The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and James Cook University (JCU) are working with a team of US and other international researchers, to capture underwater videos of sharks and rays at 400 locations from little-surveyed coral reefs around the world. The survey, called the "Global FinPrint" is sponsored by Vulcan Inc., a Paul G. Allen company in the US.

“This three year study is important to conservation and science as pressures on shark and ray populations increase. One quarter of the sharks, rays, and skates in the world are now threatened with extinction. These underwater surveys will assess and gather underwater video data that is needed to understand how best to protect reef species,” said AIMS scientist, Dr. Michelle Heupel.

“Globally a quarter of shark and ray species are facing an elevated threat of extinction. This research will help better to understand the status of sharks and guide decisions about how to protect them better,” said JCU Professor, Colin Simpfendorfer.

4SharkGrey reef shark (Carcharhunus amblyrhynchos), Photo: AIMS

The scientists will be surveying the reefs of the Indo-Pacific, the tropical western Atlantic, and southern and eastern Africa and Indian Ocean islands. The new data will be consolidated with thousands of hours of existing Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV) data to form a single dataset for analysis.

The research is led by Dr. Demian Chapman of Stony Brook University in the US. The team includes Drs Michelle Heupel, Aaron MacNeil and Mark Meekan from AIMS, Dr. Colin Simpfendorfer (JCU and IUCN Shark Specialist Group Co-Chair) and Dr. Mike Heithaus (Florida International University).

The survey will also assist in understanding how marine ecosystems are affected in the absence of sharks.

"Although sharks are among the most widespread predators in the ocean, we understand remarkably little about their overall role in ocean ecosystems. By surveying a wide diversity of reef conditions, we hope to understand just how important they are to the health of coral reefs and, ultimately, to marine environments as a whole,” added AIMS scientist, Dr. Aaron MacNeil.

As sharks are declining in numbers, this is important as many countries rely on healthy coral reefs for food security, tourism and coastal protection.

“A key element of the project is that we will fund and enable networks of collaborators across the globe to participate in the work. Ultimately, this will be a project that involves a very wide cross-section of the community of researchers and stakeholders, including citizen scientists. Our project doesn’t just seek to document, we also seek to enable local researchers and to build capacity for better management outcomes” explained AIMS scientist, Dr. Mark Meekan.

Researchers, policy makers, international governments and others will be able use this database to help inform conservation priorities, such as identifying and protecting areas with large or important shark populations, and to better understand the ecological importance of sharks as apex predators.

For interviews: Dr. Mark Meekan, AIMS, m.meekan@aims.gov.au, +61 (0) 429101812 (Australia)

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