Researchers Detail Basking Shark Congregations off Northeast Coast

A basking shark, mouth open, filter feeding. Photo credit: Greg Skomal

HYANNIS – Woods Hole scientists have released data this week on the gathering of large groups of basking sharks off the northeast coast.

A recent study published by researchers at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center indicates groups of the large sharks ranging from 30 to nearly 1,400 have been observed aggregating in waters from Nova Scotia to Long Island.

Seeing large groups is a rare occurrence as only 10 aggregations have been identified between 1980 and 2013.

The sharks, which are the largest species of fish in the world and can grow to 32 feet in length, are considered passive and are no danger to humans. They are highly migratory, slow-moving and are often spotted close to the surface with their large mouths open to filter zooplankton from seawater.

The reason why basking sharks congregate into large groups has not been clearly determine, but researchers believe it is related to feeding, socializing, or courtship.

“Aerial surveys provide a valuable perspective on aggregations and their potential functions, especially when coupled with environmental satellite and ship-based survey data,” said Leah Crowe, a protected species researcher at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center and lead author of the study.

The researchers found the aggregations occurred in summer and fall when sea surface temperatures ranged between 55 and 75 degrees F. In the largest event, data were available to indicate there was a high concentration of zooplankton prey present.

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