‘Cocaine sharks’ may be exposed to drugs in the Florida Keys, researchers say

Author: Caitlin O'Kane / CBS
Published: Updated:
Stock photo by Ben Phillips

So-called “cocaine sharks” are the latest nightmarish animal to make headlines. The phenomenon is explored in an upcoming Discovery TV show that will air during the channel’s annual “Shark Week” event.

Like “Cocaine Bear” before it – a 2023 film loosely based on a bear that consumed cocaine in a forest in 1985 – the “Cocaine Sharks” show has piqued widespread interest before it even aired.

It is a catchy headline and show title, but the experiments were preliminary, Tracy Fanara, a research scientist and program manager at NOAA who was part of the experiments that were filmed in Key West for “Cocaine Sharks,” told CBS News. Still, she said, “There’s a lot of legitimacy to this clickbait headline.”

She said the experiments were because large amounts of cocaine, often being brought to the U.S. on boats, wash up on our coasts annually, especially in the Florida Keys. Just last month, the Coast Guard announced it found 14,153 pounds of cocaine in the ocean in nearby Miami. The drugs were worth more than $186 million.

Fanara, who is an expert in chemical transport and ocean currents, said if cocaine bales follow the ocean current, much like fish and sharks, there is a strong likelihood that sharks are coming in contact with the drug.

For the experiments, Fanara and marine biologist Tom “Blowfish” Hird dropped bales that looked like bales of cocaine in the water to see how sharks reacted to them. They looked for behavioral changes, such as if the sharks were attracted to the fake bales of cocaine and if they chose to eat them over their typical food.

They also used a stimulant similar to cocaine to see how sharks act when exposed to it. Cocaine is a powerful and addictive stimulant that often makes the user feel energetic and euphoric – and it can cause increased body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure and have long-term effects on the brain, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“[Hird] did notice some strange behavior, but there’s no telling whether the shark behavior changes were associated with exposure to cocaine or if it was just a coincidence. Definitely, more research must be done,” Fanara told CBS News.

Images from “Cocaine Sharks” show the sharks did swim towards the bales of fake cocaine, and Hird observed at least one hammerhead swimming differently than normal. “Now that is unusual. It could be a past injury or it could be a chemical imbalance,” he says in the trailer for the show.

Fanara said their experiments were meant to show how chemicals in water can impact aquatic life.

She said several studies on drugs in bodies of water have been conducted, because drugs are often found in waterways, and the substances have been shown to make an impact on aquatic life.

None of the previous studies, however, have tested the drug on sharks. “Obviously we can’t give sharks cocaine, especially not in the wild, despite the fact it would’ve been a much more accurate study — it’s just not ethical,” Fanara said.

“One study [from 2016] found 81 different drugs in Puget Sound [in Washington]. This is a real issue and we’re not making any new water … The same water we’ll have 1,000 years from now is the same water we had 1,000 years ago,” she said, adding that our water supply goes from wastewater treatment systems and then flows back into water bodies and into the water we consume.

A 2021 study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology found methamphetamine, oftentimes called meth, “causes addiction and behavior alteration of brown trout.” When these fish are exposed to the drug, they have altered movement and can experience withdrawal. The drugs often make it to bodies of water through sewage that travels through wastewater plants.

Wastewater plants are not equipped to deal with this kind of contaminant, according to the study. “Other contaminants of emerging concern, including prescription medicines and other consumer chemicals, are similarly introduced into surface waters with the potential to alter the physiology and behavior of aquatic organisms at relatively low levels,” the study reads.

“My goal of this experiment was to shed light on the real problem of chemicals in our waterways and impacting our aquatic life and then eventually impacting us,” Fanara said. “But the goal of the study was basically to see if this is a research question worth exploring more. And I would say, yes, it is.”

“We already know fish have been contaminated with these pharmaceuticals with these recreational drugs,” she said. “So, we really need to make some major changes in our water treatment processes and also just in our ethics and behaviors and our activities day to day, because it’s not just these recreational drugs that are entering waterways, it’s our sunscreens, our insecticides, our herbicides, our fertilizers — all of that just washes into our natural waterways and becomes part of the ecosystem.”

Fanara said the message here is we need to be conscious of how we are impacting the environment.

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