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Zebra Sharks: Gentle, Sweet and Disappearing

Guest post by Lise Watson, Wild Reef collections manager, Shedd Aquarium

I’ve been passionate about sharks ever since I started working with them in the mid-80s at the beginning of my career. During this time, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a variety of species of sharks, both in public accredited aquariums and in the wild. Over the past few decades, shark populations have experienced dramatic worldwide declines due to overfishing and habitat loss. As one of the apex predators in the wild, sharks serve a vital role in helping to maintain population balance in our seas, so when shark populations decline, other species can become more prolific, causing serious imbalances in a very delicate food chain.

Zebra sharks are wonderful to work with and are becoming more popular in public aquaria due to their size, appearance and gentle disposition.
Zebra sharks are wonderful to work with and are becoming more popular in public aquaria due to their size, appearance and gentle disposition.

In the late 1990’s I began working with Zebra sharks, Stegostoma faciatum, at Shedd Aquarium. At the time, Shedd Aquarium was one of only a handful of aquariums in the United States working with the tropical, bottom dwelling species found in the shallow coastal waters of the Indo-West Pacific. They inhabit sandy bottom areas in close proximity to coral reefs and are known to live at depths up to 200 feet. Zebra sharks are wonderful to work with and are becoming more popular in public aquaria due to their size, appearance and gentle disposition.

Lise Watson is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ studbook keeper and Species Survival Plan manager for zebra sharks.
Lise Watson is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ studbook keeper and Species Survival Plan manager for zebra sharks.

Two decades later, in 2008, the AZA Marine Fish Taxon Advisory Group (MFTAG) identified Zebra sharks as a species of concern and recommended they become part of a managed breeding program known as a Species Survival Plan (SSP). In 2004, Shedd Aquarium began hatching zebra shark pups which were successfully reared and distributed to other AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquarium) accredited facilities. Due to our successes I was lucky enough to be asked to take on the task of creating the AZA studbook, which is a listing of all of the zebra sharks in AZA accredited zoos and aquariums as well as other participating facilities. This was the first shark studbook ever created and serves as the basis of all of the breeding recommendations and transfer plans for this species. The decisions are based on the overall genetic make up of the population as a whole in order to maintain the genetic diversity of the population.

This species also is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as “vulnerable” to extinction in all areas of its range except Australia where the species is abundant and has a wide distribution. In other areas throughout the world, they are susceptible to overfishing and habitat loss because of their habitat preference and more limited distribution. Shedd Aquarium and our colleagues are doing what we can to help protect these animals by educating our guests and working together.

Shedd has successfully hatched and distributed 101 zebra shark pups throughout North America since 2004.
Shedd has successfully hatched and distributed 101 zebra shark pups throughout North America since 2004.

One way Shedd is working collectively with other zoos and aquariums is by hatching and distributing the 101 zebra shark pups that have been successfully hatching here since 2004 to over 20 different zoos and aquariums throughout North America. In 2014, Shedd also helped the EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquarium) by providing fertile zebra shark eggs to aquariums in Italy and England who have successfully hatched and reared the pups. These have been some of the first successful breeding and rearing efforts in Europe.

Although sharks have been around since before the dinosaurs, their populations in recent years have been on a steep decline with an estimated 100 million sharks killed on an annual basis in directed fisheries and also as bycatch. Numerous species of sharks have been exploited for their fins that are highly valued for shark fin soup. Unlike many other species of fish, sharks are late to reach sexual maturity and produce few offspring, which makes them very vulnerable to overfishing. You can help conservation efforts by avoiding the purchase products made from sharks such as shark cartilage pills, shark meat or shark fin soup and by supporting the breeding and research efforts of AZA accredited zoos and aquariums.

 

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ studbook keeper and Species Survival Plan manager for zebra sharks, Lise Watson also has expertise in breeding several species of sharks and rays. As collection manager, she is in charge of the acquisition and transportation of the animals within the Wild Reef division. She conducts genetic and developmental research for zebra sharks, and her article on the captive propagation and rearing of zebra sharks at Shedd Aquarium was published in Drum and Croaker. Watson received her Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Rollins College.