Friday, April 17, 2015

Shark RAT? Guest Post by Ian Campbell!

Shark research, management & conservation intelligentsia meeting in Townsville, see below!

Are you intrigued? :)

Here goes.
Ian Campbell is currently working for WWF’s Global Shark and Ray Initiative running the sustainable management component. He is also a Shark diver and a member of the SRMR management team.
From NGOs to the public and private sector, Ian has over 20 years’ experience in fisheries policy, ecology and fishery management working extensively within both the UK and internationally. Previous employment has included overseeing the reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy for the Pew Charitable Trusts, fisheries observer on blue-fin tuna vessels, inshore fisheries management and as a commercial diver in the offshore sector.
Ian holds a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Marine Biology from Heriot-Watt University and a Master degree in Environmental Science from the University of Strathclyde.

This is an important initiative.
Having just returned from a meeting with major stakeholders, see at top, I've asked him whether he wouldn't mind submitting a guest post presenting it to the wider public.
Here is Ian's post.

Shark divers – An underused resource?

Everyone who is even remotely interested in sharks (and rays, don’t forget these charismatic shark pancakes of wonder) is abundantly aware of the pressures they are facing.
Fishing pressure, habitat loss, unsustainable consumption, or even fanciful claims of being “evolved for extinction” everywhere you look they are under the cosh. The pressure that sharks are under have probably best been summed up by the 2014 paper (and here - notice the part about research and data collection?) led by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group which concludes that almost a quarter of all sharks and rays (over 1,000 species assessed) are faced with the very real threat of extinction. Remember, this is not the claims of an environmental NGO, but an independent assessment of the current state of shark and ray populations by 128 experts from 35 different countries. Here’s a simple chart highlighting the different levels of threat.

As you can see, despite what you may hear from some campaigns, not all sharks are threatened, and some are in worse shape than others, but, for WWF, one of the biggest areas of concern is the shaded grey area on the left side of that chart. From all the 1,042 species assessed, 487 are “data deficient”.

Basically, virtually nothing is known about almost half of all sharks and rays.
Effective management and designing plans to reduce mortality is virtually impossible when faced with this lack of basic understanding. Imagine trying to balance your budget without knowing how much money you have in your account to start with, or the amount of interest you are receiving or paying out.

There are a number of conservation initiatives out there which lay claims to conserving sharks, from finning bans to fin trade bans (there’s a difference), from sanctuaries to species protections and from policies to plans. Some of these are more useful than others, but if any of them are to be truly effectual then one thing is key to them all: DATA!

Without a basic understanding of shark and ray populations both around the coast and in offshore waters, then making decisions for the long-term survival of these species is little more than a best guess. Yet there are a multitude of areas rich in information, but not necessarily being channeled in the right direction.

Divers, fishermen, market traders, even shark and ray researchers produce data every day, yet it is surprising how little of it actually makes its way to ministerial departments or independent bodies to assist with informed decisions for conservation. WWF are seeking to bridge this gap. We are developing a project in collaboration with some of the world’s leading shark researchers to create standard methodologies to maximize the benefits from untapped resources.

In 1999, the Food and Agriculture Organisation produced guidelines for countries to undertake a step-by-step process to developing long-term, sustainable shark management plans (known as National Plans of Action, NPOA).
This process seems relatively simple. Firstly, collect data on sharks and rays in the form of a Shark Assessment Report. Then use this data to develop your NPOA. While this does sound simple, and has been done in places like Australia, the EU and NZ (to varying degrees of vigour), the Pacific Islands have had to get by using the limited resources at their disposal. There are some NPOAs currently in existence in the region, such as the Cook Islands and Samoa. Other countries have draft versions waiting government endorsement, such Fiji and Tonga, while some countries such as Palau want to declare shark sanctuaries. These efforts for conservation & long-term planning are great, although all of these measures have one oversight in common. They are built on a lack of data. None of the countries have produced Shark Assessment Reports, so cannot fully know the issues within their territorial waters. This is not the fault of the Pacific Islands, gathering data can be time consuming for departments with limited resources, and the analysis requires specific technical expertise. Organizations such as the FFA and SPC are providing a great service, although their remit extends way beyond just looking at sharks.

So here is where WWF are stepping in.
As mentioned, we are collaborating with shark expertise far and wide to develop our shark ‘Rapid Assessment Tool-kit’ (or shark RAT). The main function of this is to design ways to collect and analyze data on coastal and pelagic sharks that can then be used to produce a Shark Assessment Report. The very basic baseline data in this report can in turn used by governments to develop conservation strategies that are then based on some sort of understanding.

