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Saving Sharks in the Galapagos, One Person at a Time

The Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund aims to protect the last wild places in the ocean while facilitating conservation, research, education, and community development programs in the places we explore. This blog entry spotlights some of the exciting work our grantees are doing with support from the LEX-NG Fund.

It’s a common scene. You’re at the beach, and it’s a beautiful day. Blue-green waves crash lazily on a sandy shore. It’s hot, and you’re ready to take a dip. Before venturing in the water, however, you pause a moment to scan the horizon. A wave caps. Is that a dorsal fin? you wonder in panic, while a certain familiar two-note soundtrack plays in your head.

You’re not alone in your fear. People are terrified of sharks.

2015 marked the 40th anniversary of our collective shark paranoia (thanks, Jaws). Why are we so afraid though? Is it the decidedly un-cuddly nature of sharks? Their glassy, seemingly unblinking eyes and rows of razor-sharp teeth? Or the way they creep from fathomless depths to prey on innocent swimmers?

It’s certainly not the latter. Do you know how many people on average are killed by sharks each year? Six. Now what about the number of sharks killed by humans? Approximately 100 million.

The disparity between these numbers is mind-boggling: 6 versus 100 million. So who are the ones to be feared? (Hint: not sharks.)

Whale Shark Research JRGreen
A scientist uses a laser instrument to take measurements of a whale shark. Studies such as the CDF’s shark assessment help governing bodies create science-based management decisions. Photo by J.R. Green

Shark populations are in serious decline all over the world, mostly due to commercial fishing and the high demand for shark fins in the Far East. Given the devastating number of shark deaths each year, the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund has awarded a grant to the Charles Darwin Foundation to study and conserve sharks in the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR).

The GMR is a protected area of 50,000 square miles of ocean surrounding the Galapagos Islands, and is home to nearly 3,000 species of marine creatures including many species of sharks. Fishing has been prohibited in much of the GMR since 2000, but in an area of ocean roughly the size of Louisiana, has the fishing ban been effectively enforced?

CDF researchers release a tagged silky shark in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Photo by Pete Oxford

Scientists don’t think so. While the Galapagos Marine Reserve is one of the last places on earth where you can find sharks in abundance, users of the GMR have noticed a decline in shark sightings in recent years.

In order to get to the bottom of this problem, the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) has embarked on a study to establish a baseline of shark numbers and distribution in the GMR: the first of its kind. Once scientists have a better idea of how many sharks are in the GMR and where they tend to gather, the government of Ecuador can use this information to craft more effective management strategies that will protect shark hotspots from illegal fishing.

How do CDF scientists keep track of sharks in the GMR? Not with a bucket of fish guts and a pair of binoculars; their methods are a bit more high-tech. The CDF captures certain species, such as silky and tiger sharks, tags them with sophisticated tracking equipment, and then releases them back in the GMR. That way scientists can follow their movements via satellite and establish where sharks like to hang out and how far they travel.

Shark project satellite data
The CDF studies the movements of tagged sharks using satellite telemetry to establish migration patterns within the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Image courtesy of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

One type of shark that is especially important in the Galapagos Marine Reserve is the whale shark: the big momma of all sharks. This filter-feeder is the largest shark species in the world and is highly endangered.

Along with studying whale sharks and identifying their sensitive habitat areas within the GMR, the CDF has also launched an educational campaign to teach children and adults about the importance of whale shark conservation. So far, over 800 students in the Galapagos have participated in these awareness-raising events.

Engaging youth is key to future conservation efforts. Here, the CDF’s educational mascot Ramona la Tiburóna (Ramona the shark) poses with a student at an event to spread awareness of the importance of whale shark conservation. Photo courtesy of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

In the same vein, the CDF plans to conduct a social survey to measure people’s attitudes and perceptions toward shark conservation. Because what good is all this science if people don’t care about saving sharks? We’re their number one threat, after all.

Truth time: I’m that person at the beach who’s afraid to go swimming because of sharks. My fear is unjustified and irrational, and I know it. I just find sharks…icky. And the problem is, I’m not alone.

When we find something icky, we want to ignore it. Block it out. Like a spider on the wall, we say Ew! Go away! Kill it, kill it! But when it comes to sharks, we can’t afford to let our fear win. They’re too important to the world’s oceans.

We can reverse the global decline in shark numbers, but only if people join together to support shark conservation. Photo courtesy of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

As more sharks are killed—often by cutting off their fins while they’re still alive—mass extinction is imminent. Without these important apex predators to keep prey and smaller predator populations healthy, entire marine ecosystems will suffer, which is why it’s crucial to help organizations like the Charles Darwin Foundation in their efforts to study sharks and change attitudes. With more people supporting shark conservation, we can reduce global demand for shark fishing and put pressure on governing bodies to protect these prehistoric predators before it’s too late.

We may not want to hug a shark, but we can still save them.

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If you would like to learn more about the Charles Darwin Foundation, or other projects supported by the LEX-NG Fund worldwide, please contact the Fund by email. To contribute to the LEX-NG Fund, click here.

Comments

  1. Diane Skolnique
    Chicago, Illinois
    January 11, 7:17 pm

    I travel with Lindblad a lot. They are a great company with great writers and photographers on board.

  2. Peter Gill
    January 11, 5:16 pm

    Hi,

    I think your foundation is fantastic and I was wondering if you had any need for volunteers for marine research/conservation work. I am a PADI MSDT and have experience of working on reef conservation projects. This year I am going to pursue a career in school teaching and before I start I was hoping to spend my free time doing some charity work.
    I know that there are plenty of NGOs out there that offer conservation volunteering but I have worked with some before and am now a bit cynical about those kind of things.
    I read an article on the work you do with sharks in the Galapagos and was wondering if you had any need for volunteers for it?

    Kind regards,

    Peter Gill