Thursday, June 17, 2010
Saturday, May 22, 2010
Research Needs to Assess Oil-Related Impacts on Whale Sharks in the Northern Gulf of Mexico
The Gulf of Mexico (GOM) provides essential habitat for many shark and ray species, including the whale shark, Rhincodon typus (Hoffmayer et al., 2006). The oil spill resulting from the explosion of the BP/Deepwater Horizon platform on April 20, 2010 in the northern GOM is currently located in whale shark essential habitat (Hoffmayer et al, 2005) and is posing a critical threat to this species in the region. From 2002 to 2009, over 300 GOM whale shark sightings were reported to the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory's (GCRL) Whale Shark Sightings Survey, and over a third of the sightings were within the ever expanding oil coverage area (Figure 1). Given the amount of time whale sharks spend at/near the surface of the water (Figure 2), there is considerable potential for harm or death to these individuals resulting from direct exposure to and contamination from the spill (via oiling or clogging of their gills), as well as from depletion of prey, or consumption of oil-contaminated prey (Figure 3). In addition, the dispersants currently being used to ‘break up’ the oil will significantly increase the potential for exposure of sharks throughout the water column. What is unknown is if whale sharks are able to detect the oil and dispersants in the water and will avoid the areas affected or if they will directly encounter the oil without warning.
Figure 1. Map depicting historic (2002-2009) whale shark sighting locations shown within the estimated boundaries of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill coverage as of 18 May 2010.
Figure 2. Whale sharks surface filter feeding in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Photo credit: GCRL, June 26, 2006.
Figure 3. Oil at the surface near the accident site.
Photo credit: Vernon Asper, May 7, 2010.
Unfortunately, this problem is going to be far-reaching and has the ability to impact whale shark populations outside of the northern Gulf of Mexico. Over the last few years, GCRL researchers and their colleagues have documented direct evidence of connectivity between whale shark populations in the northern Gulf of Mexico with those in the southern Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
This connectivity has been documented through the use of photo-identification (Ecocean:http://www.whaleshark.org) and passive-acoustic tracking (Marine Meganet:http://www.facebook.com/MarineMeganet). Additionally, recent genetic studies have shown that whale sharks may comprise a single global population, meaning any mortalites in the northern Gulf of Mexico may impact sub- populations in other parts of the world.
Due to the slow growth rate, late age of maturation, and low fecundity (number of offspring) of whale sharks, they are currently listed as a “vulnerable” species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and are protected internationally by its inclusion in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). If our northern Gulf of Mexico whale shark population declines as a result of this oil spill, the recovery time would be extremely slow.
What Needs to be Done?
Researchers at GCRL are currently seeking funds to monitor oil impacts on whale sharks and other large pelagic animals in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Two immediate needs have been identified in order to gain a better understanding of how these sharks are being impacted by the oil spill.
Aerial surveys Plane surveys looking for whale shark presence in the northern Gulf region, particularly focusing on the area affected by the oil spill, need to be conducted to note whether these animals are traversing in or near these waters.
Satellite telemetry Tagging whale sharks with satellite tags will allow for the assessment and monitoring of fine-scale movements of whale sharks in and around contaminated waters. By deploying satellite/GPS tags and pop up satellite archival tags (PSAT) on whale sharks outside of the oil-affected area, GCRL researchers will be able to determine if these sharks will actively avoid the affected areas, or monitor their survival if they are exposed to the oil.
How Can You Help?
Although, the financial responsibility for oil spill monitoring, clean-up and damages, lies in the hands of BP Corporation, it may take years before financial support is available for research funding or reimbursement. It is paramount that monitoring projects be implemented immediately. To help support immediate monitoring and research of whale sharks and other large pelagic species in the northern Gulf of Mexico, please click on the link below:
*Please be sure to designate your donation toward
Whale Shark Research.
You can also help support this research by spreading the word about the GCRL’s Whale Shark Sighting Survey. Participation and awareness of the survey will increase the likelihood of reported sightings and aid with documentation of whale shark distribution in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
1. Positive Media Coverage for Sharks:
2. Public concern and support:
3. Educational opportunity:
4. Productive discussion about improving catch and release fishing gear and practices:
c.uva commented: "Recreational fishing for sharks does affect the population whether it be landbased or boat based, there are ways to improve the catch and release survivabillity of sharks. I ASK SEVERAL SCIENTESTS TO COME FOWARD TO WORK ALONGSIDE REACREATIONAL SHARK FISHERMAN .... TO DECREASE MORTALITY RATES OF RELEASED SHARKS."
1. Circle Hooks need to be a requirement. Florida will consider a proposal to require circle hooks this year, which is a great step, but circle hooks should be required everywhere. J Hooks, which were used in both of Wednesday's incidents, often result in "gut-hooking" when the shark swallows the bait and the hook catches and tears internal organs. With circle hooks, the shark is hooked in the corner of the mouth, making the hook easier to remove and preventing the often fatal injuries caused by gut hooking or hooking the gills.
2. Regulations to protect pregnant female sharks during pupping season should be explored. Florida's coasts serve as vital breeding and pupping grounds - or Essential Fish Habitats - for several sharks species. During the Spring and early Summer, pregnant females come to these inshore areas to give birth to their pups. I honestly don't know what the appropriate regulation would be to protect these females during the pupping season. Two of the charter boat fishing captains who commented on the RJ Dunlap blog suggested either restricting land based fishing for sharks during this time of year or at least not holding land based shark tournaments during this time. Obviously more discussion is needed to come up with a rule that will adequately protect the pregnant females with the least negative impact on fishermen.
3. Hammerheads need more protection. The US and Palau recently proposed protection for hammerhead sharks under CITES, yet no hammerhead species is protected in US waters. Three types of hammerheads are classified as Threatened by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group -- Great Hammerheads -- Endangered - Very High Risk of Extintion; Scalloped Hammerheads -- Endangered -- Very High Risk of Extinction and Smooth Hammerhead - Vulnerable -- High Risk of Extinction. In addition, hammerheads are considered by scientists and fishermen to be among the most fragile species, which suffer extremely high post release mortality, both from commercial and recreational fishing. See this quote from Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, Director of the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at University of Miami. In the course of his research Dr. Hammerschlag has had the opportunity to observe and participate in the catch and release of thousands of sharks of many different species.
5. More study is needed on Catch and Release stress and mortality. According to NOAA Fisheries reports, approximately 550,000 sharks were harvested and another 14 million sharks were caught and released alive by recreational anglers in the US in 2007. And NMFS estimates that at least 20% of released fish end up dying. This works out to 14 million @ 20% = 2.8 million sharks + 550,000 = over 3.3 million sharks. Commercial shark landings in 2007 in the US totaled 15 million pounds. Using an estimated average weight of 10 lbs per shark, this works out to an estimated 1.5 million sharks. If the 20% mortality figure is correct, then the recreational fishing impact on sharks may be more than double that of commercial shark fisheries in the US. And the bulk of that number comes from well-meaning people who don't even intend to kill the animals!