Researchers on the Georgia coast are studying sharks as a way to check in on the overall health of the estuary, where coastal streams and rivers meet the ocean. GPB’s Emily Jones rode along with them and produced this postcard.

two women on a boat in rain gear hold a shark on a board to measure it

Kennesaw State graduate student Allyson Stiles (left) and researcher Kady Lyons of the Georgia Aquarium measure a shark as part of their study of the health of Wassaw Sound, the estuary near Savannah at the mouth of the Wilmington River.

Credit: Emily Jones


On a beach, it would be cause for concern. But on this small skiff on the Wassaw Sound near Savannah at the mouth of the Wilmington River, it was a cry of excitement.

A team of researchers was pulling in their line, a long length of rope with 50 baited hooks arrayed along it, and they’d made their first catch of the day: a bonnethead shark, exactly what they were after.

a small group of people in rain gear on a skiff

The research team gets ready to drop its long line, secured with a buoy and an anchor at each end, into the water with the goal of catching sharks for study.

Credit: UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant

The researchers are studying the sharks as a way to check in on the overall health of the estuary, the bodies of water like this sound where coastal streams and rivers meet the ocean. Water conditions such as salinity and bacteria coupled with measurements of the sharks offer a snapshot of the ecosystem’s overall health.

“Sharks are playing a top predator role in the estuary, so they act as sentinels of health,” said Kady Lyons, a research scientist at the Georgia Aquarium, explaining that poor health in sharks can indicate something is wrong further down in the food web. 

“If that can trickle all the way up to the top predators, that really — they can serve as these canaries in the coal mine to suggest that maybe something's out of balance or it's not as healthy as we would hope it to be,” she said.

two women in rain gear hold a shark down while one draws a blood sample from near the tail

Graduate student Allyson Stiles (top) holds a shark while Georgia Aquarium researcher Kady Lyons extracts a blood sample.

Credit: Emily Jones

Lyons is advising Kennesaw State University graduate student Allyson Stiles, who’s conducting the research as part of her master’s thesis. Georgia Southern University is also supporting the project, along with the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

During the limited time the sharks could safely stay out of the water, the team acted quickly to weigh each, measure its length and girth, collect a blood sample and small clip from a fin and, if the shark was big enough, attach a tag. 

Then they returned the sharks to the water and helped them swim off, and zoomed away to the next research site.

The sharks in this study are mostly small, some less than a foot long. Most are bonnetheads, a smaller member of the hammerhead family, as well as Atlantic sharp nose, blacktip and sandbar sharks.

The species they catch, Lyons said, as well as the number of sharks, add to the helpful data for their research into this important ecosystem.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium on Skidaway Island was supporting the study. It's actually supported by the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.