VIMS Celebrates 50 Years of Shark Research: A Milestone for Marine Conservation

  • VIMS Annual Longline Shark Survey, photo credit VA Sea Grant
    VIMS Annual Longline Shark Survey, photo credit VA Sea Grant    
  • VIMS Annual Longline Shark Survey, photo credit VA Sea Grant
    VIMS Annual Longline Shark Survey, photo credit VA Sea Grant    
  • VIMS Annual Longline Shark Survey, photo credit VA Sea Grant
    VIMS Annual Longline Shark Survey, photo credit VA Sea Grant    
  • VIMS Annual Longline Shark Survey, photo credit VA Sea Grant
    VIMS Annual Longline Shark Survey, photo credit VA Sea Grant    
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“Honestly, it is an otherworldly experience,” says Kaitlyn O’Brien, a Ph.D. student at William & Mary’s School of Marine Science (W&M’s SMS) who cannot hide her enthusiasm when discussing the longline shark survey performed annually by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). “During those fleeting moments of interaction with these incredible animals, it is impossible not to marvel and feel the utmost respect at the sheer beauty of nature's design.”

The longline survey, which is celebrating five decades of research, is part of VIMS’ broader Virginia Shark Monitoring and Assessment Program (VASMAP). The 50th anniversary of the pioneering shark survey marks a milestone in scientific research and demonstrates VIMS researchers’ dedication to understanding and conserving marine life.

Sharks regulate their prey’s populations, preventing cascading effects throughout the food web, leading to healthier, more balanced marine ecosystems. Increasing our knowledge of sharks and their effects on coastal environments, and advising policymakers and practitioners, aligns with W&M’s Vision 2026 Water Initiative to find “innovative solutions to ensure the resilience of the world’s oceans, coasts and waterways." 

Initially led by Jack A. Musick, and now directed by Robert J. Latour, the shark survey assesses the diversity, abundance, and distribution of shark species in the Atlantic Ocean, particularly along the Virginia coast. “The longline survey is among the longest running shark surveys in the world,” says Latour, “and is by far the longest of the surveys included in northwest Atlantic shark stock assessments.”

From a Pilot Study to a Longstanding Research Product with Scientific & Policy Applications

The origins of the shark survey trace back to a successful 1973 pilot study. “The VIMS longline survey is the brainchild of the late Jack Musick, who held a long-standing fascination with sharks and their relatives,” says Latour.

Photo courtesy of Jasmine Whelan

The following year, VIMS researchers established permanent survey locations and set baseline shark population estimates, which proved to be serendipitous before the release of the 1975 film “Jaws.” Public reaction to the film led to a sudden spike in shark killings that contributed to the decline of several species of Atlantic sharks. By 1990, Virginia’s most common species of shark, the sandbar shark, had declined by 50% and continued to trend downward.

In 1993, VIMS’ shark survey findings aided the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to implement the first Fishery Management Plan for Sharks of the Atlantic Ocean, which managed all U.S. Atlantic shark fishing from Maine through Texas. Many of the federal management measures for Atlantic sharks established in that plan are the basis for those still in place today.

As fishing regulations have helped shark populations rebound, Latour says that “data from the shark research program at VIMS continues to inform stock assessments and fishery management plans at federal and state levels, ensuring that resulting policies are based on a strong scientific foundation.” Organizations that rely on VIMS data include the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, National Marine Fisheries Service, and Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Latour took over direction of the program in 2010. Reflecting on his tenure, he says, “I have tried to build on Jack’s legacy in terms of maintaining and expanding data collection, graduate student training, and public awareness of the importance of sharks to the marine environment.”

Face-to-Face with Apex Predators: Impactful Research is also a Thrilling Education Experience

Aboard a research vessel, VIMS scientists capture and assess sharks at eight fixed stations, as well as up to eight additional stations that can vary from year-to-year. Researchers examine the sharks for species identification, length, sex, and maturity. They also take photographs and a DNA sample, then tag the shark before release.

VIMS Shark Tagging TriviaO’Brien counts herself fortunate that she recently participated in the examination of some of the largest sharks ever caught in the history of the survey; two mature tiger sharks “that dwarfed me in size,” she says. “Standing beside these magnificent creatures, measuring over double my own five-foot nine-inch height, was a truly humbling experience.”

By consistently monitoring shark populations over five decades, VIMS data has been instrumental in identifying threats to shark populations and informing conservation efforts and policy-making initiatives. Latour says that over the past fifty years, “data from the survey have been used in hundreds of scientific studies on the distribution, abundance, biology, and ecology of Mid-Atlantic sharks, which have provided foundational knowledge on these apex predators.”

O’Brien adds that the longline survey offers essential, immersive fieldwork training for graduate students. “Engaging directly with marine life provides a tangible connection to the subjects of my research, grounding my understanding in real-world observations… Working on the longline survey not only expands my practical skills, but also fosters a holistic approach to scientific inquiry, enriching my education and strengthening my commitment to marine conservation and research.”

Today, VIMS carries on efforts to monitor, analyze, and forecast changes in shark movements and habitats. Yet as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the shark research program, overfishing, bycatch, habitat destruction, and climate change continue to pose formidable threats to sharks and broader marine biodiversity.

Co-principal investigator James Gartland ’24 says, “As shark stocks continue to recover and the spatial distributions of these species expand and shift in response to a warming ocean, I’m interested to see how our catch compositions may change and to study the potential impacts on the structure and function of our ecosystems.”