THE CITIZEN SHARK SCIENCE PROJECT!

 

Fin Fighters are building an innovative conservation community and pioneering progressive, exciting methods that tackle marine conservation issues in a rhizomatic way.

In early 2016 Fin Fighters established the foundations of a ground-breaking new Citizen Shark Science program (CSS)  a new initiative that we believe will radically enhance scientific studies and data collection on Elasmobranch species not just in the UK but also Worldwide.

We started with a question - 'Why is it so difficult to protect shark and ray species or to establish effective fishing management?' 

The answer largely comes down to addressing three problems areas: Science and policy, Fishing, and Conservation itself.

Problem 1 - SCIENCE AND POLICY.

Scientists and policy makers are frustrated with the basic lack of evidence needed to provide accurate assessment and policy, meaning that important scientific and policy work is held back, this is due to:

1. Lack of baseline genetic data and/or a lack or regional population data, 2. Lack of catch and landings data, 3. Lack of funding directed towards basic data collection  4. Lack of up-to date policy and management - Assessment of species becomes very difficult without the data and science to give populations an accurate prognosis.

There is however no lack of will to carry out these studies – many scientists and policy makers wishing to study specific shark populations have been dissuaded or advised against this due to the lack of/or means to collect data. This means that very necessary studies on potentially vulnerable species are not being conducted, and shark populations and fishing impacts in many regions continue to be unknown. This in turn makes fishery management extremely difficult and overfishing of vulnerable species highly likely.

Problem 2. FISHING.

1. Many fishing communities do not fully comprehend fishing restrictions and species identification is hugely lacking; leading to protected species being targeted commercially without full understanding of illegalities. 2. There is a often huge disparity between species that are caught and the species that are recorded landed – particularly with artisanal fishing. 3. Many fishing communities do not recognise restricted species or even have basic understanding of the roles sharks play in ecosystems; seeing them as a threat to their fish, therefore sharks are often targeted as a means of protecting their fish stocks.

Problem 3. CONSERVATION.

1. Conservationists and the general public; once aware of shark/ray conservation issues are frustrated with a lack of access to participate in practical shark conservation, wanting to make a difference but struggling to find ways to do so.

2. Many conservation organisations prefer to collect funds from the public and do the work themselves, however this can mean that there are delays due to the time it takes to reach funding targets. 3. Many organisations prefer to work on a single issue alone rather than co-operate and reach a wider study area.

What the CSS program does!

What Fin Fighters have concluded is that by putting these three problems together - we can also generate the solutions!

By training our volunteers to conduct genetic sampling and necropsies and to gather data by monitoring landings and surveying Fisherman, we are creating an opportunity for conservationists and concerned citizens to have a positive impact and learn new skills for the benefit of species conservation. We are also working cooperatively with scientists to make use of this data in their work and to establish new studies as well as trial and develop new technology that would otherwise struggle to get the funding for experimentation. 

By encouraging participation from the general public, we not only spread awareness of these issues and generate many highly skilled volunteers, but we can easily and quickly eliminate the lack of available data for scientific study while giving people the chance to actively participate in shark and ray conservation projects.

We have also begun working with our CSS volunteers and artisanal fishermen to establish the beginnings of a species education program and working with fishermen on basic training in DNA data collection from their landed catches. This also opens up dialogues between fishermen and conservationists and allows for understanding and solutions to be constructed.

All three activities are working together to benefit each other – scientists get the data they need, conservationists and volunteers get to participate in exciting science programs and fishing communities gain a better understanding of their existing fishing policies as well as providing data for science from their landings, which in turn benefits their long term fishing management and shark populations.

Image by Nina Constable

Image by Nina Constable

Currently this program is being trialled in the UK and around the Atlantic and North Africa, but also has the possibility of global application and collaborative international effect.    It has the potential to have an enormous impact in the conservation and management of elasmobranch species who's populations are in massive decline all around the world.       In establishing the CSS; Fin Fighters have already been able to gather vital information to help with new UK scientific studies that impact understanding of species population health, but not only this - we have also been able to generate brand new studies as well - such as the Fin Fighters Morocco genetic baseline project.

All of the information we gather with the CSS will be utilised by Fin Fighters and the scientists/institutions we work with to help effectively fill in data gaps in population numbers and highlight where protections/assessments need to be established and re-addressed.

The applications for the project are extremely exciting and have so much possibility for effective shark conservation, Fin Fighters are currently looking for project backers and collaborators in order to expand the project and increase our effectiveness.  If you are interested in working with the CSS either as a backer, volunteer, scientist or policy maker please get in touch – we would love to hear from you!

