Sharks in Gulf of Mexico Appear to Have Stayed Put During Hurricane Laura

Sharks in the Gulf of Mexico appear to have stuck around as Hurricane Laura passed over, a scientist tracking them has said.

Greg Stunz, Endowed Chair for Fisheries and Ocean Health and Director for Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation at Texas A&M University, is part of a research program that tracks sharks in the Gulf of Mexico to better learn about their day-to-day lives in order to get a better understanding of the role they play as apex predators in their ecosystems.

Hurricane Laura formed as a tropical storm over the Atlantic Ocean on August 21 before moving into the Gulf of Mexico where it strengthened. Over the course of several days Laura moved across the ocean basin, intensifying to a category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 150mph. It made landfall on Thursday, hitting the coast of Louisiana with huge storm surges and damaging winds.

Research suggests some species of animal are able to sense storms approaching and respond accordingly. How they are able to do this is not well understood, however. Animals caught up in extreme weather events also have different survival mechanisms. For example, sea birds that get trapped in hurricanes have been seen flying in the eye of the storm, apparently seeking refuge from the powerful winds surrounding it.

According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), hurricanes can wreak havoc on marine life. "Slow-moving fish and turtles and shellfish beds are often decimated by the rough undercurrents and rapid changes in water temperature and salinity wrought by a hurricane," it said. "Sharks, whales, and other large animals swiftly move to calmer waters, however, and, generally speaking, are not overly affected by hurricanes."

Sharks are known to be extremely sensitive to slight changes to their environment—including the atmospheric changes that take place at the onset of a hurricane. These abilities appear so fine-tuned that some scientists have suggested sharks could be used to predict when and where hurricanes will form.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to a variety of shark species, including tiger, hammerhead, mako and great whites.

Stunz told Newsweek that the team was tracking shark movements throughout Hurricane Laura's approach, with their tags often able to broadcast locations throughout storms. "Interestingly, they don't seem to make any drastic movement that you...might predict," he said in an email.

"Animals in general are very in tune with weather patterns including fish and sharks. This is especially the case for barometric pressure. You often get intense feeding [when] a low pressure begins falling (i.e. storm arriving or even fronts)."

He said this feeding generally ends abruptly as the pressure climbs: "We suspect they sense the storm and that kick off feeding. However, offshore, their movement continues with nothing out of normal patterns."

Stunz said the sharks they are currently tracking are near shore and offshore, which may be why they did not see a huge amount of movement. "It doesn't seem to affect them to a large degree," he said. "We do not track them inshore currently, and that is likely where you would expect to see more of a response."

Hurricane Laura, which has now been downgraded to a tropical depression, is continuing to weaken as it moves across land. Conditions in the Gulf of Mexico appear to have calmed. However, there is still some way to go before the end of the 2020 hurricane season, which officially lasts until November 30.

The 2020 season was predicted to be particularly active because of certain climate factors. The NOAA's Climate Prediction Center forecast said there would be six to 10 hurricanes over the course of the season, three to six of which would be major hurricanes. Laura was the first major hurricane of the season.

Stock image of sharks. Sharks in the Gulf of Mexico were tracked during Hurricane Laura. iStock