Broadnose sevengill cowshark at Shark Alley

Lecture: Adam Barnett on broadnose sevengill cowsharks

I’ve been appallingly tardy in writing about this talk, but recent events in False Bay have reminded me that my notes have been sitting waiting for me to attend to them for several (ahem) months. My diary indicates that the series of talks that it was part of was held in November 2012. Dr Barnett has in fact left South Africa and returned during the time it’s taken me to get to this task. Sorry.

Broadnose sevengill cowshark at Shark Alley
Broadnose sevengill cowshark at Shark Alley

Dr Adam Barnett, a visiting researcher from Deakin University (Australia) and the University of Tasmania, spoke at the Save Our Seas Shark Centre in Kalk Bay, on the same evening that we listened to Alison Kock and Kay Welz speak about white sharks in False Bay. He has been conducting research on broadnose sevengill cowsharks (viewable in frequently clean, shallow water at our local dive site Shark Alley), in Tasmania.

Broadnose sevengill cowsharks (Notorynchus cepedianus) are part of the order Hexanchiformes, which comprises six species. This is  a primitive order of modern sharks with six or seven paired gill openings (most sharks have five). Four species are cowsharks, and the others are deep water sharks.

Surprisingly little is known about sevengill cowsharks, but Dr Barnett contends that they should be an extremely important apex predator. They are found worldwide, but not (so far) in the north Atlantic. There are far more of them than there are white sharks, and they eat the same sort of things: fish, rays, seals, and other sharks. Their role in coastal ecosystems is very important.

They are found in coastal waters of countries including (but not limited to) Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and California. There are known nursery areas at the latter two locations. Only one pregnant female has been dissected. She was carrying 82 pups (for context, white sharks bear 2-10 young, hammerheads about 50, whale sharks up to 300, and most other shark species 2-40). Their reproductive cycle is thought to be about two years in length. It is not known at what age these sharks reach sexual maturity.

Video still of the hooked cowshark
Video still of the hooked cowshark

Sevengill cowsharks are on the IUCN Red List as data deficient (not enough is known about their conservation status). The IUCN Red List website page about the sevengill is informative. They are a target species for recreational fisheries (we often see specimens with hooks stuck in their mouths when we dive at Shark Alley), and a low value bycatch species for commercial fisheries in South Africa. There are several semi-commercial fisheries elsewhere that target them. There is some evidence that the fisheries in California and Namibia are not sustainable.

Tasmania study


View Larger Map
For some time, Dr Barnett has been studying the sevengill cowshark population found in the south eastern corner of Tasmania, in the system of bays that makes up the Derwent River estuary. The water here is turbid and there is a wedge of salt water that moves up and down the river with the tide. The river is at most 40 metres deep, and Norfolk Bay is about 20 metres deep. The winter water temperature in the area is 8-13 degrees, and in summer the maximum water temperature is 21-22 degrees. Much like False Bay (except for the river)!

The estuary is a shark refuge area and also includes populations of soupfin and smoothhound sharks, which pup there. The aim of the study has been to determing the population structure, abundance, diet, habitat use, and predator-prey relationships of the cowsharks.

Barnett fished for sharks using long lines with 50 hooks per line, deploying four lines per night. He tagged and released 457 sharks in total, took biological samples and measurements, determined their sex, and flushed their stomachs to see what they’d been eating. Sixteen percent of the females had mating scars (bite marks). He found more sharks each year in summer, and fewer in winter. Do they leave? Or do they not get caught in winter? Of the 457 sharks tagged, 68 (15%) were recaptured, in the same bay as where they were first caught.

Cowsharks are about 50 centimetres at birth, and after a year they are 70-80 centimetres long. The Derwent estuary is not a pupping or nursery ground, based on the measurement distribution that Barnett observed. He caught 60-100% female sharks (depending on what time of year he fished), averaging about 60% females. In winter he found no males, with a few showing up by spring.

Barnett also set an array of 74 VR2 acoustic receivers 800 metres apart, during the period December 2007 to June 2009. He set them along the boundary of the protected area and at entrances to bays and inlets. For the movement study he tagged 43 animals (31 female) with acoustic tags that communicate with the receivers. The process to implant the tag is a three minute surgery. He found that no Norfolk Bay shark moved to the upper Derwent estuary, and no estuary shark moved to Norfolk Bay. This suggests strong site fidelity. There is some overlap between the populations in late autumn, and by winter most of the sharks (including all the males) left the area. After winter the animals returned to where they were tagged.

Pop up archival tags attached to five males and five females located the makes 1000 kilometres north in Jervis Bay, south of Sydney, and the females closer – slightly offshore, with one visiting a depth of 300 metres. The sharks are more active and in shallower water at night, spreading out more. During the day they spend a lot of time close to the seabed, moving up and down in the water column at night.

Barnett tagged several of the sevengill sharks’ prey species, and determined that the sevengills were only in the bay when their prey items could be found there. The fact that the sharks are not breeding in the area suggests that their habitat use is indeed diet related.

False Bay study (ongoing)

Excitingly, broadnose sevengill cowsharks are the subject of a current study in False Bay involving Dr Barnett and local scientists, making use of the array of acoustic receivers that was originally set to study white shark residency patterns. There are also compatible receivers in Algoa Bay, Mossel Bay, Gansbaai, Port Alfred, Port St Johns and on Aliwal Shoal. At least nine sharks have already been fitted with acoustic tags at Miller’s Point, and a hook was incidentally removed from one shark’s mouth.

Miller’s Point is a unique aggregation site: the researchers aim to determine why. Female sharks that look very pregnant are often observed by divers there. The researchers will use the data from the acoustic receivers to try to determine the sharks’ habitat use in False Bay, their seasonal movements, the population structure and the effects of fishing. This will assisst in managing the species. They will also study their interaction with white sharks (with whom they compete for food), and the cowsharks’ predator-prey interactions with other species. This is important for ecosystem management.

Sevengill sharks have been seen and caught at Robben Island in Table Bay, in Betty’s Bay, and in Gordon’s Bay (at night). It is possible to dive with the Betty’s Bay sharks, if you know where they are! It isn’t known whether there are any at Seal Island, perhaps closely sharing that habitat with the white sharks.

Dr Barnett’s results from his work in Tasmania are fascinating because they shed light on broadnose sevengill cowsharks as a species as well as their specific behaviour in the Derwent estuary. So little is known about our local population that the temptation to try to generalise some ideas from his Tasmanian research is irresistible. I hope that the tagging study currently taking place will increase our understanding of these local celebrity sharks, and that it will assist in managing the species and the places they live so as to ensure that the population continues to thrive. Yay science!

Published by

Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

One thought on “Lecture: Adam Barnett on broadnose sevengill cowsharks”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *