Shark Search Indo-Pacific: finding sharks and conservation solutions in the Big Ocean

Dr Andrew Chin is based at the Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture – James Cook University and is the current president of the Oceania Chondrichthyan Society. He is also the Programme Director of Shark Search Indo-Pacific, a project that I personally find incredibly interesting and have been following closely. Andrew stopped by Fish Thinkers to give us the inside scoop on Shark Search Indo-Pacific in the guest post below:

The Pacific Ocean is massive. Covering over 165 million km2, it’s the world’s largest (and deepest) body of water. Scattered across this immense expanse are the 22 (more or less) Pacific Island Countries and Territories which, apart from a few big islands, are tiny specks of land amidst the blue. Even in this modern jet era, getting to some of these islands means ‘puddle jumping’ from one island to the next, then boat trips which in extreme cases can take several days. When you think of the sheer size of the place, you can see how there are many places and species yet to be discovered. And that includes big, charismatic fishes like sharks and rays.

Discovery potential

This potential for discovery is perhaps best illustrated by the scientific ‘teasers’ the Pacific throws at us. For example, look at the Gogol River Shark (Gogolia filewoodi). A pregnant female was collected off the Gogol River in Papua New Guinea decades ago, and to this day that one single female and an embryo (pictured) form the entire global knowledge of that species. It’s also a case of “the more we look, the more we find”. Dr. William White at CSIRO has driven a lot of the more recent biodiversity discovery work and has ‘rediscovered’ sawfishes and river sharks in remote rivers of Papua New Guinea. Species complexes are being sorted out, like the mask rays Neotrygon spp. in which one species became four species. There are almost certainly places in the Pacific that are relatively pristine, unexplored, and could offer up new discoveries, including finding globally significant refuges for endangered species like river sharks and sawfishes.

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Paratype specimen of Gogolia filewoodi at the Kanudi Fish Collection at the University of Papua New Guinea. This one single specimen represents 50% of the global scientific knowledge of this species.

Starring roles and black holes

Sharks and rays are important to Pacific Peoples. For some communities they provide food. For others, they can provide valuable income that translates into rice, school fees, kerosene for lamps . . . things we take for granted. Yet other communities rely on sharks for tourism, such as the villages next to Fiji’s famous “Shark Reef Marine Reserve”. However, sharks and rays also have values beyond food or money. Some communities have deep cultural and spiritual connections with these animals that cannot be priced.

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Sharks and rays can bring in valuable income through eco-tourism, which when designed properly, can also deliver conservation outcomes.

Unfortunately, as in many other places around the world, there are worrying signs. The limited data we have suggests that the closer you get to population centres, the more impacted coastal shark populations become. In pelagic waters, species like the oceanic whitetip shark, blue sharks, and silky sharks seem to have been severely impacted. The area is huge, and so are the issues which include all the challenges conservation projects face in developing countries. And on top of all this, there is hardly any data on most Pacific sharks and rays, especially for coastal habitats and species. So how is Shark Search going to tackle this massive challenge? The same way you’d eat an elephant – one bite at a time . . .

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We really don’t have a good understanding of the social, cultural and economic importance of sharks and rays to coastal communities in the Indo-Pacific, other than they’re going to differ from place to place. However, we need to be properly understand these aspects to develop management plans and sustainability approaches that have a chance of working. SSIP will use an inter-disciplinary approach that considers all these aspects when developing projects with local partners (Photo by Josh Cinner).

Eating the elephant

Shark Search Indo-Pacific (SSIP) is building a Status Overview and Species Checklist for every country and territory in the Pacific, one country at a time. It’s a systematic process that begins by selecting a country and then bringing together a group of In-country Partners (ICPs) and the right postgraduate student who’s willing to spend a few months data mining. Citizen Scientists also get involved: the student combs through flicker for photos of sharks and rays from that location, and together with our dive industry partners, we put out calls to divers to send us photos of sharks and rays that help verify our checklists. Once the draft checklist is compiled, it gets sent out for taxonomic review which includes a trawl through global museum records to see what’s previously been collected from that country. Each species is classified according to the certainty of its occurrence in that country,  then each Species Checklist and the Status Overview go to the ICPs for review, and THEN the checklist and document are written up and go through a third round of peer review as a manuscript. The students run through a checklist of steps and data sources to assemble the information (quality assurance), and the separate layers of review make sure the data are accurate and reliable (quality control). Collectively, this provides a systematic, transparent and robust approach to each Species Checklist and Status Overview. Each paper is authored by the student, and all papers are published as Open Access to ensure that the data are freely available.

The paper is the START of the process

One of SSIPs unique traits is that it is an inter-disciplinary, long-term project where the hard work begins AFTER the first paper is published. Assembling and publishing the checklist and overview is just Stage I – describing the current situation and identifying major issues. The long-term vision is that the ICPs and SSIP team will form a community of practice that comes together in Phase II – Inception – to develop a 5 year plan for sharks and ray projects in that country. SSIP is developing a ‘bookshelf’ of potential projects that can be used as templates during this process. Lastly, Phase III is implementing the plan, where the group begins to actively seek out collaborations, funding and support to make projects happen. In this way, projects are strategically planned and coordinated. Importantly, these projects will be inter-disciplinary. The solutions to fishery problems and shark conservation issues in these locations are likely to depend on people and communities. As such, SSIP’s social scientists and Programme Partners will lead the team through processes such as Prosociality and Human Centred Design, specific approaches for solving complex community challenges.

 Checking off the Solomon Islands: what’s next?

SSIP has just published the programme’s first checklist and status overview – Solomon Islands. Draft checklists have been completed for French Polynesia and Fiji, and James Cook University students are currently building checklists for Tuvalu, Niue and the Federated States of Micronesia. 2018 will see checklists and overviews for Palau, Kiribati, and potentially Tonga, Singapore and/or New Caledonia. In late 2018-2019, SSIP will begin exploring opportunities to conduct Stage II planning and inception activities in some of these countries. The goal is to have all Pacific checklists and overviews completed by 2022, and to have progressed through one or two Stage II processes. Lasting and responsible conservation will probably need sustained effort over long periods. SSIP is attempting to do this in a systematic way. The challenge is huge and projects will need constant review and revision (“try early, fail early, learn and innovate” is a key principle in Human Centred Design), but everything has to start from somewhere. That’s why SSIP exists, and that’s why the programme is starting to systematically ‘chew’ through each country, one small bite at a time.

Find our more: www.sharksearch-indopacific.org

Contact us at: sharksearch.indopacific@gmail.org

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