Selected tags: sharks

Expedition Cuba Part 3: Collaborative Research Establishes Baseline Monitoring in Cuba

Cuban and Mexican researchers, Alejandra Briones and Ivan Mendez, look at a sample that will be analyzed in CIM’s lab to assess the faunal communities in the water column.

By: Kendra Karr and Valerie Miller

Part III of a blog series detailing a February 2013 Research Expedition in Cuba organized by EDF Oceans’ Cuba, Science, and Shark teams and funded by the Waitt Foundation. A team of scientists from Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. along with EDF staff set sail to share knowledge, scientific methodologies and to survey shark populations in Cuba. The tri-national expedition was led by Cuban scientists from University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (CIM) and U.S. scientists from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida.

Researchers from Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. participated in an exploratory research cruise in the Gulf of Batabanó along the Southern coast of Cuba to monitor shark populations, local faunal communities and to train fellow team members in monitoring techniques.  Leaving the port of Batabanó, the RV Felipe Poeytransected the shallow, soft-sediment habitat that comprises the majority of the Gulf.  The cruise set off for the remote and sparsely populated Isle of Youth, the largest island in the Canarreos Archipelago.  Canarreos Archipelago is home to a national park and several marine protected areas (MPAs) which contain habitats that possess ecotourism potential and provide refuge for ecologically and economically important species such as lobsters, sharks and finfish.

U.S. researcher Dr. Ernie Estevez collects the last sample of fauna from the water column outside the corals reefs of Punta Frances.

Monitoring activities started near the southwestern portion of the island, inside Siguanea Bay, continued around Punta Frances and into the nearshore waters facing the Caribbean Sea.  This part of the Isle of Youth has a diverse array of habitats, including some of the healthiest and most intact coral reefs and mangroves in the region, as well as seagrass beds, and soft sediment habitats.   Conducting a research expedition in multiple habitats presents a unique opportunity to observe organisms living at the bottom of the ocean (in benthic habitats) and in the water column surrounding these habitats. The expedition recruited two benthic researchers (scientists who study organisms living along the bottom of the ocean) to join the team comprised mainly of shark scientists, to capitalize on the opportunity and create a baseline monitoring program of these faunal communities across habitats in the Gulf Batabanó and surrounding waters.  Dr. Ernie Estevez of the U.S. and Mote Marine Laboratory and Dr. Maickel Almanza of Cuba’s Center for Marine Research led the design of the monitoring program.

Monitoring programs help provide information about the health of the area prior to future impacts (i.e. disturbance either natural or human caused), so that analysis can aid forecasting.  Baseline data helps measure the severity of ecosystem disruptions and helps to calibrate recovery programs.  Additionally, this data may help identify areas that are more resistant, or less resilient to disturbances over time.  Long term monitoring of ecological communities and populations is one of the most effective tools that managers and scientist have to track and analyze how ecosystems work.   Unfortunately, long-term datasets are rare and those that do exist are often limited in geographic scope.

What’s a faunal community and why are they important?

The team identified plankton living in the water column and macrobenthos (small fish, crustaceans, worms and mollusks living at the bottom of the ocean) across habitats as targets because changes in the diversity and abundance of these fauna can be indicators to the health of the ecosystem, and they are critical components of important fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. The small fish, crustaceans, worms and mollusks that comprise the fauna collected in the monitoring program are often the principal food source for fish in the region. Sharks, as apex predators, depend on highly productive foraging areas (e.g., dense seagrass meadows) and support abundant amounts of prey, such as larger fish that consume plankton. The team also recorded environmental variables necessary for a healthy habitat, including temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, depth and organic content in sediments.   Absent baseline species and ecosystem data, future efforts to end overfishing, protect marine life and improve the management of marine resources will not succeed.  This is just one of the ways in which Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. are working together to improve monitoring efforts that will increase data availability and enable a tri-national assessment of shark population status, including an understanding of how variability in abundance of faunal communities and their predators influence foraging behavior and shark migration in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

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Expedition Cuba Part 2: Scientists Partner with Fishermen to Explore Cuban Waters

The tuna fishing crew meets up with the research team in the Gulf of Batabanó.

By: Valerie Miller & Kendra Karr

Part II of a blog series reporting on the February 2013 Research Expedition in Cuba organized by EDF Oceans’ Cuba, Science, and Shark teams and funded by the Waitt Foundation. A team of scientists from Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. along with EDF staff set sail on an exploratory research cruise to share knowledge, scientific methodologies and to survey shark populations in Cuba. The tri-national expedition was led by Cuban scientists from University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (CIM) and U.S. scientists from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida.

