Shark Census - Sailors for the Sea

Shark Census

By: Demian Chapman, Ph.D., Lead Principal Investigator, and Mike Heithaus, Ph.D., Co-Lead Principal Investigator, Global FinPrint Project | July 7, 2015

Scientists Embark on Most Ambitious Reef Shark Survey Ever Attempted



The beauty and power of sharks captivate the public like almost no other animal.  For some, they are the stuff of nightmares and for others, amazing species to seek out for an encounter in the wild. Despite the long-held fascination with these predators, only recently have we begun to realize just how important they are for keeping the oceans healthy and just how much trouble their populations face around the world! Conservation efforts on a global scale are needed now more than ever.

In fact, recent estimates suggest that around 100 million sharks are taken from the oceans every year for their fins and/or meat. For many species, catch rates have been so high that they have caused severe population declines. That means we really need to learn more about the status of reef shark populations all over the world – from offshore of densely populated islands to the most remote atolls. We also need to understand how vital sharks are to the health of coral reefs, which provide such important habitat to myriad species and incredible economic and social values to people. 

So far, scientists have addressed these questions using many different methods, from measuring the rates that sharks are captured on lines to tracking sharks with tags. But rather than trying to catch sharks to measure their abundance, a new method allows researchers to have the sharks catch themselves…on camera!

The Global FinPrint Project, an international, multi-institutional collaboration, is the first-of-its-kind, worldwide standard survey of elasmobranchs (sharks, rays, skates and sawfish) on coral reefs. Kick-started with significant seed funding by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the project launches in summer 2015 and will use Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUVs) to survey sharks, rays and other marine animals in coral reefs throughout global biodiversity hotspots. The project aims to quantify the major human pressures and environmental factors influencing shark and ray populations and to investigate their potentially critical role in coral reef ecosystems from ecological and economic standpoints, to ultimately inform and drive regional and global shark conservation efforts. 

Baited Remote Underwater Video, BRUV, shark census, shark survey, citizen science

Here’s how it works: the researchers are placing underwater video cameras on the sea floor with a small bait cage sitting in front. This setup is called a “BRUV:” Baited Remote Underwater Video. If there are sharks around, they will swim towards the smell and, if they get there within 90 minutes, they will appear on film and be counted when the researchers play the video back. Just as mammal biologists use camera traps to get a sense of how many tigers or snow leopards there are in a particular location, the researchers will estimate how many sharks visit each BRUV.

Global FinPrint Project institutional partners include Florida International University (FIU) (Miami, FL, US), Stony Brook University (Stony Brook, NY, US), Australian Institute of Marine Science (Queensland, AU), and James Cook University (Townsville City, AU). The core research team is composed of some of the world’s top shark biologists and marine ecologists who provide the expertise and network of collaborators to ensure that the project meets its scientific and outreach goals.

Work of this nature has previously been carried out on by the Project’s researchers on a smaller scale in many places including Belize, Australia, Fiji and French Polynesia.  While these studies have provided incredible insights into the behavior and abundance of sharks, to truly understand reef sharks and their roles in the ecosystem, a much larger project is needed.  Now, with support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, a team of U.S and Australian-based scientists are launching a large-scale collaborative effort to answer these questions with the most ambitious reef shark survey ever attempted.  The team now plans to conduct new studies on more than 400 reefs in more than 30 countries.

Global Fin Print Project Map, Shark Census
Initial planned sampling sites include: Indo-Pacific: Indonesia, Australia (Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland/Great Barrier Reef), Palau, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Hawaii, and Palmyra; tropical western Atlantic: Bermuda, US (Florida Keys, Flower Garden Banks), Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Haiti, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands, Trinidad, Dominica, Guadeloupe, and St. Martin; southern and eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean islands: Mozambique, Kenya, Madagascar, Europa, Reunion, Mayotte, Seychelles, Juan de Nova, Maldives, Lakshadweep, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Diego Garcia, Maldives.

With these studies, BRUV data contributed by other researchers around the world, and hopefully many more reefs being added to the study as it progresses, the team will learn incredible new information about sharks and reefs that will be essential to protecting these top predators and their incredible ecosystems.  

The Global FinPrint Project will include an extensive education program. As the team gets underway in summer 2015, they will provide access to the research through BRUV and field videos and develop interactive content for the public, such as documentaries and web videos, and educational activities and materials for K-12 students and teachers, such as video-enhanced lesson plans.

Reef sharks, Shark census, shark conservation,

WANTED:  Citizen Scientists to deploy BRUVs!

In addition to sampling by scientist teams from the lead partner institutions, the Global FinPrint Project will involve Citizen Scientists across the globe to help deploy and obtain BRUV data. The team aims to recruit sailors, boaters and ocean enthusiasts to help them access even more sites across the globe! Contact Demian Chapman to learn more.

The Global FinPrint Project will allow the team to compare reefs with different characteristics to see what factors (such as coral cover, fish population density, fishing pressure, or water temperature) determine the number, types, and sizes of sharks seen on a reef and identify which reefs have the highest and lowest encounter rates with sharks. With this information they will be able to prioritize areas for shark conservation to protect what is left or rebuild populations that are in trouble.  In addition, making the data – and the scientific adventure – accessible to the students and the public, governments, and other scientists the project will maximize its impact on marine education and conservation.

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