Uncharted Waters


By Ben Davis


octoral student Jessica Schulte checks the bait cooler. Fist-sized chunks of salmon are halfway thawed, and hungry sharks await below. The annual summer migration of broadnose sevengills into Willapa Bay, WA has begun.

Sevengills are one of the oldest living shark species. While most sharks have five gills, older species with six or seven gills provide evolutionary insight into ancient oceans with less-oxygenated water. But Schulte isn’t here to study their history. She aims to fill a surprising gap in knowledge about ocean ecosystems. Shockingly little is known about sharks north of central California, with only 3% of marine studies in the Northern Pacific focusing on apex predators. 

“There’s a lot of fisheries management here in the Pacific Northwest to keep ecosystems and economies healthy. Dungeness crab, halibut, salmon—these are important industries. But we just don’t know much about the impact sharks have in maintaining those resources here. Our research is filling that gap to better understand where the sharks are, what they eat, and the role they play in keeping our fisheries robust.”

For two consecutive summers, Schulte has been researching sevengills for her dissertation in Willapa Bay, a crucial estuary and feeding ground for species like salmon. Alongside her Big Fish Lab crewmates, they catch an average 5-10 sharks per day. With a laugh, she dubs it “sharking” rather than “fishing for sharks.”

Sevengills are relatively calm compared to other species. Each shark is lifted aboard in a cradle, and a hose is carefully inserted into its mouth. Water flows through its gills and allows the shark to breathe. Schulte and team collect skin samples by taking a dime-sized clip from the dorsal fin, and stomach samples by briefly aiming the water hose to induce vomiting. She installs a satellite tag on its back, and an acoustic tag into a small slit in its underbelly, which she stitches up. Undergraduate students onboard help Schulte determine the sex and record size measurements.

Providing undergraduate students with experiential learning is part of the plan. Schulte’s time in the Peace Corps instilled a passion for sharing knowledge, especially with underserved communities. She secured funding from OSU’s Marine and Coastal Opportunities program to incorporate a project for indigenous undergraduate students into the research.

“Those fisheries also have impact on indigenous culture, so I wanted to bring in indigenous students who might be interested in shark research or fish research in general,” she said.

OSU is quickly becoming a hub for shark research in the Pacific Northwest, emblematic of its broader commitment to marine sciences and conservation.

The project includes gaining hands-on experience with shark research, and then creating an art piece that reflects the experience. Jessi Wahnetah, an undergrad studying Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences from the Warm Springs Tribe, has an interest in marine sciences and will connect this experience back to her culture through beadwork. “My family members practice beading, and I’ve gotten to practice with a native artist in a professional setting as well. I will use an embroidery hoop and incorporate an outline of a sevengill shark and the patterning of their skin into the bead design. It’s cool to blend science and art like this.”

All the student artwork projects will be on display in the Hatfield Marine Science Center Visitor Center in Newport.

OSU is quickly becoming a hub for shark research in the Pacific Northwest, emblematic of its broader commitment to marine sciences and conservation. “We are utilizing ocean resources, but if we want those resources to be available for future generations, we have to make sure we can maintain them at a level that is harvestable but also healthy,” said Taylor Chapple, assistant professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences and director of the Big Fish Lab. “Our research is really aiming to help maintain the balance between harvest and conservation.”

At least 15 species of shark call the Oregon coast home, and learning more about their feeding patterns and behavior is crucial for sustainable fisheries and marine resources management, ensuring abundance for generations to come.

Learn more about OSU shark research at their website and follow
along for updates and outreach events on Instagram @Big_Fish_Lab

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