Discovery of a Great Hammerhead Nursery

Happy Shark Week (if you celebrate), and I’m so excited to share our newly published open access paper about our research on juvenile great hammerheads (Sphyrna mokarran) with you! (It’s been hard to keep this one to ourselves).

Great hammerheads are an iconic shark species which have undergone significant population declines globally. In 2019, they were assessed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, which reported overfishing as the greatest threat to their survival. Great hammerheads are known to make incredible long-range migrations and cross state and international boundaries, making them challenging to protect as adults. Little is known about where they are born or where they spend their early years of their life, although there have been scattered reports of juveniles from the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys, and one report from Georgia.

Identifying habitats that are important to juvenile sharks matters because young sharks are often the most vulnerable individuals in a population, and their survival is vital to the future of their species. Many juvenile sharks spend time in “nursery areas”—places where they are less likely to be eaten by predators, or where food resources are abundant. They then expand their ranges as they age, covering more distance as they grow larger. Identifying nurseries has long been a conservation priority for managers and scientists. After several years of research, our team has collected the first scientific evidence of a nursery area for great hammerhead sharks on the Atlantic coast of the United States—within sight of the skyline of Miami, Florida.

There’s a three-part established test for an area to be identified as a shark nursery: 1) Juvenile sharks are more commonly encountered in that habitat than elsewhere; 2) they remain in the area for extended periods; and 3) The area is used repeatedly over years. Our results demonstrate that this area definitely meets two of these criteria, with preliminary evidence that it also meets the third. We’ve found the same habitat may be a nursery area for several other shark species too, including scalloped hammerheads, another Critically Endangered species!

Although great and scalloped hammerheads are protected in Florida waters and must be released if caught, hammerhead sharks often die or suffer serious harm from capture stress. Some of these juvenile individuals were caught with hooks from prior encounters with recreational anglers still embedded in their jaws. We hope learning more about this nursery can help us reduce threats to and better protect these small sharks. We can’t wait to share further updates as new results come in from the project’s telemetry expansion, supported by the Nature Trust of the Americas and a National Geographic Explorer Grant.

Our short scientific paper documenting this work is available open access through the journal Conservation Science and Practice, you can visit the project website here, or I hope you will watch the incredible video (also embedded at the top of the post).

To Achieve 30% Ocean Protection Governments Can Look Beyond Conventional Tools

Alternatives to marine protected areas could help meet global conservation target by 2030

There is growing agreement among government leaders, Indigenous groups, communities, and scientists that governments and other regulatory bodies must protect and conserve at least 30% of Earth’s coastal and marine areas by 2030 to secure and maintain a healthy ocean, support resilience in the face of climate change, improve food security, and more. The U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity is negotiating a new 10-year strategy for nature and people, and the draft text already includes a version of this critical “30 by 30” target. The Pew Charitable Trusts is among many stakeholders encouraging the convention to adopt that draft at its 15th Conference of the Parties in China this October.

The proposed target includes two approaches to ocean management: marine protected areas (MPAs) and “other effective area-based conservation measures” (OECMs). Although the two measures differ in their objectives—MPAs are designed specifically to conserve nature, while many OECMs are established primarily for other reasons—they both help to protect biodiversity and support Indigenous and local communities that depend on a healthy marine environment. Although understanding of the most effective design and implementation of MPAs has evolved in recent decades, decision-makers are only just starting to consider OECMs as a marine conservation tool. If properly delivered, OECMs could be a powerful means of improving ocean health.

What are OECMs?

In recent decades, the global community has focused primarily on MPAs to reach global biodiversity objectives, in part because there was no official definition or criteria for OECMs until 2018. That year, during the 14th Conference of the Parties held in Egypt, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted the following definition, based on the recommendations of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Task Force on Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measures:

“a geographically defined area other than a Protected Area, which is governed and managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained long-term outcomes for the in-situ conservation of biodiversity, with associated ecosystem functions and services and where applicable, cultural, spiritual, socio-economic, and other locally relevant values.”