Image by Matt Brierley

Image by Matt Brierley

 
 

Investigating the impacts of fishing to elasmobranch populations in Morocco.

This part of the Atlantic has had very little assessment of shark/ray population numbers in recent years and it is believed to be one of the worst spots in the world for rapidly decreasing populations.

For the Eastern Atlantic/Morocco campaign we aim to focus our sampling and surveying in coastal regions of Morocco, the Iberian Peninsula, and the costal/oceanic areas where the North Eastern Atlantic meets The Eastern Central Atlantic and the Alboran Sea.

 These areas encompass the zones through which many sharks/rays are believed to migrate and breed, as such these have significant importance for the survival of this species.

As part of a 5 year study; a team lead and trained by scientists and Fin Fighters, have spent the last 3 years running month long investigations to collect genetic data and evidence of elasmobranch landings in Moroccan ports and fish markets. We are working to understand fishing impacts and provide vital scientific samples for studies monitoring genetic health as well as creating and trialing new technology and generating advisory management reports.

Morocco was chosen for this investigation because elasmobranch are heavily targeted here by Moroccan fleets, EU vessels and others. There is also very little scientific or landing data available for species from this region; so population numbers are not understood. Its proximity to the EU means that there is a cross over and some confusion with EU fisheries law; and as such it has become a hot spot for shark finning/IUU fishing. It also means that many migratory elasmobranch species that are currently listed as threatened or zero TAC in the EU can be targeted in the economic fishing zones that overlap this.

Many of the investigation participants are non-scientists, and by training participants to sample and record data, it has not only allowed them ownership and the opportunity to contribute in a practical way to conservation efforts, but it has also enabled the collection over a wide area; of a vast amount of viable data for important scientific studies. Ultimately it means that Fin Fighters are able to quickly and methodically provide a much needed data resource in data deficient areas. 

By Monitoring landings and surveying Fisherman, it is allowing us to gain a valuable insight to what is being landed and in what quantities, if species are effectively reported and if not why not, what methods are being used to catch elasmobranch species and if species are being heavily targeted for commercial purposes or simply by-catch. We are now working with fishermen to understand why sharks are targeted and if species are known/ laws around catches are understood. 

 

Fin Fighters also spend time Investigating and documenting illegal activity; and through our work in these areas it means we are able to collect evidence of any IUU that may be occurring or un-reported. By being on the ground in the fishing ports and markets we are able to witness first hand the movement/trade of any CITES listed species or evidence of illegal shark finning. This evidence will go toward improving management and where necessary prosecutions.

We are working co-operatively with scientists to take relevant samples and contribute to scientific reports and papers. Fin Fighters are developing relationships with various UK/EU scientists and institutions, and to gain an understanding of their data needs; especially in this region.  Which has lead to the beginnings of a UK scientific shark committee set up by myself and Fin Fighters; focused on Eastern Atlantic elasmobranch studies, this committee is currently working on seven different papers/projects using Fin Fighters samples and data collected in 2015/2016.

All of the data will be utilised - not only in specific scientific studies, but also by Fin Fighters and the scientists/institutions we work with in a general program; to help effectively fill in data gaps on population numbers and highlight where protections need to be established and re-addressed.

We are furthering this by creating an educational-elasmo fishing program for the fishermen and policy makers and hope to work with the Moroccan governing bodies to begin negotiating policy based on our findings.

Great White sharks are CITES appendix ii listed species and are not often seen in the waters around Morocco, but some scientists believe that they migrate to the Mediterranean to breed. We found this female GWS in a fish market - where most of the appendages that would identify this as a GWS were removed and hidden from view behind the orange bucket.

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Many shark scientists agree that the area off the coast of Morocco is a breeding ground for pelagic and deep-sea shark species. However this has yet to be officially proven. From the high number of landed baby sharks we witnessed, we believe that this is definitely  the case and are now collecting further photographic and genetic information to confirm this.

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We wish to get a better understanding of the targeted fisheries that exist within these zones, and the impacts of over-exploiting sharks in an area where they breed and migrate. This is likely devastating populations in a region where many sharks are already believed to be endangered and monitoring shark fisheries here will be an extremely high priority for their survival.

We recognise that conservation of little understood areas and critically endangered shark species is often difficult due to missing information and that in order to progress and protect sharks better - more data needs to be supplied for a clearer understanding of where conservation efforts need to be directed, which is exactly what our work in Morocco is achieving.