World’s largest shark survey just got bigger

Researchers attempting the world’s largest survey of shark populations just reached their goal of 216 reefs — a year and a half ahead of schedule. And they have no plans of stopping.

Launched during Shark Week in 2015, Global FinPrint is a three-year project led by FIU marine biologist Demian Chapman to search for the last remaining strongholds of sharks and rays throughout the world. Nearly a quarter of shark and ray species are currently threatened with extinction, yet the lack of comprehensive, up-to-date data on species abundance and distribution is hindering efforts to protect and replenish them.

“The 216 number came out of conversations based on how many reefs we would need to survey to collect enough information to answer key questions. We are locating reefs that have the highest abundances of sharks and rays, reefs that still harbor particularly threatened species, and reefs that have greater abundances of sharks and rays than we would predict based on the level of fishing experienced,” said Chapman, who is an associate professor in the College of Arts, Sciences & Education. “The analyses we conduct will provide new insights into what socioeconomic, management, and environmental features create the conditions that are conducive to healthy reef shark and ray populations, thus highlighting how we can restore these conditions on a global scale.”

Global FinPrint seeks to fill data gaps by using baited remote underwater video (BRUV) surveillance. Recently, the team pulled the last BRUV out of the water along Glover’s Reef in Belize, marking completion of the 216th reef surveyed. Glover’s Reef is where Chapman first deployed BRUVs and where the idea for the global project was born.

The team is continuing their work with hopes to double their original goal and survey more than 400 reefs by the end of the three-year project. Global FinPrint, which received core funding from philanthropist Paul G. Allen and is one of several initiatives within the Microsoft co-founder’s portfolio of ocean health programs, is gathering momentum to meet this ambitious new target with research teams and partner organizations deployed across the globe. Just days after wrapping up Glover’s Reef, teams finished surveys along the island of Moorea in French Polynesia and several reefs along the coast of Qatar.

“This is the first world-wide census of reef sharks and it’s an amazing testament to the professionalism and passion of the scientists involved to complete 216 reefs more than a year early,” said James Deutsch, director of Wildlife Conservation for Paul Allen. “Counting sharks in additional ecosystems will give us even greater information on which to build conservation efforts, which is exactly on target with Paul Allen’s approach.”

To date, the project has sampled populated coastlines along the United States, remote reaches of Northern Australia and a variety of reefs, both large and small, throughout the world. More than 11,000 hours of video footage has been collected. More than 50 partner organizations have joined Global FinPrint, assisting with BRUV deployments and data collection.

For each reef, the teams deploy an average of 50 BRUVS, which collect 60-80 minutes of footage each. The new data will be consolidated with thousands of hours of existing video data to form a single dataset for analysis, producing the first global standardized survey of sharks and rays in coral reef environments.

“From our initial impressions, we are seeing that very remote reefs and large protected areas often have lots of sharks,” Chapman said. “What is surprising, though, is that we’re finding a high number of sharks in some populated areas where there is also a large amount shark fishing. We need to drill down and figure out what is happening in these areas that enables people, sharks and shark fisheries to coexist.”

The data will be open-access and made available through a database platform created by Allen’s Vulcan Inc. It will include information on species density, habitats and diversity trends.

Along with Chapman, the project is led by Mike Heithaus, marine scientist and dean of FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education; Colin Simpfendorfer from James Cook University in Australia; Euan Harvey from Curtin University in Australia; and Michelle Heupel, Aaron MacNeil, and Mark Meekan from the Australian Institute of Marine Science. They are working with individuals, conservation organizations, and other partners all across the world. For more information on the initiative, visit the Global FinPrint website at globalfinprint.org or follow it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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