In early February the team of researchers boarded the RV Felipe Poey and departed the south coast of Cuba for the Gulf of Batabanó.  The nine-day expedition was designed to monitor shark populations, collect baseline data on plankton and benthic communities and train scientists in data collection techniques for future monitoring.  It took the entire first day to steam to the Isle of Youth.   By the evening the smooth waters and night sky had blended into one endless black landscape. As a sense of isolation set-in, the boat turned towards some lights in the distance – which emanated from a lobster station floating in the middle of the Gulf.  After a day crossing the ocean with no land in sight, it felt strange stepping off the boat and onto the deck at the station. The lobster fishermen, friends of the Cuban scientists, showed us around the facility which stores their daily catch in pens.  This moonlight meeting was just the first of many productive interactions with fishermen throughout the journey.

Collaboration is key for shark monitoring

Tapping the expertise of local fishermen was central to accomplishing the objectives of the expedition in relation to both data collection and training. The entire team learned about shark capture and tagging methods, but since the techniques had never been implemented to monitor populations in the Gulf, we relied on fishermen’s knowledge to locate sharks. We were fortunate to come across a Bonito tuna boat on multiple occasions. The tuna fishermen track sharks to locate schools of tuna and sometimes use the sharks to corral multiple schools together and cast their bamboo fishing rods to selectively catch tuna. Fishermen are able to identify sharks from notches they have previously marked in their fins.  One fisherman declared, “without sharks, there is no tuna fishery.”

On one occasion we tied our boats to together, which allowed Dr. Jorge Angulo, the lead Cuban scientist and CIM director, to catch up with the Bonito’s captain.  The old friends were happy to see each other again, and discussed where sharks are congregating in the Gulf.  The captain suggested that we explore “Los Indios,” a region off the Isle of Youth.  We ventured to Los Indios the following day to set our gear. The scientists agreed that this “edge” habitat where the reef meets the sand was more likely to have sharks, whereas much of the Gulf is shallow open water with a soft sediment bottom seafloor, not the usual preferred shark habitat.

Scientist Anmari Alvarez of Cuba’s Center for Marine Research discusses manatee monitoring with two finfish fishers.

Scientist Anmari Alvarez of Cuba’s Center for Marine Research discusses manatee monitoring with two finfish fishers.

A day’s catch sparks conversation on sharks

Along with the tuna fishermen, we also met up with a finfish fishing boat. In the mornings, the fishermen picked up researchers to help retrieve the nets set the day before and assess the catch. We all reunited in the afternoon; the fishermen’s catch displayed on the deck—a mix of rays and fish—and the researchers had the opportunity to collect data and take genetic samples of the species of interest.   Dr. Bob Hueter, head shark researcher from Mote Marine Laboratory, used a hammerhead shark caught that day to impart some shark anatomy lessons.  Researchers and fishermen were quizzed on their biological knowledge and helped take genetic samples that could potentially connect Cuba’s sharks to known populations in other regions of the Gulf of Mexico.

Our crew and the fishermen dispersed between the two decks of the connected boats to discuss the day’s work and shark habitat in the Gulf. While the fishermen we met do not direct their fishing towards sharks, they sometimes catch them as bycatch. One fisherman mentioned that they used to catch sharks more often in certain regions but believe that they have been overfished. The scientists agreed that the extent of overfishing is difficult to know since there is so little historical data on sharks in the Gulf.

Learning from the experience of the fishermen, our group hypothesized about the shark populations — preferred habitats, seasonal migration patterns and potential locations of nursery habitats. EDF’s tri-national shark conservation program is essential to improve the monitoring of shark populations in Cuba and ensuring that species are managed sustainably.

 

Unexpected opportunities in marine conservation

While the main objectives of the expedition focused on understanding shark populations in the Gulf, our interactions with the fishermen included discussions on a variety of marine life. Anmari Alvarez, a Cuban scientist who specializes in manatees, always takes the opportunity to talk about the marine mammal with fishermen. She reviewed a colorful flyer with the details on how fishermen can report a manatee sighting and explained that involving fishermen in monitoring is invaluable to her, as she cannot be in the Gulf every day. In one unexpected opportunity for collaboration, the finfish crew presented the Cuban researchers with a tag they removed from a sea turtle. They had been saving it for months, not knowing to whom to report the inscribed number. It just so happened that the tag was marked with the abbreviation for Quitana Roo, Mexico, and Ivan Mendez, a scientist from Mexico, was on-board to recover it.

Like scientists everywhere, the Cuban researchers’ monitoring efforts rely on data from fishermen’s catch. They have recently expanded their monitoring of shark landings at several ports along the north coast but have fewer resources to collect shark data in the Gulf of Batabanó. The bonds between the fishermen and scientists proved particularly important for this exploration—from sharing knowledge of shark habitats to a bi-national turtle tag exchange. There remains much to learn about shark populations in Cuba and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Our research team is now better prepared to collect and organize shark data and looks forward to partnering with fishermen in future expeditions.

