Yulee man’s shark-catching skills assist NOAA research

A deep interest in the ocean fostered by his mother has kept 24-year-old Blake Smith, a welder from Yulee, diving and catching sharks around Amelia Island for some time. At the suggestion of a friend, he contacted the National Oceanographic and Aeronautical Administration to see if they might be interested in any data from the sharks he was catching. And NOAA responded, supplying tags for Smith to attach before releasing the sharks back into the wild. In the past two months, Smith has caught and tagged six sharks here, the biggest one so far a 7-foot-8 female sand bar shark. When and if those sharks are caught again, data from Smith’s tags can be sent back to NOAA, assisting them in understanding sharks and their journeys around our planet.

Most of Smith’s fishing is around Fort Clinch or Nassau Sound. Depending upon how big the shark is, just catching it often takes a considerable amount of time. His biggest catch took more than 30 minutes to bring to the shore. At that point the clock is ticking as the shark is stressed, so he needs to work fast. Besides attaching tags to the sharks, NOAA also supplies cards to record information on and send back. Not only does Smith need to measure and record the shark’s species, there’s another interesting tidbit: Is the shark a male or female? In case you’re wondering, NOAA also supplies a handy illustrated booklet helping figure that one out.

Ensuring the shark’s survival, Smith limits his data-gathering process to around five minutes. Having someone else there helps. Another aid is a rod with thick line attached to the shark’s tail. This keeps it contained in shallow water while Smith and the shark thrash about while he tries to fill in the blanks. When finished, Smith said he walks the beleaguered shark around until it is strong enough to swim away on its own.

Beside catching and releasing sharks around Amelia Island, Smith has grown several types of coral at home in his own saltwater aquarium. Presently residing there is a banded cat shark egg that should hatch soon, and some small horseshoe crabs. Smith is also a certified scuba diver, taught by Kathy Russell from Amelia Island’s local dive shop, Scuba Station. Being a former marine biology teacher at Fernandina Beach High School, Russell has encouraged Smith’s self-motivated interest in the ocean.

Smith hopes to go with Russell and fellow diver Nan Voit to assist their underwater survey of Captain Daddy’s artificial reef. Russell and Voit recently received a state grant to enlarge Captain Daddy’s Reef, named after a beloved and legendary local shrimp net maker Billy Burbank. The reef is located about nine miles east of Amelia Island. Its purpose is meant to make local divers and fishermen aware of the underwater life residing right off Amelia Island’s shore.

A deep interest in the ocean fostered by his mother has kept 24-year-old Blake Smith, a welder from Yulee, diving and catching sharks around Amelia Island for some time.

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