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Conservation In Shark Sanctuaries

Researchers use global fisheries data to gauge conservation efforts in shark sanctuaries.

Virginia Tech researchers in the College of Natural Resources and Environment are assessing the efficacy of shark sanctuaries by developing a modeling system that utilizes publicly accessible fishing data to determine shark catch and mortality rates. Published in the journal Science Advances, their findings represent an important step in utilizing data science to tackle oceanic conservation challenges.

“Shark sanctuaries are coastal areas designated by countries as places where the targeted fishing of sharks is prohibited,” said Brendan Shea, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and the paper’s lead author. “My initial ambition was to use publicly available data to look at these sanctuaries from a high-level perspective, understanding how much fishing is occurring in these areas and what the potential risks are to sharks.”

That goal led Shea to collaborate with Assistant Professor Francesco Ferretti, who encouraged Shea to take the research further. Ferretti suggested that shark sanctuary data could be utilized to develop a model that could provide numbers on how many sharks were being caught from fishing in protected waters, and how many will die from the experience.

“Unlike some other marine protected areas that ban commercial fishing entirely, shark sanctuaries still allow fishing to occur, and anytime you have fishing, you’re going to catch sharks,” said Shea. “The stress of being caught and released means that you’re going to have some unintended mortalities of sharks in these sanctuaries, even if all sharks are released.”

Using fisheries data to better model conservation challenges

To estimate catch and mortality rates for oceanic shark species, the research team utilized positioning data of fishing vessels from Global Fishing Watch, an open-access website that provides a global view of commercial fishing activities around the world to advance ocean governance. The group also collected publicly available data from regional fisheries management organizations to create a model that would estimate the impacts of longline fishing on seven species of open-ocean sharks.

The team’s models estimate that 286,820 large sharks were caught within the eight sanctuary areas the group focused on in 2019, with 109,729 of those sharks dying as a result of the stress of capture. The researchers learned that blue and silky sharks represented more than 70 percent of the sharks caught, with thresher and oceanic whitetip sharks also experiencing sizable capture and mortality numbers.

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