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.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Saipan Sharks Remain Protected

Four years ago the global conservation spotlight shone brightly on the Northern Mariana Islands as we became the first US territory to criminalize the sale, trade, and possession of shark fin (sharks had actually been protected back in 2008, but it wasn't a criminal offense). Our law was based on a similar law from Hawaii and helped kick off a tsunami of shark conservation in 2011, a year that would see shark protections enacted in Guam, The Bahamas, Honduras, Marshall Islands, and several U.S. states including Washington, Oregon, and California.

Many of my friends were involved in the passage of the CNMI law, including the unstoppable force of nature Cinta, my buddy Brad and his better third Kathy, Laurie, Harry, Thelma, and many others. The sponsors of the bill were former lt. governor turned lawmaker Diego Benavente and future lt. governor, lawmaker Jude Hofschneider. Outside supporters included Rob Stewart, Shawn Heinrichs, Stefanie Brendl, WildAid, Shark Savers, Humane Society International, and of course, the organization that employs me. It was a proud moment for all of us, and has been the foundation of my shark advocacy around the world these last few years.

At the time, the only opposition came from federal officials in Hawaii. The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council flew to Saipan and lobbied against the law in the days before its passage. Liz Wahl, who has since become a very vocal, highly visible critic of Putin, was the news anchor for KSPN 2 on the day the law passed.

It's interesting that Kitty Simmonds would say, "they're not threatened, they're not endangered," and that "there are stock assessments for these sharks." Neither statement is true. Anyway, in the end, WESPAC lost. The law passed and the world celebrated.

All seemed fine for two years, until one day in 2013 the federal government published a proposed rule in the federal register for another law that manages how sharks are killed in US fisheries. The proposed rule, as written, would overturn Saipan's law -- and all of the other shark fin trade bans since. The federal government argued that closing down the trade in shark fins conflicted with the goals of setting optimum yield for all US fisheries.

This plan did not sit well with many people. That is certainly one way to interpret the goals of the federal law that manages fisheries, but it is not the only one. The outcry was so immense that more than 180,000 people submitted comments on the rule. US senators and representatives, governors, state senators and representatives, conservationists, dive businesses, shark attack survivors, students, and even Sherman the Shark decried the effect it would have on the state laws.

WESPAC responded by proposing a shark cull in the Marianas. I swear I am not making this up.

The federal government took note and announced they would look into the laws one at a time and work with the state governments to come to a compromise. Over the course of 2014, all of the mainland states that passed shark fin trade bans were exempted from this federal preemption. They exempted Saipan late in December, but did not post the announcement on their website until January 2015.

I spoke with KSPN 2 about what this decision meant for sharks and the Commonwealth. I am very, very happy about this decision. There was a bit of compromise on both sides, and they made the right choice.

Now we wait for the decisions on Guam and Hawaii (and possibly American Samoa). Guam should be fine as the fisheries and laws there and on Saipan are almost identical. I suspect they will be exempted. The big question mark is Hawaii. As my investigation last year shows, sharks are still being landed there, although the trade in their fins is banned. I'm hopeful they will be able to come to agreement and land at a compromise that is fair to the many Hawaiian citizens who want to see their sharks protected.

Katy Perry Delivers Twitter Gold

Reuters reported three days ago that Katy Perry's halftime show would include lions, sharks, and live singing. I try to take advantage of all mentions of sharks in the popular culture for the benefit of my conservation programs, so when the halftime show started, I had my phone handy ready to tweet.

My sister Catie must have been reading my mind, because she sent me this amazing photo of Kim Jung Un. I tweeted it out just as halftime started. It got a few retweets, but nothing spectacular.

And then the sharks stepped out and the Internet went insane. This might be my most popular tweet ever. It's definitely top 5. Within minutes there were fake Katie Perry shark Twitter accounts, all more popular than my real Twitter account.

Oh, Internet. You never cease to amaze me. I was pretty proud of myself -- until I saw Snoop Dogg's halftime tweet.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Did the Smithsonian steal this?

The main hall between the two shops on the bottom floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History used to hold a large Rai, the stone money from the island of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia.  I remember photographing it in 2008 when I visited the museum.  It was removed a few years back to make room for an information booth. During a visit on Saturday I found it has been moved to the front entrance along Constitution Avenue.

I visited Yap for a few days in 2013 and saw many Rai lining the road. They are also found on private property, along canals, and outside government buildings.

During my visit, Andy, the local shark conservationist, explained how the giant Rai served as stone money.  All of the Rai were quarried in Palau and brought over to Yap by boat; they are no longer made and their numbers are fixed.  In the late 1800s a shipwrecked Irishman figured he could make his riches selling gigantic stone money made with machine tools, flooding the island with Rai too big too move.

The giant Rai were extremely valuable.  The trade was reserved for big things, not everyday purchases.  When the stone money changed hands all that was required was an oral declaration.  For example, if I wanted to transfer my Rai to you, all I had to do was announce in public that I was doing so.  The Rai was hence owned by the new person -- but here's the kicker -- it stayed in the same place along the road, or wherever.

NPR ran a story a few years back describing the same thing, so I'm not making this up.

Which brings me to the Smithsonian.  When Andy told me how the trade worked, I thought of the big stone rock sitting in Washington, DC.  I assumed somebody must have purchased it a few years back.  I researched the history of this particular Rai and found it online:
"In 1904, a villager named You (pronounced yo-u) from the Micronesian island of Yap quarried this stone valuable on the nearby island of Palau (also known as Belau). It was sent to Yap via the steamship German/a and placed in front of a community house. Eventually, this stone passed to Chief Gaag of Balabat village. It was sold with the permission of his community to the Smithsonian Institution in 1962."
So somebody did buy it, but I wonder if the seller knew it was going to be moved?  I imagine the seller was very surprised when the Rai was shipped to Washington, DC.  Under local custom, it should have stayed in the same place.  It is illegal to export these now, but it was not then.  Anyone have any knowledge of this transaction?