Outer Banks fisherman will test device that could save sharks — by tickling them

A sandbar shark strikes a North Carolina fisher’s catch.
A sandbar shark strikes a North Carolina fisher’s catch. North Carolina Sea Grant/N.C. State University

Fun fact: Sharks, unlike fish, can sense electrical stimuli, according to scientists.

Researchers in North Carolina are hoping to use that biological trait to their advantage with the help of a small electronic device designed to protect sharks from overfishing, N.C. State University announced in a press release this month.

The device, which “has shown promise in the laboratory,” is reportedly ready to start pilot testing off the Outer Banks.

“Several sharks are overfished or are experiencing overfishing on the U.S. East Coast,” fisheries extension specialist Sara Mirabilio said in the release. “Populations of scalloped hammerhead, dusky, sandbar and blacknose sharks all could benefit from an effective deterrent from commercial fishing gear.”

The device could also help fishermen save time and money. Sharks like to chomp on fish while they’re hooked — leaving fishermen with just a head by the time the fish are reeled in, the Virginian-Pilot reported.

Capt. Charlie Locke, an Outer Banks fisherman, has partnered with researchers on the project.

The device — known officially as a bycatch reduction device, per the Salisbury Daily Times — will be field tested on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, according to the university’s release.

Locke will then deploy it in waters off the Outer Banks of North Carolina — just a few miles a few miles from Hatteras and Oregon inlets — for 10 days next August, the Virginian-Pilot reported.

What is it?

The waterproof device connects above the hook on lines used for commercial harvesting and emits electrical pulses with the help of a transistor, the Virginian-Pilot reported.

But it’s only about the size of a spark plug, according to the newspaper.

Richard Brill, a researcher from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science working on the project, said it’s different from other devices using magnets and electropositive metals with only so-so results.

Ocean Guardian, the company behind “Shark Shield” technology, is reportedly manufacturing the prototype.

How does it work?

A shark’s electrosensory system allows it to “detect close-range movements of predators or prey,” the scientists said.

This device reportedly creates a sort of “small electric field” around the hook.

“The objective of the project is to keep the sharks away from the fishing gear, not the fishing gear away from the sharks,” Brill said. “To an approaching shark, even a weak electrical impulse can be disorientating or physically painful.”

But it doesn’t shock them, the Salisbury Daily Times reported — it’s more like a tickle.

“It’s not like you stick your finger in a light socket and get a shock ... tickling is the best (human equivalent),” Brill said, according to the newspaper.

Why is it useful?

Locke told the Virginian-Pilot there’s already a healthy population of various shark species off the Outer Banks.

“But some species are rarer and need protecting, according to conservation groups,” the newspaper reported. “An average of 100 million sharks are killed annually worldwide through commercial fishing, according to a study published in Marine Policy and reported on the Save Our Sharks website.”

Mirabilio, the specialist with N.C. State working on the project, said sharks are frequently caught unintentionally — what’s known as a bycatch.

Repelling them from the gear will reportedly help prevent that while bringing commercial fishing operations a bit of savings.

“Sharks eat the fishing boat’s intended catch before it can be brought aboard,” Locke said in the release. “Also, when sharks are going for the tuna or other fish, they often damage, or even destroy, fishing gear.”

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Hayley is a Real Time reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news and trending stories in the Carolinas. She also created the Observer’s unofficial bird beat (est. 2015) with a summer full of ornithological-related content, including a story about Barred Owls in love.