Where is this data going to come from?
Well, there are a lot of sources we will be exploring from genetic and socioeconomic surveys at landing sites to extensive underwater video surveys, but one untapped goldmine is the information collected by divers. In Fiji, there is the Great Fiji Shark Count which is starting to produce comparable info. At present, this isn’t incorporated into management plans, so it’s high time it is.

There are also other things dedicated shark divers can be doing.
Ever been on a surface interval that seems to go on for ages? Sat at the bar for the post-dive drinks to talk about what you saw? How about these hours are spent helping screen underwater video footage that shows what happens at your dive site when no-one is in the water? Pretty much every diver would be able to recognise whether a shark or ray was in shot, and a huge number would even be able to say what species it was. Collecting and screening this type of data would take a massive burden off an already overstretched ministry or fisheries/shark specialist.

Obviously, we are well aware of the multitude of challenges that lay ahead for the project to be fully successful, and some methodologies that may look good on the page may fail spectacularly when introduced to the real world. But we have to try. Improved management for sharks and rays is the only thing that is going to directly reduce mortality. Not shark fin soup campaigns, or putting all your eggs into “ending finning” and certainly not cavorting in swimwear near sharks.

Last week WWF held a 3 day workshop where 12 of the best minds in their respective fields (I’m not including myself, I just took notes and provided the tea and coffee) provided input and direction.
As well as academic researchers from the fields of genetics, citizen science and eco-tourism, we had input from FFA, SPC and SPREP. Everyone we have spoken to has been enthusiastic and willing to support us. The people in attendance will now provide advice and recommendations to the project. Professor Colin Simpfendorfer, the co-chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group also gave us a name, although how serious he was is up for debate. WWF now convenes the Pacific Rapid Assessment Tool-kit Scientific Advisory Committee, or PRAT-SAC. Maybe the first thing we need to work on is the name?

The project is embryonic and there is a lot of hard work ahead, but with a little direction, continued enthusiasm and, more importantly, collaboration, then slowly we’ll restore the balance for sharks and rays

Here's to that - thanks buddy, appreciate!


Angelo said...

Great blog, Ian. The data deficient talking point is misleading, however. The Dulvy 2014 paper showed that nearly all of the species in trade are threatened or near threatened with extinction. The data deficient species are mostly deep sea, demersal cat shark and dog fish species that don't interact with fishing gear often. The species that do interact with fishing gear are the ones that are in trouble, nearly across the board.

DaShark said...

Yes of course Angelo - globally.

Locally/regionally things may be quite different - but when it comes to the developing Pacific island countries and especially, coastal Sharks, we simply don't know.

We also don't know how well those sanctuaries are working in reducing Shark mortality, which as you know is fueling the criticism by the detractors.
I believe they do work but in view of the issue of incidental mortality, we once again require data in order be able to enact additional mitigation measures when/if necessary.

Bucky Taotaotasi said...

Well, we know that fisheries management for sharks hasn't worked. And collecting data isn't a policy recommendation.

DaShark said...


Management has worked where countries have been able and willing to invest sufficient resources, like in the USA - and no, at present that kind of expenditure is not a realistic option for developing Pacific island countries.

Possible policy recommendations for Fiji here.

Ian Campbell said...

This is interesting feedback, and of course the original blog piece is meant only to illustrate one small piece of the Tool-kit that would be of interest to the shark diving fraternity.

The objective of this particular project is to provide governments with baseline data upon which to make policy decisions, and also to assess how effective current policies are. WWF's mandate is not to enforce a set policy decision for shark conservation as it is widely agreed that there's no silver bullet. This is especially true in the Pacific due to the extremely diverse nature of the countries. There is an overwhelming call for more well thought out conservation policies since the recent FSM decision, which not only seems to contravene existing regional shark measures, but may actually increase mortality by creating a new market for sharks.

We have consulted widely with some of the world's leading shark researchers and also with policy makers throughout the region to ensure that we make effective advances in conservation. Indeed, the co-chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group is part of the advisory group, as are the heads of the regional CROP agencies.

Having experience working as an observer on tuna vessels, I have witnessed first hand the different species that are caught, with some discarded and others retained. The processing and reporting of the retained catch leads to an increased lack of data. Many data deficient rays, often in greater numbers than sharks are also caught (rays are often overlooked by NGOs in shark conservation).

This initiative is not going to solve the data deficiency issue for shark and ray species, but what it will do is help alleviate the information black hole that exists Pacific islands, and will complement some excellent initiatives from SPC, SPREP, WCPFC and FFA.

As an NGO based in the region, we are looking forward to working with local partners going forward.