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Expedition Cuba: A Tri-National Journey to Share Science and Survey Sharks, Part 1

Shark researchers from Cuba, Mexico, &  the U.S. capture a bull shark in the Gulf of Batabanó, Cuba.

Shark researchers from Cuba, Mexico, & the U.S. capture a bull shark in the Gulf of Batabanó, Cuba. (From L to R: Pedro Reyes and Alexei Ruiz of the Center for Marine Research – Cuba, Jack Morris of Mote Marine Laboratory – USA) Photo Credit: Valerie Miller

 

By: Kendra Karr & Valerie Miller

Intro by Dan Whittle: With generous support from the Waitt Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has launched a new initiative to support collaborative field research with scientists from the University of Havana's Center for Marine Research. This initiative is enabling teams of Cuban, U.S. and Mexican scientists to carry out a series of scientific expeditions to conduct important new research on Cuba's remarkable—but understudied—marine and coastal ecosystems. This effort will also support year-round port sampling of shark fishery landings at Cuban ports, contributing to EDF’s overarching tri-national shark conservation efforts throughout the Gulf of Mexico.  

On our inaugural expedition in February 2013, our tri-national team embarked on a research cruise off of Cuba's south coast in the Gulf of Batabanó to share knowledge and scientific methods, and to survey migratory shark populations. The expedition was organized by EDF Oceans’ Cuba, Science, and Shark conservation programs and led on-the-water by scientists from University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (CIM) and from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida; with participation by a scientist from Mexico’s College of the Southern Frontier (ECOSUR).

Results from this expedition will be highlighted in a 3 part blog series. Today’s post focuses on sharing science in data-limited shark fisheries.  It will be followed by stories about the partnership of fishermen and scientists and baseline data.  Join the journey here and follow along this week!

Map, Gulf of Batabano

Expedition Location – Gulf of Batabanó & Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth)

The Story behind Sharks

Sharks are top predators, critical for maintaining the health and resilience of marine ecosystems. Unfortunately, some shark populations are in trouble, primarily because more sharks are fished than are reproduced.  Across the Gulf of Mexico, migratory animals such as sharks, tunas and others are an important source of food and economic activity.  Sharks are threatened by overfishing and some populations in the Gulf of Mexico are estimated to have declined over 90% in the last 25 years.[1]

Because they are migratory, many shark species traverse political boundaries. This makes monitoring their population status difficult and presents challenges to maintaining healthy stocks and rebuilding depleted ones. Many shark fisheries are considered “data-limited,” with little available information to assess the stock, including basic statistics covering reproduction, life span, migrations, abundance, and amount landed — both from targeted fishing and accidental catch – known as bycatch.

Eighty percent of all fisheries biomass and the vast majority of stocks in most countries are data poor.  Fortunately, scientific techniques exist to help assess fisheries with minimal data. EDF’s Oceans science team is advancing assessment methods that use easily gathered data or pre-existing information. The key to assessing data-limited fisheries is to have access to any available fishery data (for example, catch at sea or at a landing site) or to fishery independent surveys (for example, monitoring of shark size, sex and abundance). Depending on the method used, a data-limited assessment estimates the current population’s sustainable catch, risk of overfishing, or stock status – how healthy the stock is at current fishing levels. The first step to take advantage of these new data-limited assessment methods is to pull together any available data and improve monitoring.

Although some shark populations in the Gulf of Mexico are well studied and the U.S. has conducted comprehensive assessments, more data is needed on migratory shark species throughout the region.  EDF and our partners are taking the first steps to help determine the status of populations. Toward this end, EDF established a tri-national partnership for monitoring and management of shark fisheries among scientists in Cuba, Mexico and the United States. Scientists are working together to collect and organize information on shark catches from fishing ports and aboard fishing vessels, as well as conducting biological monitoring surveys across a diverse array of habitats apart from shark fishery catch. The partnership has reached agreement with INAPESCA, Mexico’s national fisheries research institute, to standardize shark monitoring methods across all of its Gulf States. Scientists from Cuba’s Center for Marine Research (CIM) are building a shark database and working with partners in Mexico to incorporate their data. All of these steps will aid in future assessments, setting conservation goals and sustaining populations and fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. These efforts are the backbone of a successful shark recovery program. Read More »

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Diving in the Jardines de la Reina – Gardens of the Queen – in Southeastern Cuba

After hundreds of dives around the Caribbean – and decades of “fish watching” – I thought there was nothing left in that part of the world to knock my socks off.  Boy, was I wrong!