In simple terms, OECMs might not be designed primarily to protect biodiversity but still deliver effective and enduring conservation outcomes. For example, a watershed that’s managed primarily to ensure clean drinking and irrigation water could still protect critical wetland habitat for migratory birds. Some OECMs do list biodiversity conservation as a primary objective but are not officially classified as MPAs for governance reasons. This may happen, for example, where Indigenous peoples or local communities have decided to conserve an area using traditional practices, without formal recognition by the regional or national government. OECMs therefore may be governed by any one of a diverse range of authorities and arrangements, from national and tribal governments to local communities.

According to the IUCN, other examples of potential OECMs include privately owned areas that have specific conservation objectives but are not recognized as protected areas under national legislation; shipwrecks and war graves in coastal and marine areas that also safeguard biodiversity; sacred natural sites with high biodiversity values that are conserved for their faith-based significance; and permanent or long-term fisheries closure areas that, through effective management, result in the conservation of additional elements of biodiversity.

OECMs can help safeguard biodiversity and achieve 30 by 30 targets.

Expanding the conservation toolbox to include OECMs would provide a wider range of mechanisms for achieving marine conservation goals, including the global 30 by 30 target. Importantly, OECMs can also acknowledge Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ important conservation contributions in protecting sacred sites, culturally important areas, and biodiversity elements without necessarily involving the formal regional or national government processes required for protected areas. OECMs, if equitable and effective, have the potential to complement protected areas around the world.

Two key objectives of the proposed 30 by 30 target are to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and enhance climate change resilience, which in turn should deliver positive outcomes for all people. Given the ocean’s influence on weather, climate, food security, and more, it is not an exaggeration to state that every one of us relies on a healthy marine environment.

At the same time, expanding the designation of OECMs in sectors such as fisheries carries some risks. For example, a government might attempt to designate an area-based fisheries management measure as an OECM and claim it is contributing to the 30 by 30 target, even if it doesn’t meet the Convention on Biological Diversity’s definition and criteria for an OECM. Seasonal fisheries closures and similar measures can play a crucial role in sustainable ocean management but do not necessarily contribute to the 30 by 30 target.

The IUCN and others have done significant work over the past decade to communicate with ocean stakeholders—including government leaders, Indigenous groups, communities, and scientists—about MPAs’ importance and what constitutes effective protection. Similar engagement is now critical to emphasize OECMs’ importance as a conservation tool, especially in the context of Indigenous land and ocean management. Over the coming months and years, as OECM guidance is published across various sectors and global institutions—for example, by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the IUCN—it is critical that we see consistency of language and standards. Otherwise, OECMs could undermine global conservation efforts by capturing designations in national and local accounting that bring minimal, if any, biological benefits. A well-coordinated effort, which ensures that OECMs in all sectors bring significant benefits to marine ecosystems and the people who depend on them, is critical to the rejuvenation of the ocean.

Masha Kalinina, Johnny Briggs, and Angelo Villagomez are senior officers working on marine habitat protections at The Pew Charitable Trusts. This piece was originally posted on The Pew Charitable Trusts website.

Where is the Biden Ocean Team?

In forty-eight hours, and amidst the largest peacetime deployment of a military force in any nation’s capitol, President Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America. Biden will inherit a civil service bureaucracy that has been deconstructed by the twice-impeached President Trump. To build back a federal government that has been decimated and demoralized, President-Elect Biden has begun rolling out nominees for critical agencies throughout the federal government. And though these appointments have been met will enthusiasm from the environmental and scientific community, a nagging question lingers among America’s Ocean Stakeholders:

Where is the Biden Ocean Team?

Read More

Donald Trump secures his legacy as the worst ocean president in American history.

Donald F. Trump hates sharks. We learned that in 2013, when, during an entirely uncontroversial discussion about shark conservation foundations on Twitter, the would-be President of the United States of America blocked a small cohort of marine scientists.

Gracing David Shiffman and myself with a timeline blissfully free of his insufferable Tweets for eight years was the only good thing he has ever done for the ocean.

Initially, it appeared as though Trump’s war on the oceans would take a backseat to his other social, judicial, and environmental atrocities. Though a troubling selection for a host of reasons, Wilbur Ross’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce was seen as a relatively non-threatening move. His letter to NOAA staff, reassuring them that his department would continue to follow best-available science, was met with praise. His initial leadership appointments received bipartisan support.

