The Moore Charitable Foundation is supporting research at the forefront of shark conservation in the Bahamian Shark Sanctuary. Our team is conducting groundbreaking research on the movements and behavior patterns of some of the most endangered and threatened shark species, including the oceanic whitetip. Through our science and education efforts, we can promote conservation of these amazing creatures that are essential parts of ocean ecosystems, and help ensure the success of protected areas such as the Bahamian Shark Sanctuary.
Sharks sit atop the ocean’s food chain and play critical roles in sustaining healthy and balanced ocean environments. However, even these apex predators are vulnerable to human activities and are in peril throughout most of the world’s oceans. Sharks have been severely overfished, largely as a result of increasing demand for shark fin soup, a popular luxury dish in Asia that can fetch upwards of $100 per bowl. Whilst growing economic prosperity in China has led to increased demand for the dish once known as the ‘Emperor’s dish’, many species, including the oceanic whitetip (Carcharhinus longimanus), have become critically endangered.
Shark conservation efforts face many challenges. Sharks are slow to reach sexual maturity, and are therefore extremely vulnerable to continued overfishing. Furthermore, they produce relatively few offspring. Therefore, even with strict protections, sharks face long population recovery times. If sharks are killed before they can reach sexual maturity, population numbers can drastically decline, and ultimately collapse.
Areas designated as ‘Shark sanctuaries’, such as the Bahamas, provide sharks with protection from overfishing, and therefore allow shark populations an opportunity to recover. However, these sanctuaries will only be effective if sharks stay within sanctuary borders long enough to reproduce. The research team is mapping critical juvenile shark habitats and nursery sites around the Bahamas. Once compiled, this information will be shared with the Bahamian government, so that additional protections can be provided to juvenile shark populations. During the 6 week research expedition from May-June 2013, the team tagged nearly 100 sharks, and identified nursery sites and possible breeding grounds around five major islands (Cat, Nassau, Andros, Berry and Grand Bahama), for shark species such as the oceanic white tip, lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris), blacktip (Carcharhinus limbatus), bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas), silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis), and bonnethead (Sphyrna tiburo). Off Andros Island, the research team documented the presence of the critically endangered smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), confirming the species still inhabits that area.
One of the primary goals of the research expedition was to monitor the movements and behavior of the endangered oceanic whitetip shark. These sharks can migrate over long distances throughout their lifetime, often crossing international and political boundaries. Yet, as these international/ political boundaries don’t overlap with ecological boundaries, protection efforts in one country can be overshadowed by destructive fishing practices in another country. Therefore, understanding shark migration patterns across these boundaries is crucial to their overall protection. Although the oceanic whitetip is endangered, Cat Island remains one of the best places in the North Atlantic where these sharks can still be found. In order to study the shark’s movements, behavior, and breeding grounds, the team fitted 24 oceanic whitetips with special pop-off satellite archival tags (PSAT’s). The PSAT stays attached to the shark for several months, collecting data. After a pre-programmed amount of time (usually 8-12 months), the PSAT will pop off, and transmit the recorded data to a satellite. Using this data, the team can study the shark’s movement patterns within the Bahamian shark sanctuary, as well as outside its borders. This information will help determine how ongoing shark fishing in neighboring countries may affect their numbers in the Bahamas.
Since 2011, the team has fit over 100 oceanic whitetip sharks with these special tags, making this one of the largest PSAT study for a marine animal in history. The team’s previous published research revealed that some oceanic whitetips make migrations as long as 2,000 kilometers and can dive to depths of over 3,000 feet (double the height of the Empire State Building!).
This section of the Stony Brook-Moore Bahamas Foundation cruise was also supported by Microwave Telemetry, the Blue Ocean Institute and the Save Our Seas Foundation.
The research team has been working at the intersection of science and policy to provide support to the local Bahamian government and management agencies. In November 2013, members of the team met with local authorities and agencies to share research results and recommendations. They stressed a crucial finding – many shark species that are threatened/endangered around the world, are flourishing in the Bahamas. This simple fact demonstrates the effectiveness of the sanctuary and provides scientific support for the development of similar protected areas in other countries.
In addition to working with the government, during the 2013 research expedition, our team began an ongoing outreach campaign to local communities, media, educational institutions, and government agencies to educate and promote ocean stewardship, especially of the Shark Sanctuary. The team gave multiple radio and print interviews, as well as visiting a local high school to give a presentation on the Sanctuary and take students on a snorkeling trip.