13 June 2014 -- Would you swim with sharks in the open ocean? Would you survey, monitor and tag them? Would you work for 13 or 14 hours a day unpaid?
Marine science student Amie Williams would.
This summer, Amie, who is studying for a BSc in Marine Science at SAMS, is volunteering on a project based on Malapascua Island in the Philippines to work and dive with thresher sharks.
The project, run by the not-for-profit Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Project (TSRCP), is currently studying the migratory patterns of pelagic thresher sharks (Alopias pelagicus), and their fidelity to and their interactions with cleaner fish stations in the shallow reef waters of Monad Shoal.
Monad Shoal is a seamount in the Visayan Sea, a short boat ride away from Malapascua Island. It is one of two known places in the world where pelagic, or oceanic, thresher sharks come to such shallow waters. The sharks are covered with parasites and they visit the shallow reef waters to be cleaned by different species of wrasse that swim there, making it possible for the researchers to study the sharks in a wild environment.“We will be attaching an acoustic tag to the sharks to track their fidelity to cleaner stations on Monad Shoal. During my time there, the research will be both funded and filmed by Discovery Channel as a documentary for Shark Week,” explained Amie before leaving Scotland.
Acoustic tags are used in fisheries research to monitor and track fish or marine mammal behaviour remotely. TSRCP researchers often use remote devices, including video cameras and hydrophones, because human presence influences shark behaviour and remote recording has revealed a different repertoire of behaviour. However, acoustic tagging is only possible for TSRCP when funding becomes available, so Amie is lucky to have joined the project in a year when the Discovery Channel has provided funding and is filming for a documentary.
The biology and behavioural ecology of pelagic thresher sharks is largely unknown. Until recently, knowledge and understanding of them had been limited to what could be learnt from fisheries and by-catch. This species, along with the two other species of threshers, is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN): pelagic threshers have particularly low annual rates of population growth, increasing the risk of over fishing as they are caught for meat, fins, liver oil and skin, and are fished as prized game. They are also often by-catch victims of unregulated gillnet and longline fisheries.
In September, Amie, who is from Falkirk, will start her fourth year and final year of her degree course. During the year she will have to write a dissertation for which she needs to generate an original data set and she’s hoping that her work during the summer holidays will produce usable data on the migratory patterns of the sharks, the fidelity of the relationship between them and the cleaner fish stations, and the interaction between individuals.
After her bachelor’s degree Amie is hoping to do further research and is aware of the competition likely to face her, so has used the longer holidays to get work experience. Two years ago she did an internship with great white sharks (no less), in South Africa working in an aquarium and in open water, getting photo identification of each shark to establish a population estimate for that area.
There are more than 470 species of sharks roaming the world’s oceans, but human activity is causing overall population numbers to decline. This is because sharks mature slowly, and many species give birth to only one or two pups at a time, making it difficult to rebuild damaged populations. As sharks sit high in their marine food chains, research has shown that when their numbers are depleted, their ecosystems are negatively affected.
Earlier this year the IUCN released a statement saying that “sharks and their relatives are facing an alarmingly elevated risk of extinction”, which highlights and underlines the importance of the work and dedication of research groups like the Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Project and enthusiastic, motivated individuals like Amie.