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The worldwide shark survey led by FIU begins to pay off

The worldwide shark survey led by FIU begins to pay off

University researchers have spearheaded Global FinPrint to identify hot spots and trouble spots for the oceans' top predators

September 8, 2020 at 3:00pm

Patricia Heithaus spends her days in front of a computer screen watching videos of coral reefs. The grandmother of four is looking for sharks. She stays caffeinated by sipping on cups of tea brought to her by her husband, Ray. She admits it’s not the most typical thing for someone to do in their retirement: She watches, she waits and when she sees something, she identifies the species, counts their numbers and she documents it all using special software designed to keep track of the predators.

She’s careful not to double-count, looking for little details most would miss: a difference in color, a scar, any little clue that confirms she hasn’t counted that individual before. It’s tedious. In some videos, she sees so many sharks or rays that she has to hit pause to capture accurate data. In other videos, she’ll watch for hours without a single sighting. She’s logged 2,000 hours-worth of data, more than any other volunteer on the project.

FIU marine scientists Demian Chapman leads the project, dubbed Global FinPrint, along with Mike Heithaus, dean of the FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education, and other senior collaborators from Australia and Canada. Patricia is Mike’s mom. When her marine scientist son told her five years ago they would be embarking on the largest ever attempt to survey the world’s reef sharks and rays, she was quick to volunteer.  Others did too, 731 to be exact, from all across the world, including many faculty, post-doctoral researchers and students in FIU’s Institute of Environment. They would follow the direction of 121 scientists representing 89 universities, aquariums, nonprofits and other entities — among them 18 faculty, staff and students from FIU — spearheading the project. 

Working with governments, NGOs, nonprofits, corporations, other universities and individuals, the global network of scientists deployed baited remote underwater video stations (BRUVS) on 371 reefs across the world. They collected more than 15,000 hours of footage. The noninvasive system captures sharks and rays on camera in their natural environment, providing critical insight into where they are present, in what numbers and the conditions they are living in. Once a BRUV is retrieved, the footage is sent to volunteers, including Patricia, to start watching and documenting what they see.

The volunteers log their data in a software program developed for the project by Vulcan Inc., a company founded by the late Paul G. Allen and his sister Jody Allen to develop solutions for some of the world’s greatest challenges. The co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen was an avid diver and the inspiration for Global FinPrint when he asked the simple question, “What can be done?” 

Discussions led to the creation of a collaborative network of philanthropists, scientists, government agencies, nonprofits and citizens that became Global FinPrint, to which Allen committed millions of dollars in core funding. Others joined the effort, among them The Batchelor Foundation, which supported shark surveying in Madagascar and the Pacific Ocean through a gift to FIU’s Tropical Conservation Institute, and the Moore Bahamas Foundation, which supported surveying around the island nation. These catalytic gifts inspired still others.

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Allen passed away in 2018, but not before he got to see early impacts of the work. Before any writing had even begun on the first research paper, governments started using Global FinPrint data to launch new conservation strategies.

The Dominican Republic instituted a national ban on shark and ray fishing in 2017. The country’s environment minister said officials will study Global FinPrint data and establish improved protocols for fisheries. Just a few months later, Belize created a nationwide ray sanctuary following a report by FIU Ph.D. student Kathryn Flowers for the Belize Fisheries Department. Early Global FinPrint data there showed an abundance of rays along the coast, which is good news for a country that relies on them for tourism. But the reality that populations are in serious decline in other parts of the world led Belizean officials to enact protective policies for the more than 20 species of rays that populate their waters.

A life ring for endangered species

A lot is riding on Global FinPrint. Scientists for years have known that sharks and rays are in trouble in many parts of the world, but no one really understood the severity or where the greatest problems existed.

Sharks can be very difficult to study. They’re always moving. Their habitats are not readily accessible. When they are fished, it can be difficult to identify from which species the meat or fins came, but it’s been proven endangered species are ending up in the markets. Little evidence existed of what was happening in the oceans. Global FinPrint is changing that. This summer, the global network of scientists published their first set of findings from the three-year survey.

And the news is not good. The scientists discovered sharks are functionally extinct along 20 percent of the 371 reefs they studied, meaning there are so few that they no longer fulfill their role in those ecosystems. Near reefs along the Dominican Republic, French West Indies, Kenya, Vietnam, the Windward Dutch Antilles and Qatar, sharks appeared all but gone with a combined total of three sharks were observed during more than 800 hours of video footage.

"While Global FinPrint results exposed a tragic loss of sharks from many of the world's reefs, it also shows us signs of hope," said Jody Allen, co-founder and chairwoman of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. "The data collected from the first-ever worldwide survey of sharks on coral reefs can guide meaningful, long-term conservation plans for protecting the reef sharks that remain."

The study identified areas where conservation strategies are working including Australia, the Bahamas, the Federated States of Micronesia, French Polynesia, the Maldives and the United States. These areas provide a clear picture of what needs to be done for recovery elsewhere.

“We found that robust shark populations can exist alongside people when those people have the will, the means and a plan to take conservation action,”

said Chapman, an associate professor in FIU’s Department of Biological Sciences and a researcher in the Institute of Environment. 

The research also identifies the primary culprits of reef shark population declines — among them overfishing and poor fishing practices and long-term implications for protecting and rebuilding reef shark populations all across the world. The researchers suggest a variety of options to help governments, fisheries and others reverse the population declines including restricting certain fishing gear such as gillnets, setting catch limits and, in places experiencing catastrophic declines, instituting nationwide bans on shark and ray fishing as well as trade.

Global FinPrint research is being conducted by hundreds of scientists, researchers and conservationists, among them citizen sicentists, organized by lead collaborators from Florida International University, Dalhousie University in Canada, Curtin and James Cook universities in Australia and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

A ripple effect

“Now that the survey is complete, we are also investigating how the loss of sharks can destabilize reef ecosystems,” Mike Heithaus said. “At a time when corals are struggling to survive in a changing climate, losing reef sharks could have dire long-term consequences for entire reef systems.”

That is why volunteers, including Patricia, are still watching and logging data from the videos. A scientist in her own right, Patricia is an ecologist and worked as a biology instructor at Ohio’s Kenyon College before retiring in 2015. She has always enjoyed fieldwork. And while logging data from an HD video isn’t exactly field work, it’s a chance to experience a world. She’s quick to point out, she’s not really doing this to help her son, the shark biologist and dean of FIU’s largest college. The woman who first taught the shark expert how to swim as a little boy says she volunteered for Global FinPrint to help his students. Each video she logs provides a new bounty of data to help them complete their research.

Meanwhile, the team of scientists is charting next steps, which includes formulating conservation strategies for the trouble spots. It’s all about making sure each shark gets counted. The scientists are counting on each other to get the data needed for meaningful management and conservation. They are counting on governments to take action. Counting on volunteers to count. Counting on philanthropists for support. They are counting on a lot to reverse the catastrophic losses of shark populations. And the sharks, though they don’t know it, are counting on this team to save them from the brink. 

Writer Angela Nicoletti contributed to this article.