A fin cuts through the choppy waters and you feel your breath catch in your throat. A shiver runs down your spine as you watch the huge body encircle your boat – a flash of white lining the deep grey. Some people back away, seemingly scared of the giant shark but you can’t help but watch as she calmly passes by, oblivious to the emotions she’s triggered above her. She’s stunning, a mighty apex predator stalking the ocean. A quick flick of her powerful tail and she’s gone, sinking back into the deep waters leaving nothing but a splash of white water and memories in your mind. You won’t forget this.
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Sharks, they are mysterious, they are often elusive and they provoke many feelings from awe and wonder to fear and loathing. Some people are fascinated and some people are scared, which is often attributed to their fearsome (and false) reputation portrayed in the media. However, what is undeniable is just how important they are to the oceanic ecosystem. As a top predator, sharks are vital in ensuring that food-chains remain healthy by keeping fish populations at the optimum level. If the shark population was to collapse, it is highly likely that these well managed food chains would collapse with them. With no sharks to pick off the weak and vulnerable, fish shoals would weaken, important habitats may be overgrazed with no sharks to feed on turtles, and coral ecosystems would become unstable. All in all, sharks are not just important; they are vital.
However, sharks are facing an uncertain future and if they are, so are we. Increases in commercial fishing, habitat destruction, being caught as accidental by-catch, and proposed culls all threaten their survival. Many species are already listed as vulnerable, threatened or near extinction including the whale shark and the great hammerhead which is why so many researchers and scientists are working hard to bring them back from the edge. So how are they doing it?
Tagging is a vital tool in conservation and one that is proving to be incredibly useful in terms of shark protection. By attaching a small tag to a shark’s dorsal fin, researchers are able to discover more about the behaviour of sharks along with their distribution and movement without causing any pain. The results can then be used to highlight key areas for protection as well as assessing the success of already established marine protected zones along with the likelihood of sharks coming into contact with humans. The tracking of sharks, although generally well monitored, can nevertheless be accompanied by some very unwelcome and unanticipated issues.
In a recent paper published in the online journal ‘Conservation Biology’, Professor Steven J Cook and his team highlight the issues faced by researchers as public awareness of tagging methods increases. Whilst the team recognised just how much of a positive impact tagging has had when it comes to learning more about the secretive lives of wildlife and how to protect them, they also pointed out that the more people become aware of the practice, the more they seem to want to get involved. This involvement can then threaten important research.
When tags are attached to animals, their locations are trackable and very often this can be in real time. When used for research this is ideal, but if used by other people, such information can then be used to harm the animals; this was seen in the tracking of great white sharks in Australia. In order to help with the planning of various conservation zones, sharks in Western Australia were tagged and monitored. However, the data were also accessed by the agency who had provided the researchers with their tagging permits and it was then used to help track and kill the sharks to limit supposed human/ shark interaction. This was certainly not what the data collected were intended to be used for.
Other threats facing both the research and the tagged animals include members of the public using equipment for purposes other than research, such as photography or simply for watching wildlife. Constant interaction with humans may change the animals’ behaviour and therefore the important research could be influenced. Likewise, there is also the risk that the research will be identically disrupted and disturbed with devastating consequences. As was suggested in the paper, the deployment of a large number of tags which could interfere with the receiver could be used to affect the data and could ultimately put the animals at risk. It is not necessarily known why this may occur, but there is always the potential for this to happen and with the practice of tagging proving to be such an important step in conservation, it cannot hurt to be prepared.
So, there are clearly risks when it comes to tagging sharks and other animals but what can be done about it?
According to Cooke and his team, there are a number of things that must be considered when it comes to monitoring tagging and its potential exploitation. These include developing clear and concise guidelines in terms of who is allowed access to the data, what kind of data is being collected, and how it will be used. It has also been suggested that there should be more done in terms of the public. For example, there needs to be a system put in place that limits members of the public from using equipment that can interfere with the research. It is also important to inform more people of the reasons why tagging is being used then to give them a platform to voice their concerns. By doing these things and putting certain instructions in place, it is hoped that any worries and issues can be overcome without putting the wildlife and the research at risk. People will not have to go to extreme measures to get their point across and data may not be abused and used for non-research purposes. Ultimately, however, there is currently very little in terms of how researchers should react to tagging problems and concerns and so if any of these suggestions are implemented, it is certainly a step forward to stamping out tagging exploitation.
With so many increasing threats facing sharks and other animals today, it is incredibly important that work to conserve these beautiful creatures continues. Tagging provides clear and concise data which allows for the creation and implementation of conservation zones, marine protected areas, animal movements, habitats and even death rates. It is a remarkable instrument in the conservation toolbox, and so it is hoped that these small steps forward will become huge leaps in reducing these inadvertent consequences.
We need to save our wildlife and not abuse it.