Sharks and rays are one of the oldest groups of vertebrates, as well as one of the most endangered.
Researchers still know very little about many species of sharks and rays and the environments in which they live, especially rare species and those that live in remote areas, where the resources and capacity to conduct studies and follow-ups are rare.
To fill these knowledge gaps, Francesco Ferretti, Assistant Professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at the College of Natural Resources and Environment, interviewed an international team of scientists and practitioners to take the pulse of biggest problems that are present in sharks. research, marine conservation and fisheries science.
“In science, it’s very important to know things. But it’s even more important to understand what you don’t know. If you’re able to do that, you can focus your efforts more effectively in that direction,” said Ferretti. , which is affiliated with the Center for Coastal Studies and the Global Change Center, both housed at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “In our review, we found that the main opportunities for addressing these threats and conserving these critically important animals come from advances in technology, international coordination of research and action, and multi-stakeholder collaboration. “
Their review was published in Endangered species research.
Ferretti and his colleagues have selected 20 of the most pressing topics in research and conservation of shark and ray populations. Issues ranged from their ecology to the threats they face and the management and conservation measures that need to be taken.
A total of 47 experts from 35 institutions and 13 countries came together to offer their current understandings, knowledge gaps and what they believe is the way forward.
“Sharks and rays are an amazing group of animals that inhabit every ocean and coastal ecosystem on our planet,” said Fiorenza Micheli, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and co-author of the study. “This extraordinary diversity and key ecological functions and services are threatened by many pressures – overexploitation, pollution, habitat loss and climate change.”
The importance of sharks and rays in coastal marine ecosystems cannot be overstated. These animals are top predators in the food web and are able to influence the abundance of prey populations, shape the structure and function of marine communities and food webs, and link distant ecosystems together.
Unfortunately, these animals are particularly vulnerable to exploitation for two reasons: their survival patterns – such as late maturation and low offspring numbers – and widespread exposure to human-induced pressures.
“We have learned a great deal about some of the largest and most charismatic shark species, and in many parts of the world we have effective ongoing monitoring programs in place,” said Salvador Jorgensen, marine ecologist and researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz. and a senior study author. “As we build on these successes, it is imperative that we also focus on lesser-known but equally important species of sharks and rays, transferring lessons learned to remote habitats and rare species that have escaped extinction. scientific study but not to increasing human pressures. impact.”
To help solve this data scarcity problem, Ferretti’s lab is tapping into our fascination with sharks and our social media craze.
Ferretti’s lab is using an intriguing new technology called sharkPulse to help solve the scarcity of shark data. It is a crowdsourcing platform backed by seed funding from the Global Change Center capable of turning any images or media found on social media of shark occurrences into data that can be used for any purpose. analysis.
The lab leverages social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr. Additionally, sharkPulse allows citizen scientists to share their own images from their mobile phones and validate data feeds from social media platforms.
With permission from citizen scientists and access to their geolocation information and timestamps, researchers will be able to perform habitat modeling analysis, perform trend and distribution analyses, and plan more targeted field surveys. .
Last year, Feretti used distribution models based on sharkPulse and other historical sighting record data during an expedition in the Channel of Sicily to study the region’s incredibly rare population of great white sharks. . Great white shark populations have plummeted due to overfishing in the Mediterranean, raising the question of how many animals are left. They plan to return to the Mediterranean in the spring of next year to tag and track more elusive animals.
But better understanding shark behavior and habitats is about more than filling information gaps; it can also help us protect sharks and ourselves from unintentional attacks.
“By understanding more sharks, we can also mitigate the risk of interaction with these sharks because we know the seasons when they are active and the seasons when they are absent,” Ferretti said. “You don’t go to the northern part of California and surf in November because that’s a hotspot for white sharks. If you want to reduce your risk, go down to southern California, where there are younger sharks and smaller sharks with the risk of them interacting in detrimental ways”.
The review will be especially beneficial for aspiring scientists and researchers who want to keep up to date with the latest technologies and improve their studies of sharks.
“Reviews like this are an incredible way to synthesize the results of various studies and identify patterns, which can be particularly useful in understanding the biology and ecology of some less-studied shark and ray species” , said Brendan Shea, a Ph.D. student at the Ferretti laboratory. “Ultimately, we hope this review will serve as a roadmap for future work by identifying critical knowledge gaps in shark and ray science as well as some of the most promising approaches and technologies that researchers can use. to pursue them.”