Experts exploring how cocaine and other drugs impact marine life
Fox News’ Jonathan Serrie on the research into the impact of drugs on marine life after sharks were potentially exposed to cocaine in Florida Keys.
America’s drug crisis is spilling into the sea, and scientists say it’s likely sharks are consuming illegal substances. In a first-of-its-kind experiment, a marine biologist specifically investigated what happens when sharks consume cocaine.
Marine biologist Tom “The Blowfish” Hird traveled to the Florida Keys for his research.
“This is likely the only place in the whole world where this happens,” Hird said. “It’s certainly the only place in the whole world where it happens with such frequency.”
The illicit drugs end up in the ocean when drug smugglers make drug drops or dump them before getting caught.
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Just this week, U.S. Border Patrol agents seized more than 90 pounds of cocaine floating at sea off the Florida Keys over a two-day period. They said the estimated street value was about $1.4 million.
“[Sharks have] gone up and touched it with the only thing they’ve got — their mouth — and taken a bite out of it. … So, it sounds crazy, but the probability of it occurring is actually quite high,” Hird explained.
During the research, Hird said sharks were “tuned up. They were on full alert, ready to go, looking, looking, looking.” He said while the sharks did go into hunting mode, there was no increase in aggressive behavior.
As for how dangerous this could be for humans, Hird says the sharks are more of a danger to themselves than to people.
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“If cocaine made sharks hyper and didn’t put them to sleep, my personal belief would be that it would make them much more skittish. And the loud noises, things like divers in the water splashing, all that kind of stuff, it’s actually going to drive them away because it’s going to act as a deterrent,” he said.
For the experiments, researchers didn’t actually feed cocaine to sharks. Instead, they used highly concentrated fish powder to give sharks a similar high, as close to cocaine as ethically possible.
U.S. Border Patrol Agents seize cocaine floating at sea near the Florida Keys. (U.S. Border Patrol Miami Sector)
Hird said the highly concentrated fish powder acted as a sort of “catnip or sharknip.” He explained it “will set off the nose, set off all those chemo receptors, everything it uses for taste and smell and fire up, light up as much of the brain as possible and get them going in that way.”
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“Cocaine Sharks” will air on the Discovery Channel during the notorious “Shark Week,” but Fox News was able to get a glimpse into what you can expect. Hird described one interaction with a hammerhead shark.
“She was ever so slightly on one side. You know, it could have been a past injury,” Hird said. “It could have been something completely different. But sharks very typically swim flat. Very, very typically. So, the fact that she was, you know, on one side — that was very interesting.”
Hird described how the hammerhead interacted with him, too.
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Researchers are warning about the impact on sharks from drugs dumped into oceans. (Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images, File)
“They don’t really like humans. They don’t like coming close. They don’t like the bubbles, the noise and everything else. And she came in straight away, but no aggression, nothing like that,” Hird explained. “She was just, interested, you know, coming in immediately to find out what was going on. That’s quite unusual.”
Marine biologist Tom “The Blowfish” Hird observing a hammerhead shark while conducting an experiment about how sharks might behave after consuming cocaine. (Discovery Channel)
But the concern doesn’t end with cocaine. Hird says cocaine is just a snapshot of what’s really going on. He said it highlighted the problem of pharmaceuticals flowing into the ocean, whether it’s “caffeine, contraception, antidepressants or cocaine.”
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Hird is the face of Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” and is also known for his work on BBC Worldwide’s “Fishing Impossible.” The “heavy metal marine biologist” is known as a wildlife expert with a specialist’s knowledge of the ocean.
When he was among sharks for this experiment, he said, “it was just incredible, you know, to see that, that switch, you know, that instant burst of energy, of power. And to be in the middle of them when they’re all going around, you know, spiced up, was just fantastic.”
Claudia Kelly-Bazan is a producer based in Atlanta. Send tips to [email protected]