shark sanctuary

In search of scalloped hammerheads

Mission Overview

Thanks to the Moore Charitable Foundation and Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, we headed to San Salvador in the Bahamas in search of endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks. Although a shark sanctuary, there are few data showing the existence of scalloped hammerheads in Bahamian waters. On 840 baited remote underwater video surveys (BRUVs) previously completed in the Bahamas by our team, no scalloped hammerheads were documented. Anecdotal accounts of scalloped hammerheads from local dive shops and fishers sparked our interest to investigate further.  From our core research team were Florida International University’s Dr. Demian Chapman and Gina Clementi, as well as Dalhousie University’s Taylor Gorham. Joining them were FIU researchers Dr. Yannis Papastamatiou, Dr. Bautisse Postaire, and Megan Kelley as well as photographer Andy Mann, free-diver Trevor Bacon, Captain Scott Genereux, first mate Joey Salomone, journalist Amaro Pablo-Gómez, and Pew Charitable Trusts conservationist Maximiliano Bello. Using BRUVs, dive surveys, and environmental DNA (eDNA) collection, the team had their sight set on confirming the presence of scalloped hammerheads in San Salvador.

Day 1

With energies still high, we decided to start the trip off with BRUVs. After completing eight deployments, we headed in for the night to enjoy dinner together and test out our new eDNA sampling equipment. But, as luck would have it, the boat we were using to set BRUVs had a mechanical issue, taking away dinner while it was practically right under our noses. That feeling must be what it’s like to be a shark not able to get the bait in our cages! After a couple of hours waiting safely at sea for assistance, we finally returned to our home boat, the Lady G. With full stomachs, we headed to the deck to collect eDNA samples. After spotting lemon sharks and one southern stingray swimming around the boat, we decided to call it a day – a very successful one!

Dr. Postaire (left) carefully drops the Niskin bottle over the side of the boat to collect water that was later filtered for eDNA. Back in the laboratory he will use genetics to try to look for sharks and rays. He will likely find the lemon shark that was swimming around the boat, pictured on the right.

Day 2

Today, it happened! Yannis and Megan spotted a scalloped hammerhead immediately after a dive and right before a BRUV retrieval. Although not filmed by the BRUV, Yannis was able to capture a video of it pooping, seen below. We completed nine BRUVs today and sampled for eDNA at three sites.

Day 3

Diving and BRUVs continued, with our second scalloped hammerhead sighting.

Diver Megan Kelley seen with a Nassau grouper. Photo credit: Andy Mann

Day 4

Taylor and Bautisse sampled another four sites for eDNA while the rest of the team went to explore a seamount. Sighted were silky sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks, three whales, and a tiger shark on a drifting pelagic BRUV.

A curious silky shark investigates the team. Photo credit: Andy Mann

Day 5

Edd Brooks from the Cape Eleuthera Institute joined the team. We were slowed down by strong wind and rain today, but we didn’t let that dampen our spirits. Three BRUVs were completed and a pod of dolphins swam around us for 30 minutes, playing with corals, eating gobies in the sand, and chasing barracuda.

Day 6

The talented Andy Mann filmed a few staged BRUVs today (check out some of the resulting footage on our homepage), while the science team completed three BRUVs and sampled five sites for eDNA. Edd took some of the team to the mangroves where they successfully caught a juvenile lemon shark for a tissue sample.

A Caribbean reef shark swims past our staged BRUV, allowing photographer Andy Mann to capture this stunning moment on camera.

Day 7

Our trip has come to end. Due to prevailing winds and because both our Niskin bottle and pump for filtering water broke, we decided to end the trip early. After 26 coral reef BRUVs completed, one pelagic BRUV set, two deep BRUVs set, 21 eDNA samples collected, and sightings of scalloped hammerheads, we can call this a successful mission!

And we’re off! Photo credit: Bautisse Postaire 

Shark sanctuaries need enforcement

Publication Specs

Title: Indicators of fishing mortality on reef-shark populations in the world’s first shark sanctuary: the need for surveillance and enforcement
Authors: Gabriel M.S. Vianna, Mark G. Meekan, Jonathan L.W. Ruppert, Tova H. Bornovski, Jessica J. Meeuwig
Journal: Coral Reefs
Year: 2016

When you think of a shark sanctuary what do you imagine? Perhaps a beautiful coral reef that is a blue haven for sharks? Hold that thought while we take a moment to examine reality through the eyes of science.

A recent study in Palau evaluated the world’s first shark sanctuary using underwater visual surveys. This shark sanctuary covers an area of 629,000km2 and was declared in 2009 to try to stop foreign long-line vessels from finning sharks. However, this study demonstrated that illegal, underreported, and unregulated shark fishing is still present within the sanctuary, particularly in remote offshore areas. In these areas, there was an abundance of lost fishing gear and there were fewer and smaller sharks than close to shore.

Sometimes marine protected areas, like shark sanctuaries, get a bad rap as “paper parks”, or protected areas that are essentially just written on paper because they lack the enforcement required to truly protect species living within them. Palau may have created an important management tool, but they are lacking the resources required to follow through on regulations. This study also sheds light on the fact that without baseline data on shark populations within the proposed protected zones, it becomes difficult to monitor their effectiveness over time. If we truly want a blue haven for sharks, the research demonstrates that enforcement within shark sanctuaries is an urgent need. The country’s government is currently expanding enforcement efforts within the shark sanctuary.