The South Florida Student Shark Program (SFSSP)

Marine Education, Career Development, Research & Conservation


Program Overview:

Students and faculty from South Broward High School (Hollywood, Florida), MAST Academy (Miami, Florida) and the University of Miami (Coral Gables, Florida) are working cooperatively on education and research projects focusing on South Florida’s coastal sharks and associated mangrove fish communities, particularly in Biscayne Bay.


To support student career development in a variety of natural science disciplines, while promoting the conservation of coastal Florida shark species, mangrove fish habitat and the Florida watershed through service learning, education and research.


Students with shark
Students with bonnethead shark

Scientific Framework

Students on the boat The delineation and characterization of habitat significant to the life-history and ecology of elasmobranchs has been identified as one of the highest priorities for their conservation (Bonfil, 1997; Camhi, 1998; Castro, 1993; Pikitch et al., 2005). Little is known about the ecology of Southeast Florida’s shark fauna. Despite this, shark fishing pressure along the coast remains high. Thus, there is a need to appropriately document Southeast Florida’s coastal shark fauna, determine their relative abundance and attempt to identify habitat which may be important for their survival so that appropriate management actions can be taken if necessary.

The proposed South Florida Student Shark Program (SFSSP) seeks to determine the relative abundances, growth rates, and sex ratios of Southeast Florida’s coastal shark species. We also intend to identify specific habitats where shark congregation, parturition, and migration may be occurring. We seek to identify habitat where sharks may be susceptible to bioaccumulation of toxins. The program will conduct visits primarily to Biscayne Bay, Florida Bay and the Florida Keys to study sharks and survey the marine habitat.

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of marine science, the SFSSP will have biology, chemistry, genetics, physical oceanography, and information technology components. Under these components research will be focused on:

  • 1. Determining the relative abundances, growth rates, and sex ratios of coastal shark species.
  • 2. Determining the presence and concentrations of trace metals present in these sharks.
  • 3. Characterizing the genetic structure for Floridian shark species and the extent of gene flow among sampling sites.
  • 4. Characterizing sites important for the life history and ecology of sharks.
  • 5. Developing geographic information systems (GIS) maps that incorporate data pertaining to shark population dynamics, genetics, eco-toxicology and habitat use.
  • 6. Delineating areas important for shark congregation, foraging, migration, and parturition as well as areas where sharks are susceptible to fishing exploitation and bioaccumulation of toxins.
Tagging a juvenile shark.
Tagging a juvenile bonnethead shark


Sampling will take place from at multiple sites in Biscayne National Park, Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, and Florida Bay. Sharks will be tagged be tagged, sampled and released in the field.7. Students will design and construct Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) fitted with cameras to observe and video sharks in the wild. These video/pictures will be featured on a website constructed by the students for this purpose.

Sampling area
Site map and coordinates of proposed study areas.

Students on the boat

Student Involvement:

High school, undergraduate and graduate students are being provided with practical, hands-on education and self initiated research projects, both in the laboratory and field. Students will educate others about the issues they are addressing. The students will share project findings and engage in activities with students in other schools. Project participants will also present their findings to local Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs. Their civic involvement with community leaders will generate environmental awareness for improved policy decisions. The project will give students greater civic responsibility and empowers youth by giving them a voice to share an important issue to South Florida. Each student will act as a leader through their stewardship and become ambassadors for ocean conservation.

Broad Impacts of Program:

Students from Broward and Dade County are being provided with practical, hands-on education and self initiated research projects, both in the laboratory and field. Opportunities are especially being made available to underrepresented (gender, ethnicity, disability) high school students. Research projects and training opportunities will be made available for graduate students. The program is multidisciplinary and supervised by world professionals in six major subject areas: biology, genetics, chemistry, navigation, engineering and information technology. By training students in a variety of disciplines, student career development in the natural sciences is promoted. By empowering students to play an active role in the teaching of younger student participants, student leadership skills are being developed. Program results will be generated into scientific publications and presentations having both local and global conservation application to the management of marine resources.

MAST student demographics SBHS student demographics
Demographics of each high school included in SFSSP (MAST Academy and South Broward High School). All data is based on information for the 2005-2006 school year and was provided by administration at each school. Note the high numbers of underrepresented students in the marine sciences that will have a chance to participate in the the current program.

Safety Issues

Safety of all participants is addressed by the South Florida Student Shark Program. Research trips have been approved by the Miami-Dade and Broward County Public Schools district’s Office of Risk Management, and vessels that will be used have been approved specifically for this use. The location of study sites are inshore, in relatively shallow waters and on vessels with closed railings in order to minimize the potential for participants falling overboard or being injured while on deck. Direct handling of the sharks will be minimized; however led under the supervision of Neil Hammerschlag, who has used the described shark handling, tagging and sampling techniques in several other research projects. To minimize the risk of handling live sharks to both researchers and the animals, sharks of one meter or less in length will be restrained by dipnets and their mouths covered by towels. Specimens of one to two meters in length will be restrained in a canvas sling suspended in or just above the water with wet towels used to cover the sharks’ head and mouth. Any animals larger than two meters will not be removed from the water, and will be tagged from the vessel using a special tagging lance. These techniques maximize researcher safety and do not result in shark mortality or excessive stress. Further, the proposed project has been approved by the University of Miami Animal Care & Use Committee and all project investigators who will be making contact with sharks have taken a research training and animal care course. All study sites are within 5 miles of the coast and land-based medical care facilities and each boat will be equipped with first aid equipment and chaperones trained in first aid care.

Specific Program Funds To Date:

To date the program has received funding support primarily from the NOAA Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center (LMRCSC), The Southern Florida Chapter of the Explorers Club, the high schools involved in the program and the Mote Marine Laboratory Center for Shark Research (CSR).

Program Volunteers:

In addition to monetary donations, the program has a large number of volunteers that have helped make it a success. The program currently has the volunteer support of three graduate and four undergraduate student leaders, five professors supervising and donating lab space for the program’s scientific disciplines, two school principals supporting the program, as well as numerous teachers and chaperones from each school organizing and participating on each trip.

Program links

Florida Shark Tales

Neil 4 Sharks: Education Programs

Staffing/ Administration/ Investigators

Neil with shark

Home      People      Academics      Research