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Catch of the day: Mellow, the FIU-tagged tiger shark

Catch of the day: Mellow, the FIU-tagged tiger shark

FIU-tagged shark makes rare second appearance

November 5, 2021 at 1:47pm

Mellow was in the deep waters off the coast of Belize when he spotted a champagne snapper.

Unfortunately for that snapper, it was on the other end of Tim Banman’s fishing line. Mellow went in for the steal and got himself hooked. A situation the nearly 10-foot-long tiger shark had found himself in before. Four months ago to be exact.

In June, Mellow was reeled in by Demian Chapman and Ph.D. student Devanshi Kasana, researchers from FIU’s Predator Ecology and Conservation lab. They’d spent six hours around the southwest point of Glover’s Reef in Belize looking for sharks with no luck. Right as they were about to head back to shore, something tugged on the line. Carefully, they reeled it in — a tiger shark, the biggest Kasana had ever encountered.

Chapman and Kasana gave him a full work-up, taking body measurements, genetic samples and collecting other information for their long-term project monitoring shark and ray populations in Belize. They named him Mellow because of his chill, unbothered temperament. That name corresponds with a number on the bright green tag they affixed to his lower dorsal fin just before releasing him.

This kind of tag, called a roto tag, is a form of shark identification. A message in a bottle, of sorts. The hope is if someone finds a shark with one of these tags, they contact the researcher to share where and when the encounter happened. Long-term monitoring projects rely on details like this, because they help answer questions about how far the sharks travel and the areas they visit or frequent.  

Banman was simply fishing for snapper a few weeks ago near the northwest tip of Glover’s Reef when the weight on his line suddenly changed. 

At least once a month, he takes out his 34-foot Donzi boat to enjoy the ocean. He expected a normal day on the water with a few of his colleagues and partners from work. But, an hour and five minutes later, Banman brought the shadowy figure to the surface.

It was a shark — a big, relaxed and, yes, really mellow shark.

The brightly colored tag on the shark’s fin caught Banman’s eye. One side had the numbers 933. The other had bold, blocked letters — FIU — and an email address.

Curious, Banman took photos of both sides of the tag before releasing Mellow, who then disappeared back down into the deep blue.

At home, Banman showed the photos to his 8-year-old, shark enthusiast daughter Hadessah Jade. He quizzed her on what species it might’ve been. She knew it wasn’t a lemon shark (it was too big!) and no way it was a great white (too small and it lacked the characteristic markings!) The faint stripes and broad head were enough to convince Hadessah Jade it was a tiger shark.

“My daughter loves sharks and is certain she wants to become a biologist,” Banman said. “This is one of the biggest reasons I decided to do some research to find out more about this shark to find out where and when it was tagged.”

But, the email address on the tag was difficult to make out in the photographhs. So, he started by googling “FIU” and discovered it stood for Florida International University. Eventually, he tracked down the researchers who tagged Mellow — exactly what Kasana and Chapman hoped.

“It was very exciting to see that Mellow was looking good and healthy — despite trying to sneak a snapper off Tim’s fishing line,” Kasana said. “This is the first individual I've tagged that was recaptured. It’s especially nice to see people being proactive about reporting and giving us information, setting a great example for good citizen science.”

Banman was surprised to learn that Mellow was one of many sharks the team has tagged in Belize over the years as a part of a long-term project that relies on a strong, collaborative, multi-stakeholder network of researchers, fishing communities and Belize Fisheries Department. The goal is to conduct research that translates into conservation, helping guide policy decisions in Belize that better protect sharks, as well as rays.

To date, the team has trained and hired fishermen as research scientists, which has led to the reduction of sharks being caught. They’ve established a protocol for assessment of the Belizean shark fishery. Their research has also led to the creation of the world’s first ray sanctuary in Belize that protects more than 20 species.

“I found this to be a very exciting and educational experience that caused me to appreciate the underwater world a whole lot more,” Banman said. “I think more can and should be done to protect it, and I feel I have what it takes to help make a difference.”

Banman has already helped more than he knows. The update about Mellow contributes to the data the researchers have compiled about how tiger sharks use habitats in Belize. Two decades of data seem to suggest tiger sharks aren’t hanging around the coast. Recent assessments of the Belize shark fishery and the researcher’s ongoing collaborations with local fishermen have shown the sharks are choosing deeper waters — which is precisely where Mellow was found.

Mellow’s current whereabouts are a mystery. He might be in those deep waters around Glover’s Reef. There’s no way of knowing. Unless, of course, the cool, calm and collected shark decides to take a bite of another line.