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A zebra shark rests by the Ningaloo Reef near the coast of Western Australia. Stony Brook University’s Demian Chapman is teaming up with Global FinPrint to create the largest known data collection of reef-associated sharks and rays. PHOTO CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

After spending the past summer studying sharks, rays and skates, Stony Brook University’s Demian Chapman is leading a new conservation effort with Global FinPrint, the first global organization to use underwater video, to create the largest data-collection of reef-associated sharks and rays.

Eight shark species have seen a 50 percent decline in their populations in the last decade, according to Jennifer V. Schmidt, an associate professor at University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Biological Sciences.

In an effort to aid conservation efforts, Chapman, along with Mike Heithaus of Florida International University and a team of postdoctoral researchers, studied the populations of sharks, rays and skates in areas with coral reefs. Their research took place in areas such as the Gulf of Mexico, Florida Everglades and Belize.  

Chapman was the lead principal investigator during the trip. His research mainly concentrated on tracking sharks and other large fish and studying video surveys in order to determine how effective reserves were for the species.

“Global FinPrint will help us better understand one of the ocean’s great mysteries: What is happening with fragile marine ecosystems when sharks are removed?” Chapman said in a news release. “Are coral reefs healthier or faster to recover from disturbances like coral bleaching or hurricanes because they have sharks?  These are hugely important questions. Many countries rely on healthy coral reefs for food security, tourism and coastal protection.”

Whereas Chapman focused on movement, Heithaus, the trip’s co-lead principal investigator, looked at predator-prey interactions. He also helped develop camera technology to assist in the trip. His research took him to Moorea, French Polynesia, the Everglades and Western Australia.  

One of the principal investigators on the trip, Colin Simpfendorfer looked at the shark nursery area, the conservation of sharks, rays and skates and the statuses of their populations.

“I never cease to be amazed by sharks and rays no matter what research we are doing,” he said in an email. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn so many new things about this group of animals. Just a few examples include: that some species suspend the development of their embryos for several months, that baby sawfish live in and around the roots of mangroves to shelter them from predators, and that deepwater sharks are more vulnerable to human pressures than are shallow water species.”

He also examined the population of sawfish.

“Sawfishes globally are the most threatened groups of sharks and rays,” Simpfendorfer said. “All species have declined dramatically, and in fact are likely to be extinct in many parts of their former ranges. The area that I studied in south Florida had seen declines, but the work we did showed that there was still a viable population present. In fact, this may be one of the few areas globally where these species are managing to survive.”

The dramatically low numbers in shark populations are troublesome for the ecosystem, according to seashepard.org. Without large predators such as sharks, fish would overpopulate in many areas and cause the deaths of coral reefs. Algae levels would also increase.

“Sharks are important components of marine ecosystems,” Simpfendorfer said. “They play important roles in regulating prey populations and in moving energy between different habitats (because they are such mobile animals).”