Shark Nursery Grounds of the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast Waters of the United States

Long-Term Movements, Migration, and Temporal Delineation of a Summer Nursery for Juvenile Sandbar Sharks in the Chesapeake Bay Region

R. Dean Grubbs, John A. Musick, Christina L. Conrath, and Jason G. Romine


Abstract.—Delineation of essential fish habitat for exploited populations is critical to proper management. Spatial delineation of summer nurseries for elasmobranchs has received increased attention in recent years; however, temporal patterns of nursery use and the delineation of wintering areas are as critical. The lower Chesapeake Bay is the largest summer nursery for sandbar sharks Carcharhinus plumbeus in the western Atlantic. The goals of this study were to delineate temporally the use of the nursery and the migratory movements of juvenile sandbar sharks in this estuary, to determine the location of wintering areas, and to determine if philopatry or homing to natal summer nurseries occurs in subsequent years. Longline sampling conducted between 1990 and 1999 indicated that immigration to the bay occurred from late May to early July and was highly correlated with increasing water temperature. Emigration from the estuary occurred in late September and early October and was highly correlated with decreasing day length. We hypothesize that photoperiod is the environmental trigger to begin fall and spring migrations, whereas temperature may elicit the response to move into the estuaries that serve as summer nurseries. Between 1995 and 2003, we tagged 2,288 juvenile sandbar sharks. Seventy-three sharks were recaptured following 4 to 3,124 d at liberty and the distance from tagging locations ranged from 0 to 2,800 km. Recapture data suggest that most sandbar sharks return to their natal estuaries during summer for at least the first 3 years and return to adjacent coastal waters for up to 9 years. These data also indicate that wintering areas are concentrated off the coast of North Carolina between 33°30’N and 34°30’N latitude, primarily in nearshore waters less than 20 m deep, though sharks older than 7 years were recaptured as far as 60 km from shore. Temporal use of this area by juvenile sandbar sharks occurs from late October until late May for at least the first 7 years and up to 10 years.