharks have incredibly strong immune systems, we do all we can reduce the risk of infection.

Monitoring Release Condition

We monitor the shark’s condition upon release to help gauge the efficacy of our stress-reducing efforts. Taking underwater photo and video allows for later scientific review.

Q: Does your research harm the sharks?

A: Every aspect of our data gathering process is designed to minimize harm to our research subjects. We use special fishing and tagging gear intended to reduce stress, shorten handling time and promote shark safety.

Drumlines

The RJ Dunlap program uses special fishing units called drumlines (composed of a single weight and attached hook & line) that promotes shark vitality when fishing for sharks. The gear permits species which are ram ventilaters (need to keep moving to breathe) to swim in big circles around the weight when caught. The ability to swim relatively freely also minimizes stress-related C02 and lactic acid buildup in shark muscle. This gear promotes shark survival.

Circle hooks

Circle hooks can help reduce negative outcomes for captured sharks over other commonly used hooks, most notably J hooks. Circle hooks are designed to catch in the shark’s jaw, instead of catching on the shark’s stomach or gills, which can otherwise cause serious injury. The hooks can also easily be removed from the jaw and leave a very superficial wound that heals very quickly. Circle hooks also help us selectively target sharks, reducing unwanted bycatch of other species. We recommend circle hooks not only for research-related capture, but for recreational fishermen practicing catch and release fishing who want to increase the likelihood of release their catches in good condition.

Workup Process

When a caught shark is brought onto a specialized, partly-submerged, platform on the back of our research vessel, a saltwater pump is immediately placed in the sharks’ mouth. This allows highly oxygenated water to flow over its gills throughout the shark’s brief ”check-up.” During this workup, sharks have a small muscle biopsy taken (recaptured sharks demonstrate that the biopsy site is completely healed within just a few weeks), are tagged with a spaghetti tag in their dorsal fin (where they have no nerve endings and no blood vessels), have blood drawn, are measured, have a small clip of their fin cartilage taken, and are released.

The traditional method for getting the type of data we collect was to kill the animals. Although capture may still be a relatively stressful process for sharks, our work focuses on minimizing shark stress to the greatest extent possible and promoting shark vitality and survival.

Q: Do sharks feel pain when you work them up?

A: Sharks have significantly fewer nerve endings than humans do. Humans have developed tremendously complex nervous systems with many millions of nerves as part of the process of evolution, these nerves “teach” us—through pain—what we should and shouldn’t do (don’t touch a hot stove). However, this level of sensitivity to temperature, pressure or pain has not been necessary for sharks. The nerves that report tissue damage and lead us to feel “pain” are neurons called “nociceptors” which account for approximately 50 percent of all human neurons, but only 13 to 38 percent of shark neurons and less than 1 percent of ray neurons. Sharks have many fewer nerves than we do, and devote a smaller percentage of those they do have to feeling pain. Therefore, although we don’t know exactly how it feels to a shark when we tag it, we can say for certain that they have neither the nerve endings nor the neurological apparatus to experience pain the way a human would.

For more information on sharks and pain, please click HERE

Q: Do your tags cause fin damage?

A: All tags are not permanent. They fall off over time and the application point heals back quickly. Some of our satellite tags are temporarily attached to the shark’s dorsal fin. However, sharks have no blood or nerve supply to their fins. We’ve also recaptured satellite tagged sharks after months at liberty, and their fins appeared undamaged. The potential effects on the sharks are minimal considering the research and education it provides, which will help protect these threatened species. For more information, please read our paper on satellite tags, which also discuss the potential for negative impacts on sharks.

For a full description of the benefits and potential impacts of satellite tagging, visit Dr. Hammerschlag’s blog on National Geographic.

Q: How does all this sampling and tagging actually help sharks?

A: In order to create the most effective policies to protect shark populations, scientists need to study the biology, ecology, and life history of these species. Sharks spend so much of their lives below the surface, away from humans, that very little is currently known about them. Dr. Hammerschlag and his team have developed some of the most cutting edge and efficient methodologies for studying sharks, while still ensuring healthy release conditions. Explore our biggest discoveries in the scientific publications and surrounding media coverage.

For a full description of the benefits and potential impacts of satellite tagging, visit Dr. Hammerschlag’s blog on National Geographic.

Q: How long can the shark stay out of the water?

A: We don’t fully remove sharks from the water. We use a specially designed platform that is partially submerged to secure the sharks. During their “check-ups”, we place a water pump in the shark’s mouth to pump oxygenated saltwater over their gills to promote vitality. The platform allows us to sample and tag the shark much quicker than if it were thrashing around in the water. Although we aim to release the sharks as quickly as possible, our check-ups usually last about five minutes on average before releasing the sharks.