Tortuga floating hotel in Los Jardines de la Reina, Cuba

Tortuga floating hotel in Los Jardines de la Reina, Cuba

I have heard for years about the wonders of the Jardines de la Reina – the Gardens of the Queen – in southeastern Cuba, and so was prepared for better-than-average diving during a recent week of exploring opportunities for scientific research in the recently declared national park.  Our base was the floating hotel, “Tortuga,” operated jointly by Cuba and the Italian company, Avalon.

I was totally unprepared for the sheer spectacle created by massive Goliath groupers, swarms of huge groupers and snappers, carpets of other reef fishes, and by the parade of sharks on every dive.  Diving with free-swimming Goliath groupers – behemoths sometimes nearly the size of Volkswagens – is a never to be forgotten experience.

Dr. Doug Rader with a Goliath grouper in Cuba

Dr. Doug Rader with a Goliath grouper in Cuba

Sharks are the calling card for the Gardens to divers from around the world: silky, Caribbean reef, blacktips, lemons and nurse sharks, plus the diving “holy grail” – whale sharks – the world’s largest sharks.  During our week, divers hailed from Lithuania, Latvia, the UK, Germany and the US.

Whale sharks, in fact, create their own microcosms as they feed on zooplankton and herrings that are also eating the zooplankton attracting schools of small tuna called bonitos that in turn attract silky sharks and seabirds in a massive feeding orgy.  Spotters find whale sharks by the birds picking up the leftovers.  The week before we were there groups of divers saw whale sharks every day.  Changing weather meant clearer water and better diving, but shifted the whale sharks away from our location – only one was sited our week, and not by us!

Caribbean reef shark

Caribbean reef shark

In addition to a variety of dives on different types of reef formations, we also spent many hours snorkeling. We examined every key habitat of the Gardens, from the nurseries formed by shallow-water mangroves and seagrass beds, to patch reefs and reef crests, and then to fore reefs and coral canyons and walls. 

Each new habitat added to a list of fishes that by week’s end numbered 124 species.  Actually, we did no night diving or snorkeling, and so missed a whole element of fish diversity which hides under coral heads during the day.  Also, I realized at the end of the trip that I had failed to notice many species because the large fishes distracted me.  Cuban scientists  in the Gardens suggested that many of the smaller fish we are used to seeing during the day in the more depleted reefs around the Caribbean are also there, but must spend more time hiding under the corals given the huge abundance of predators!  Makes sense to me.

Carpet of reef fish - school of fish

A carpet of reef fish

The one “downer” we encountered was the amazing prevalence of invasive Pacific red lionfishes, which we saw on nearly every dive and snorkel, regardless of depth, and regardless of habitat type.  While the impact of these voracious predators armed with poisonous spines remains unknown, it cannot be good to have so many on the reefs and in the shallows.  On one dive, I counted 22 lionfish and one of my colleagues counted 23.  Apparently, many foreigners like to see them, unaware of the challenge to the reef – the bellwether for a future full of changing animal populations as oceans warm and acidify – that they may represent.

All in all, our EDF team returned both awed at the beauty found in this remote location, but also energized by the potential for restoration of fish populations that a combination of proper management of marine parks and effective fisheries management represent.  Given the fact that most of these reef species have life histories that reach all the way across the continental shelf, the third piece of the puzzle, of course, must be effective coastal zone management – more about that later!

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Joint U.S.-Cuba-Mexico shark catch share gaining media interest

This weekend Reuters wrote a story about two EDF staff members’ recent trip to Cuba. Last week Dan Whittle, Pamela Baker and U.S. scientists visited with Cuban officials to discuss collaboration between the U.S., Cuba and Mexico to better protect the Gulf of Mexico’s struggling shark population. EDF and Mote Marine Laboratory are promoting improved management for sharks, including exploration of catch share management systems increasingly used to meet the conservation and economic objectives in diverse parts of the world.

Shark populations have been troubled for years, primarily due to overfishing, in part resulting from China’s high demand for shark fin soup. Sharks are “highly migratory,” meaning they travel throughout the Gulf and beyond, not just in U.S. waters.

For Gulf sharks — and the benefits they provide to local communities — to be sustained over the long-term, a cooperative effort between the three countries that fish in Gulf waters is key. Catch shares can offer advantages over conventional regulations by creating incentives for fishermen to focus on a steady and high quality catch over higher volume, often lower quality harvests. Important political and other challenges exist, but the potential benefits of cooperation make the effort worthwhile.  Management programs should be designed to achieve the conservation, economic and social objectives of the three countries.

Read the full story.

At the end of September, EDF will be participating in a tri-national workshop with U.S., Cuban and Mexican scientists to finalize a long-term marine research and conservation plan for the Gulf of Mexico at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. Sharks will be discussed as one of six working groups focused on priority resources in the Gulf of Mexico. More information will be posted on EDFish as the event approaches.

Read more about our work in Cuba or about shark populations in the Gulf.

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