It is clear now in hindsight, that that initial optimism was intensely naïve.

Read More

Emerging technologies for exploration and independent monitoring of seafloor extraction in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction

[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at the 2019 Minerals, Materials, and Society Symposium at the University of Delaware in August, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. I want to change tracks for a bit and scan the horizon to think about what the future of exploration and monitoring in the high seas might look like because ocean and conservation technology is in the midst of an evolutionary shift in who has access to the tools necessary to observe the deep ocean.

This is the Area. Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, International Waters, the High Seas, the Outlaw Ocean. It’s the portion of the ocean that falls outside of national EEZs and is held in trust by the UN under the Convention on the Law of the Sea as the Common Heritage of Humankind. It covers 64% of the ocean and nearly half of the total surface of the Earth. It’s also the region in which most major deep-sea mining ventures intend to operate.

Read More

Five Questions with Irene Kingma

I spent last week in Saba in the Dutch Caribbean with the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, St. Maarten Nature Foundation, and the Saba Conservation Foundation serving as a research assistant to an international team of shark scientists participating in the Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019.

Expedition leaders Irene Kingma (left) and Dr. Paddy Walker (right) decked out in the official Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019 gear.

I previously wrote about some of the goals of the expedition, and our first day out on the water tagging small Caribbean reef and silky sharks.  I also interviewed several of the expedition participants on their views on sharks and shark conservation. Yesterday I posted my interview with Tadzio Bervoets. Today, I’m posting my interview with expedition lead Irene Kingma.

I first met Irene in 2014 when she invited me to give a keynote speech at the European Elasmobranch Association and have kept in touch with her through the years, mostly through Twitter.  Irene has been working in shark conservation for 15 years, both in Europe and the Caribbean.  She runs the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, which she founded together with Dr. Paddy Walker in 2010.

From 2015 to 2018 she worked as the Netherlands project lead in the Save our Sharks project of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance. This project aimed to improve all aspects of shark protection in the Dutch Caribbean through legislation, education, management, and science.  The project has ended but the Save our Sharks brand is still used for shark science and conservation work in the islands. 

Irene and Dr. James Thorburn prepare the European Space Agency tiger shark satellite tags for deployment.

I sat down with Irene and asked her five questions:

Bucky: What is your role on this expedition?

Irene: I am the expedition leader.  I’m in charge of making sure everyone knows where they have to be and what they need to do. I do this together with Dr. Walker, who took on the lead role after I left the expedition a few days before the official end. Paddy and I founded the Dutch Elasmobranch Society together in 2010, a science-based NGO dedicated to the management and protection of elasmobranchs in the Dutch Kingdom.

Bucky: How does the work you do contribute to global efforts to protect sharks?

Irene: My main job is helping policy makers to take the right decision on shark and fisheries management. For example, here in the Dutch Caribbean the Dutch Elasmobranch Society is the main adviser to the Dutch government on shark management and the measures needed to make the Yarari Shark Sanctuary a success.  Together with local partners we wrote the proposals to get several sharks and ray species listed on the SPAW protocol, the only cross border legal protection instrument for the Caribbean region.

The expedition crew works up and tags a tiger shark.

Bucky: Why are sharks important to you?

Irene: My background is in ecology, so when I think of heathy oceans that should include all parts of the ecosystem. Sharks are a really good indicator of ecosystem wellbeing; to be able to sustain healthy, diverse shark and ray populations all elements of the system need be to in good shape. We need to protect everything from the corals and to whale sharks.

Bucky: How are we going to save the world’s sharks?

Irene:   I am a firm believer in a holistic approach to management. Putting a species on a list like CITES, CMS, SPAW is an important first step. But you also need to have sensible implementation on the ground linked to effective control and enforcement. Plus, to ensure you get buy in by the people who are affected or have to carry out the protective work you need to communicate on what you want to achieve and why throughout the chain. And lastly all needs to be grounded in sound science to ensure what you do actually makes a difference in the water and for sharks. My mantra is we need to get the science we need to deliver the policy we want.  

