MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — When a 12-foot long thresher shark washed ashore in Middletown over the weekend, biologists with National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries began preparing to perform a necropsy.

But by the time the NOAA biologists arrived at Second Beach Monday morning, someone had removed the shark’s jaw.

“It definitely makes it much more difficult to pin down a direct cause of death,” said Michelle Passerotti, a biologist with NOAA Fisheries’ Apex Predators Program.

Passerotti, who’s based at NOAA Fisheries’ Narragansett Laboratory, said biologists typically dissect sharks that have washed ashore in an attempt to not only determine their cause of death, but also learn more about the species.

“These samples are very valuable for research,” Passerotti explained. “In a lot of cases, [the samples] come from species or sizes of sharks that we don’t necessarily have access to often, so we have to really try and get out there as quickly as possible.”

Passerotti said removing a shark’s jaw not only hinders their research, but can also be against the law depending on the species.

“The ideal scenario is to have anybody who spots a stranded shark to give us a call,” she said. “That way we can come out and assess the situation, collect the shark and put it to good use.”

It’s been several months since biologists have dissected a shark and collected samples, according to Passerotti.

  • The tail of a dead thresher shark is visible on the rocky coast of a beach.
  • A dead thresher shark with its jaws cut out lies on some rocks.
  • Biologists in bright orange coats work on dissecting a dead thresher shark on the rocky shore of a beach.

The last time a shark washed ashore was back in August, when Passerotti said it was discovered along the beach in Westerly.

But biologists weren’t able to perform a necropsy on it because the town had buried it before NOAA Fisheries was notified.

“In cases like that, it is a little bit frustrating,” Passerotti admitted.

Passerotti doesn’t know for certain why the shark that washed ashore Sunday died, but she has a few theories.

“The majority of these cases tend to be post-release mortalities,” Passerotti explained.

Passerotti explained that when sharks are caught and released alive, they can still die due to the effects of being caught. It’s also possible the shark was sick and eventually drifted closer to shore before dying.

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Even though the shark washed ashore at a popular beach, Passerotti said it’s no cause for concern.

“If the water is salty, there’s going to be sharks in it,” Passerotti said. “It is very rare that they interact with a person.”

“Every now and then one winds up on the shore to remind us that they’re out there,” she continued.

Anyone who comes across a shark that’s washed ashore should report it to the NOAA Fisheries Narragansett Laboratory by calling (401) 782-3281.