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Scientists warn that 'cocaine sharks' may be running rampant off the Florida coast: '[It] set [their] brains aflame'

Researchers hope to take blood and tissue samples from sharks to measure their cocaine levels.

Cocaine sharks may be feasting on drugs dumped off the Florida coast

Photo Credit: iStock

Illegal narcotics are routinely seized in the waters off South Florida, and scientists are investigating how the spillage of these drugs — namely, cocaine — could impact sharks in the area.

Scientists Tom Hird and Tracy Fanara studied how sharks would react to ingesting cocaine, and their experiments are featured in "Cocaine Sharks," part of Discovery's 35th annual Shark Week.

Hird, a marine biologist and shark expert, and Fanara, a research scientist and program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also observed curious behavior in at least two sharks off the Florida Keys, according to Live Science. Hird said the findings didn't prove the sharks had ingested cocaine and that more research is necessary.

"The deeper story here is the way that chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and illicit drugs are entering our waterways — entering our oceans — and what effect that they then could go on to have on these delicate ocean ecosystems," Hird told Live Science.

The United Nations reported in March that cocaine supply, demand, and seizures have reached all-time highs.

"If these cocaine bales are a point source of pollution," Fanara told the Guardian, "it's very plausible [sharks] can be affected by this chemical. Cocaine is so soluble that any of those packages open just a little, the structural integrity is destroyed and the drug is in the water."

At least 15 species of sharks live off South Florida, according to a 12-year survey completed in 2021.

In one experiment, Hird and Fanara examined whether sharks swam toward fake bales of cocaine or fake swans. In another, the scientists recorded how sharks reacted when fake bales of cocaine were dropped from an airplane into the water, as they could be by smugglers.

Hird and Fanara also made a bait ball with fish powder to ethically simulate cocaine.

"I think we have got a potential scenario of what it may look like if you gave sharks cocaine," Hird said in "Cocaine Sharks," according to Live Science. "We gave them what I think is the next best thing. [It] set [their] brains aflame."

Going forward, Hird and Fanara hope to take blood and tissue samples from sharks to measure their cocaine levels.

"Cocaine Sharks" originally aired Wednesday, July 26.

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