Sharks important to reef conservation, study finds

By Maria Rachal July 24, 2017
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A new link between robust shark populations and healthy coral reefs has been uncovered.

MARINE RESEARCHERS in Western Australia recently observed new evidence supporting a link between robust shark populations and healthy coral reefs.

During a four-month expedition from Cairns to Broome, a team of scientists from the University of Western Australia (UWA) searched for healthy coral reefs in the remote Kimberley, while also seeking to understand the benefits of marine reserves to both sharks and reefs.

Upon finding healthier reefs, the researchers also encountered a surprisingly high number of sharks – an indicator, they say, that sharks play a critical role in maintaining good reef health.

The research was headed by expedition leader Shanta Barley and the director of the Centre for Marine Futures, Jessica Meeuwig, both of the UWA School of Biological Sciences.

The team used baited cameras to retrieve videos of sharks and fish in the reefs, a method they hope to continue in farther oceanic areas, especially as reefs rapidly deteriorate due to effects from overfishing and bleaching.

“By using the same methods across these regions we can understand Australia’s reefs in the broader context of the Indian and western Pacific oceans,” Barley said.

Barley also said that the current mix of protected and unprotected areas in reef systems throughout Australia serves as a natural test of the importance of reserves for enhancing shark populations and, therefore, better preserving reef health.

Additionally, the scientists believe they may have discovered an oceanic shark nursery off the Kimberley coast, as there was a significant numbers of sharks measured at under 50cm in length.

“The good news in the Kimberley is that there has been little shark fishing over the last decade and so we believe that shark populations are healthier than they have been for many years,” Colin Simpfendorfer, director of the Center for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture at James Cook University, told Australian Geographic.

“Research that helps to better understand the status of shark populations is always going to be positive for shark conservation efforts because we know that the biggest issue is the lack of data,” Colin added.

Aside from building on prior research, Meeuwig said in a statement that their continued data analysis and additional research will serve as a necessary baseline in understanding the progress of reef health.

“With the governments of Western Australia and Australia expanding protection from reefs into the open ocean, it is important to understand the status of these animals so that their response to the new protection can be determined.”