Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ground-breaking science could help manage sharks

Judith taking waters samples in the blue water north of Bimini.
Can we use environmental DNA to investigate shark populations?
Judith Bakker, a Ph.D. candidate at Salford University in Manchester, England, was conducting shark research in The Bahamas last week with support from the Bimini Biological Field Station, often referred to as the Sharklab.

Bakker is developing methods for scientists to be able to collect environmental DNA, or eDNA, and to test it for the presence of shark species.

The study is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Washington, D.C.-based non-government organization that worked closely with The Bahamas National Trust and the government to create a shark sanctuary in Bahamian waters in 2011.

eDNA is made up of DNA shed by animals and anything else that lives in the sea, this DNA can be either free-floating or bound to particulate matter found in the water column.

“We should be able to detect tiny bits of shark eDNA that have been released from their feces, urine, blood, semen, mucus or skin cells or other tissues,” explains Bakker.

The scientist collects several gallons of water from different types of habitats including mangroves, deep water, the Gulf Stream, and at popular shark dive sites around Bimini.

Yes, my eyes detect the sharks. But can we get the eDNA?
She then takes the water samples back to the lab where she runs them through two filters using a vacuum pump. Filters with two different pore sizes are used, which capture anything in the water larger than 0.22 and 0.45 micrometers, respectively. This is about the size needed to capture the eDNA. Once she collects the eDNA on the filter, she extracts the DNA, which is then sequenced to test for the presence of sharks. Like all living creatures, sharks have DNA codes unique to every species.

“Bimini is a very sharky place,” says Bakker. “If these techniques are going to work, this is the place where we are most likely to get positive results. We know that there are sharks in the water here, we just have to prove that we can detect their DNA in the water.”

“The Bahamas has taken many steps to protect sharks, and this is one of the main reasons I chose to conduct my research here,” said Bakker. “I hope that other countries do the same and create shark sanctuaries before we lose some species forever.”

Angelo Villagomez, manager of Pew’s global shark conservation campaign, accompanied Bakker during her data collection.

“This is ground-breaking work,” said Villagomez. “As this technology develops, two or three decades down the road, we could have the ability to test for the presence of shark species just by using a water sample. We might even be able to test for density. This could have implications for conservation and management of sharks and other species.”

Bakker has previously collected eDNA samples in Belize and Jamaica. After leaving Bimini she went to Turks & Caicos Islands to collect samples. She is returning to Manchester in March to test her samples and will have her preliminary results during the spring.

Villagomez and Bakker are hopeful that she will show that the technology is feasible.

“It’s just a hypothesis, of course,” said Villagomez. “But Judith has already successfully collected samples and had positive test results from shark eDNA extraction conducted at an aquarium, so it looks encouraging that she will prove it true.”

Monday, February 16, 2015

And One Time, At Shark School

I'm in the Miami International Airport on my way to my next shark conservation meeting. I just finished an incredible week where I got to observe real shark science taking place at the world famous Bimini Biological Field Station, commonly known as Sharklab, dive with 6 species of sharks and 3 species of rays, including my first great hammerheads, and participate in a workshop of Caribbean leaders working to protect sharks and create shark sanctuaries. It was an incredible week.

Sir Richard Branson came to Bimini on Saturday morning to lead a discussion on sharks. He asked the leaders to protect sharks, and several of them promised that they would. Those details will be revealed over the course of the next several months, but Sir Richard hints at the discussion in this blog he published today.

One thing we are working feverishly on is the relaunch of the Adventures of Shark Stanley and Friends. It was exciting to introduce Sir Richard to our little character. We gave him the first copy of the new book, too.

There were a lot of cameras constantly flashing all week and there were several times where different cameras caught nearly the same moment. Jillian Morris, founder of Sharks4Kids, and one of my new favorite people, snapped a photo of me taking a selfie with Sir Richard.

That is not an easy thing to do with such a big camera!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Shark Celebs of Bimini

Today is my third full day in Bimini, The Bahamas. I have a confession to make: I broke from my commitment not to eat fish and had some mahi-mahi fish sticks. There's something about sand and ocean that makes me want to eat fish.

The last few days have been full of meetings with local businesses, schools, and government officials to plan for a workshop my employer is hosting here on Friday. I've also had the chance to observe real shark science taking place.

Particularly exciting has been getting to meet some of the sharky personalities here in Bimini. We had dinner with Jillian and her husband our first night here. Yesterday she took me around Alice Town where we met some local students who champion the cause of shark conservation. Jillian is the mastermind behind Sharks4Kids and I feel like we've been tweeting at each other for years now.
And then yesterday I finally met Annie Anderson. Annie helped us launch the Shark Stanley campaign more than two years ago. We had coffee at her house yesterday and then she showed us how to unsuccessfully fish for shark bait.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Nature Too Good To Be True

I'm in the Bahamas for a week. My employer is hosting an event involving government officials in Bimini, home of the world famous Sharklab. We're getting ready to launch a new Shark Stanley campaign, too, so I brought him along for the ride.

I travel often. This month I will conduct field work in The Bahamas, Bonaire, and Curacao, and then I'm helping to plan a meeting of global shark conservationists in Washington, DC. To keep my marriage intact, Edz gets to come on some trips. She's here with me in Bimini. She's small and doesn't eat much and I enjoy having her around, so it's a win-win for everyone.

The Bahamas became a shark sanctuary a few years back. All sharks are protected in their waters. The front desk of our hotel had a sign explaining this to visiting mariners and fishermen. I hope to work with a few organizations here and in Nassau to expand this kind of understanding of the rules surrounding sharks.

The Bahamas really have something special. Just walking on the dock fronting our hotel we saw an eagle ray and several bull sharks. I've never seen something like that in all my years in Saipan or Florida. Later that night we sat on a friend's dock and watched lemon sharks and nurse sharks.

Seeing marine macrofauna from shore is not something you can see in many places. On the north shore of Oahu I've seen turtles lying in the sand. I'm seen anglers in New Smyrna pull in sharks from shore. Manatees congregate at Homosassa Springs in the winter. Bimini blows all those places out of the water. I saw four species of elasmobranchii yesterday, and I still haven't gotten my feet wet.