In honor of Shark Week 2016, a weeklong saga of television shows filled with shark science and excitement, it only seems right to dive into what many consider the most pressing question surrounding sharks: where are they? The Global FinPrint project aims to find out where sharks and rays are thriving and what conditions contribute to this success by combining new technology with an international collaboration of marine scientists. The leading researchers for Global FinPrint are shark experts based in Florida and Australia’s leading marine research institutions. The project will primarily focus on surveying shark and ray populations on coral reefs in an effort to better understand what policies and environmental conditions lead to healthier shark populations; however, the secondary intent of the project is to determine overall reef and ecosystem health. Researchers are pioneering extensive use of Baited Remote Underwater Videos (BRUVs) to effectively survey how many sharks and rays are inhabiting a particular reef and assess the overall dynamics of the reef. Four key ocean areas are intended to be surveyed by Global FinPrint, including: Western Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Coral Triangle, and the Pacific Ocean. At the end of the 4 year study, over 400 reefs will be surveyed and thousands of hours of video will be captured, all culminating to a deeper understanding of the lives of sharks and what conservation actions are most effective in preserving these apex predators.
How Does Global FinPrint Work?
Currently over 100 reefs worldwide have been surveyed using the BRUV technology, which has given scientists insight into which marine policies have proven effective in protecting sharks and rays and which have not. With so many reefs to survey over the course of a few years, cooperation between scientists is crucial to successful collection of data. BRUVs consists of a pyramid structure which provides stability to the camera housing when resting on the ocean floor, in addition BRUVs are equipped with a pole baited with “chum” that attracts sharks to the camera. The leading problem with this setup is the accuracy in documenting sharks and rays that actually frequent the reef versus attracting sharks that are not local to the reef with the smell of bait in the water. This technique could lead to misinterpretation and representation of collected video data. The video component is recorded by GoPro cameras which are ideal due to their small size and durability. For each reef surveyed, 50-100 BRUVs are deployed by a team of scientists that can remain recording on the seafloor for at least 85 hours, just over 3 days. Videos reveal what species of shark and rays are present or absent on the reef, what other marine life is present, and the population density and frequency of each species.
To have a more comprehensive data set, scientists combine environmental conditions during that 3 day period with the results from the BRUVs. Environmental conditions recorded include: pH, temperature, location, visibility, and other factors. After only a year into the the Global FinPrint project, 5,000 BRUVs have been deployed and 5,000 hours of videos have already been captured. At the conclusion of the study, all of the data from Global FinPrint will be made available via an online public database that will allow easier facilitation of scientific data to policies and education programs. As this a truly global effort in nature, friendly competition broke out between different teams of scientists deploying BRUVs and collecting data. A twitter battle over how many sharks could be seen in a single snapshot was ignited with #BRUVbattle signifying an official twitter war. Currently the Australian team surveying Jarvis Reef in the Pacific holds the record with 12 gray reef sharks caught in a single shot. The underlying importance of this #BRUVbattle is that it highlights certain reefs as shark hotspots and others as reefs devoid of sharks.
Importance of Global FinPrint:
The IUCN Red Lists estimates that one quarter of all shark, ray, and skate species are threatened with extinction, as increased pressure mounts more on larger, slower reproducing shark species. Of the 500 known shark species, 30 have been identified in the first 100 reefs surveyed by Global FinPrint. So far, BRUVs have been deployed in the waters of: Australia, Indonesia, Eastern Africa, Florida, the Bahamas, and Hawaii providing a well-rounded database of information. A possible weak point of this study, is that they are solely focussing on coral reefs instead of also including biodiversity hotspots such as upwellings and seamounts. Though there are so many sharks and rays at risk of extinction, there is little concrete knowledge on why certain areas and species are affected more than others, and what efforts have truly been effective in reviving depleted population. Global FinPrint hopes to close this knowledge gap by making information on global shark populations, behaviors, and ecosystem health easily accessible to both scientists and policy makers.
It is well known that sharks are a keystone species in reef ecosystems, meaning that their survival is crucial to the overall health and livelihood of the entire reef ecosystem. In translation, coastal communities who depend on the reef for food and tourism are also deeply affected by the disappearance of sharks on the reef. Global FinPrint is already able to distinguish between shark hotspots, many located in marine protected areas, and areas without sharks that have been overfished and not allowed to recover. Through education, informed conversation with policymakers, and continued activism to protect and better understand sharks from both a scientific and perception standpoint, there may be a time where improved reef health will result in bringing back critical shark and ray populations.
All pictures courtesy of Global FinPrint