MIAMI -- Here in Florida, you can adopt a highway, a park, a manatee, a tree -- donating money and time to make sure the object or creature of your interest receives care and upkeep.
And now, you can also adopt a shark.
For $2,000, you can purchase a satellite tag to be attached to a bull, hammerhead or tiger shark, tracking its movements for up to a year while you follow it in real time on the Internet. And you also get to name your shark.
"Working with sharks is a great opportunity to advance and promote ocean conservation," said Neil Hammerschlag, professor of marine affairs and policy and director of the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation program at University of Miami's Rosenstiel School.
"Sharks are exciting. They are a rich addition to the resources on our planet. They bring attention to ocean-related issues."
The year-old program has resulted in the adoption of 20 sharks in Florida Bay, the Atlantic Ocean off the Keys, the Gulf of Mexico near Fort Myers and the Bahamas, Hammerschlag said.
Among supporters is financial services giant Wells Fargo, which has contributed $40,000 toward the shark research program.
And though anyone can check the sharks' status at http://www.shopforsharks.com by clicking on "track our sharks," Hammerschlag brought a handful of company executives for a closer look at what they are getting for their money, on a recent shark-tagging expedition to Florida Bay.
Sharks are a bellwether of marine health, Hammerschlag told them.
"As apex predators, sharks kind of integrate the rest of the ecosystem," he said. "If the sharks aren't doing well, it probably means the rest of the system isn't doing well either. If you find low shark populations, it probably means the food chain isn't in good shape."
As many as 100 million sharks are killed worldwide each year for their fins, Hammerschlag said, which are made into shark fin soup -- an expensive delicacy in the Far East. Even though the practice of "finning" sharks is illegal in the United States, local shark populations still are not in good shape due to pollution and overfishing.
Once in Florida Bay, Hammerschlag and his crew of three graduate students prepared heavy-duty buoy lines with large circle hooks baited with chunks of bonito, jack and barracuda. Thirty-five-pound weights held the gear stationary, allowing caught sharks to swim in 100-foot circles around the buoy.
"That keeps them breathing and very happy," Hammerschlag said.
As the Wells Fargo execs deployed the gear under the direction of the researchers, Hammerschlag explained what to do when and if a shark bites.
The professor and students would wrestle the shark onto a large, plastic litter and lift it into the stern of the boat. Sea water would be pumped through a hose in the shark's mouth to enable it to breathe and, hopefully, stay calm.
One of the volunteers would use a syringe to squirt water into the shark's eye to check its reflexes while another measured the animal. A small piece of dorsal fin would be clipped to check for toxins in its diet; Hammerschlag said there's a link between cyanobacteria in the ocean and diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease.
A fourth volunteer would have to extract a small piece of muscle for biopsy with a device that resembled a melon-ball scooper. Capt. Curt Slonim would take a blood sample. Then a tag would be implanted in the dorsal fin.
In case they were able to catch one of the target species -- bull, hammerhead or tiger -- a SPOT tag would be attached to the dorsal fin so that every time the shark surfaced, its location would be beamed to a satellite and downloaded to Hammerschlag's computer.
For a long time, all was quiet. But on the second haul-back, Wells Fargo's Dale Rim of corporate communications pulled in a 7-foot female lemon shark.
"Could be the first time I ever went fishing," he said breathlessly.
The triage went flawlessly, with researchers and volunteers performing their assigned tasks in less than five minutes. The shark got an external streamer tag, but not the SPOT. Then the crew slid it off the transom into the bay.
The animal lingered beside the boat for a few seconds, chomping down on the bilge pump hose before flicking its tail and hurrying away.
Slonim repaired the hose with duct tape for the next round.
But the next round turned out to be another lemon -- a 6-foot female pulled in by Shelley Freeman, Wells Fargo's Florida regional president.
Like its predecessor, the subject was calmed, sampled, tagged and sent back into the bay.
None of the targeted species appeared, and the boat headed in. Still, the crew said it counted the expedition a success.
Said Rim: "It's great to be part of the environmental movement."
(c) 2011, The Miami Herald.
Visit The Miami Herald, www.miamiherald.com.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.