Written by Hannah Medd
Approximately 275 students and professionals from 40 countries descended upon Durban, South Africa, during the first week of June, 2014, to talk SHARK! The 2nd annual SHARKS INTERNATIONAL scientific conference was recently held over 4 days of about 80 talks on all aspects of elasmobranch research including acoustic telemetry, physiology, tourism, genetics, tagging, age and growth, fisheries, sensory biology, population ecology, Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems (BRUVS), trophic ecology, sawfish, social research, management, and shark control. It was a shark nerd’s dream and I jumped at the chance to go! Having attended graduate school in South Africa, it was a long awaited homecoming but also a rare opportunity to network with peers working around the globe, exchange ideas, collaborate, and finally meet face to face.
The talks were only 15 minutes long, which is not a lot of time to present the breadth of your work that for many is decades in the making so most presenters focus on their innovative methodologies or the latest results or most impactful applications. To further inspire the Gills Club members (not that the guys didn’t perform admirably) I noticed some impressive presenters that just happened to be ladies! Dr. Alison Kock, a Gills Club Scientist and Research Manager at Shark Spotters based in Muizenberg, South Africa, gave an impressive talk on her research on the white sharks of False Bay, South Africa, revealing the sharks demonstrate high levels of site fidelity (they really like to hang out in specific spots) to inshore areas which will affect how Marine Protected Areas will be designed. Charlene da Silva, shark researcher for the South African Fisheries Department, gave a funny and dynamic talk on the chondrichthyan fisheries of South Africa, the lack of data on economically important species and the immediate need for sustainable management. Rachel Graham, Executive Director of Mar Alliance, spoke on monitoring sharks using many different methods in Belize to establish a baseline which is incredibly important in informing conservation planning. Lauren De Vos, a PhD student from the University of Cape Town, spoke about her work using BRUVS (Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems) to assess abundance of sharks in different habitats. Alison Towner, a PhD student, described her work tagging and tracking great whites in Gansbaai, South Africa, to determine what environmental factors influence the sharks’ movements by collecting data on cage diving boats. Ana Sobral, a Portuguese researcher, represented the rays by presenting her work on the aggregating Mobula tarapacana near the Azores. Ana is developing a photo identification program based on the color patters on the rays’ stomachs to better understand the population dynamics of these little-studied rays. Sarah Fowler, the Vice-chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, a legend in shark research and conservation, demystified the seemingly overwhelming process of listing vulnerable species on international treaties such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The formidable Sonja Fordham of Shark Advocates International clarified some common misconceptions about global shark conservation that can be spread by reporters and well-meaning concerned citizens, while encouraging a focus on the real threats to the vulnerable species, charismatic or not. These ladies represent a snippet of the incredibly impressive and inspirational female talent demonstrated at this conference.
Charlene Da Silva
The take home message was that shark research needs to focus on species other than the big, charismatic species like whale and white sharks and it needs to employ innovative techniques to achieve goals for broader conservation impacts. It was so encouraging to see and meet new fresh faces that are so dedicated to understanding the importance of sharks and rays to our ocean ecosystems as well as to learn from those professionals that have plowed the way for better research and conservation. From the welcome cocktail party, including fabulous Zulu dancers, to the each evening’s event, through the manic tea breaks, Sharks International 2014 was definitely considered a success!