Bucky: What advice would you give to young scientists interested in a conservation careers?

Irene: Dream big! Here I am, a girl from Amsterdam who started out as a malacologist (snail specialist) leading an expedition to one of the most interesting places in the world to start up research projects which will help us protect sharks.  Somebody pinch me! There’s no clear path that led me here, the only clear thread I see is that I tend not to take the safe option when it comes to career choices and I never gave up. 

The Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019 runs from July 15-25. You can also follow the expedition on social media using the hashtag #SabaShark2019, or by following the Save Our Sharks social media accounts on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Research expedition: what ever happened to the world’s first certified sustainable shark fishery?

My Postdoctoral research has focused on understanding the causes and consequences of public misunderstanding about shark fisheries management. While scientists overwhelmingly support sustainable fisheries management as a solution to shark overfishing, many concerned citizens and conservation activists prefer total bans on all shark fishing and trade. Some go so far as to (wrongly) claim that sustainable shark fisheries cannot exist even in theory and do not exist in practice anywhere in the world, and that bans are the only possible solution.

There’s an important piece of data that very rarely makes it into these discussions. Amidst the ongoing discussions about whether or not sustainable shark fisheries are even possible, one right in my backyard became the first shark fishery anywhere in the world to be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

However, a few years after BC’s spiny dogfish fishery got certified, the certification was quietly withdrawn. I couldn’t find any information in the MSC reports, or in associated scientific literature or government reports, that explained what happened to this fishery, which was thriving until recently. No scientists, managers, or conservation advocates who I asked about this knew exactly what happened to BC’s spiny dogfish fishery.

Read More

Trump’s 2020 Budget will be a Disaster for America’s Coastal Economies

Yesterday the Trump Administration unveiled its proposed budget for fiscal year 2020. This budget contains steep cuts research, education, and social services in order to fund the construction of the border wall. Chief among the cuts is an unprecedented reduction in funding for NOAA, which functionally disbands several core research programs within Ocean Services. From A Budget for a Better America:

“The Budget also proposes to eliminate funding for several lower priority NOAA grant and education programs, including Sea Grant, Coastal Zone Management Grants, and the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund.”

A Budget for a Better America, page 21

Rumblings on the hill suggest that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross plans to unveil his own plan to drastically reduce the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and permanently hamstring NOAA in furtherance of the Administration’s goal to find funding to construct a wall on the US southern border.

These cuts include zeroing out the budget for the following agencies and programs:

  • NOAA SeaGrant
  • NOAA Coastal Zone Management Program
  • National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS)
  • Pacific Salmon Restoration Program
  • Potentially at least one fisheries laboratory

These cuts would be catastrophic America’s Coastal Communities and Economies, especially in places like North Carolina, Maryland, and Louisiana.

Read More

Writing an Effective Ocean Advocacy Letter

Earlier this year, Andrew issued his Summer Science Outreach Challenge: Write an Op-Ed.  Inspired, I thought I would straight up steal Andrew’s idea and give a few tips on writing an effective advocacy letter, the type of letter you’d send to a government official to ask them to help protect the ocean.

In my conservation career I’ve written hundreds of letters to all levels of government, from agency staff to presidents.  Advocacy letters are one of the more effective tools in the arsenal of conservation tactics.  They are a great way of communicating a message directly to a targeted person (assuming the letter gets read, of course!) and are a great way to kick off a discussion on protecting the ocean between concerned citizens and government officials.  Here are a few tips: Read More

ACTION ALERT: Protect Florida sharks from harmful fishing practices

After years of scientists and conservationists complaining about problems with common land-based shark fishing practices, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is finally taking action! At their April meeting, FWC formally announced that they are considering revising regulations governing this activity with the goal of restricting the unnecessary and cruel handling practices that result in killing protected species of sharks.

(For background on this topic, please read my detailed open letter, or this summary of my research).

Here are the options that FWC is considering.

Examples of unequivocally illegal shark fishing from Shiffman and Friends 2017

 

How can you help? Either physically attend a workshop or send a formal comment online!

 

Read More