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NorCal Researchers Enlist Public’s Help To Track Massive Sharks

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basking shark

A basking shark feeds on plankton. (NOAA)

Elizabeth Cook. (CBS) Elizabeth Cook
Elizabeth Cook is co-anchor for KPIX 5 News at 5, 6, 10 (KBCW) and...
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MOSS LANDING (CBS 5) – One of the largest fishes in the world is becoming increasingly hard to find and researchers in Northern California have launched a project to track their numbers – a project that enlists the help of anyone with a camera.

The basking shark is the second largest shark species, right after the whale shark. According to the Pacific Shark Research Center (PSRC) at Moss Landing, they are often seen “basking” at the surface as they swim slowly along with their large mouths open to filter water for plankton.

Last year the National Marine Fisheries Service identified basking sharks in the North Pacific as a “Species of Concern,” a designation which means there is not enough information available to list it under the Endangered Species Act.

Basking sharks have seen a dramatic population decline off the coast of Canada and California since the 1900’s, according to the PSRC. Research shows no sign of population recovery 50 years after the closure of a basking shark fishery in the eastern North Pacific.

“It’s been probably 15 years or so since we’ve seen ‘em in any numbers around here,” said Dr. David Ebert, program manager for the PSRC.

Ebert and his colleagues have launched a search, stretching from Canada to Mexico, to find the mammoth shark. Even with as few as 300-500 basking sharks off the Pacific Coast, the team has managed to tag three.

“These are the first satellite tags of this species, ever on this coast here,” said Ebert. “The information gets downloaded by satellite, we can track the sharks movement over a long period of time.”

The group has distributed flyers asking anyone on the water to keep their eyes peeled for the massive fish, and – if possible – to take a picture of it.

“If we get a good photograph of the dorsal fin we can try to match it up with one somewhere else,” said Ebert.

Basking sharks tend to hang out in the same places any water enthusiast might, like bays and openings along the coastline.

Dr. Ebert said the public should look for two distinctive features. “When they open their mouths you’ll see this huge amount of white inside, that’s probably the easiest way to tell.”

“Another thing you can look for is the gills on the basking shark extend way up on their head. Almost circular,” said Ebert.

Information on the basking shark can also help researchers gauge the general condition of the ocean.

“You can use this species by looking at where it occurs … gauge some different changes in the oceanography out there, whether it’s warming, cooling, just general oceanographic conditions,” said Ebert.

“In a sense it can be almost like a canary in a coal mine.”

>>Link: Spot a Basking Shark Project

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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