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Ground-breaking Shark Research conducted in St. Maarten waters

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

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In April 2021 members from the Nature Foundation St. Maarten, the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA), the Saba Conservation Foundation (SCF), and Beneath the Waves conducted multiple ‘scientific firsts’ as part of the “Shark Shakedown” project. The research expedition was a part of a wider research project into tiger sharks in the region funded by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-NL) through the Biodiversity Funds and the Dutch National Postcode Lottery. The researchers tagged eleven sharks, including for the first time a female pregnant tiger and endangered Caribbean reef shark in the Dutch Caribbean. The data will provide vital information for conservation strategies not only in St. Maarten, but for the wider Caribbean.

The expedition lasted five days in which three species of sharks were tagged, including tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier), Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezi), and nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) all ranging from sub-adults to adults.

Participants received hands-on training with experts from Beneath the Waves in preparation for the upcoming expedition to the Saba Bank in August 2021. The goal of this upcoming expedition is to determine whether the Saba Bank is a breeding area for tiger sharks in the Eastern Caribbean. The high-definition ultrasound technology the team used was created by E. I. Medical Imaging and pioneered by collaborator Dr. James Sulikowski, of Arizona State University. This technology has successfully been used to identify maturity state and the stage of pregnancy in various shark species, a first for shark science in the region.

The scientists successfully confirmed early pregnancy stage in a large female tiger shark, as well as placed a satellite tag on the shark during the workup process. Using satellite tracking over the next few months, the scientists hope to confirm evidence of Sint Maarten being a breeding location for these globally threatened animals. In another shark tagging ‘first’, Beneath the Waves’ Chief Scientist, Dr. Austin Gallagher, placed the first camera tag on a tiger shark in the Dutch Caribbean. The team successfully recovered the camera package during the expedition, and the animal has already shown promising results regarding shark behavior in the region.

Both the satellite tag and camera tag have shown that these tiger sharks prefer to travel in the area between St. Maarten and St. Barths; however, these are only the first detections. No assumptions can be made yet regarding the movement of these animals.

The information gained from this research will provide a better understanding of the importance of both the status of sharks in Sint Maarten’s territorial waters and in the Yarari Sanctuary and the role these ecosystems play in the life-cycle of tiger sharks in the wider Caribbean region. Tiger sharks are currently categorized as Near-Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature while Caribbean reef sharks have very recently been upgraded to Endangered. Sharks play key roles in maintaining the balance within local and regional marine ecosystems and maintaining biodiversity and therefore their protection is crucial.

Follow the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance’s Facebook, Instagram (dcnanature) or DCNA’s website (https://dcnanature.org/news/) to learn more about the shark expedition and other nature news from the Dutch Caribbean.

Photo credit:  ©  Sami Kattan/Beneath the Waves (all rights reserved)

Nick and Caroline (Frogfish Photography) are a married couple of conservation driven underwater photo-journalists and authors. Both have honours degrees from Manchester University, in Environmental Biology and Biology respectively, with Nick being a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, a former high school science teacher with a DipEd in Teaching Studies. Caroline has an MSc in Animal Behaviour specializing in Caribbean Ecology. They are multiple award-winning photographers and along with 4 published books, feature regularly in the diving, wildlife and international press They are the Underwater Photography and Deputy Editors at Scubaverse and Dive Travel Adventures. Winners of the Caribbean Tourism Organization Photo-journalist of the Year for a feature on Shark Diving in The Bahamas, and they have been placed in every year they have entered. Nick and Caroline regularly use their free time to visit schools, both in the UK and on their travels, to discuss the important issues of marine conservation, sharks and plastic pollution. They are ambassadors for Sharks4Kids and founders of SeaStraw. They are Dive Ambassadors for The Islands of The Bahamas and they are supported by Mares, Paralenz, Nauticam and Olympus. To find out more visit www.frogfishphotography.com

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Unraveling the mysteries of the Saba Bank

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

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For the first time on the Saba Bank, an expedition team was able to successfully assess the shark diversity by attaching five satellite tags and confirming pregnancy stages by ultrasound of two species of sharks. This research advancement resulted in assessing 56 sharks, including 16 Tiger sharks with one confirmed early-stage pregnancy, and the first tagged male in the region. These details indicate that the Saba Bank’s important role in the shark populations of the North-Eastern and wider Caribbean Region have yet to be unlocked. This information is crucial to better protect sharks within the Dutch Caribbean’s Yarari Marine Mammal and Shark Sanctuary as well as beyond.

Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) along with the Protected Area Management Organizations of the Dutch Caribbean: Saba Conservation Foundation (SCF), Nature Foundation St. Maarten (NFSXM), St. Eustatius National Parks (STENAPA), STINAPA Bonaire, the Aruba National Parks Foundation (FPNA), the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) and World Wildlife Fund for Nature- The Netherlands (WWF-NL) led a team on the Saba Bank in collaboration with Arizona State University, University of Groningen, Beneath the Waves and funded by the Biodiversity Fund of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature- The Netherlands (WWF-NL) .

This week-long ocean research expedition aimed to understand the stages of the reproductive cycle of tiger sharks on the Saba Bank. Tadzio Bervoets, Director of DCNA and expedition leader adds: “It is critical to collect the data necessary to advance the conservation actions for species of sharks in the Caribbean Region and with the data collected over the last week we have been able to get a clear picture of the important role the Saba Bank plays.”

This expedition built upon previous research and expertise from collaborating scientists.

Throughout the week, the team was able to deploy five satellite tags on the dorsal fin of tiger sharks which will allow tracking of the animals over an extended period of time. The ultrasounds which were taken using high technology imagery to determine the maturity and pregnancy stage supported by Brooke Anderson, Ph.D. candidate of Dr. James Sulikowski’s Lab, Arizona State University show that the Saba Bank is a reproductive area for IUCN Near Threatened listed species tiger and the IUCN endangered listed Caribbean Reef Shark. One of the female tiger sharks was confirmed with an early stage pregnancy and boasted a total length of 251cm. This multidisciplinary research approach is necessary for taking the first steps in understanding the reproductive life cycle for the species in the region.

One of the mysteries which resulted was the first tagged male on the Saba Bank sized at 306 cm and later named Maestro Angelo. While it is common to find females, it was surprising to encounter male tiger sharks during the research. Due to the lack of research done previously on these sharks on the Saba Bank, it became evident as to why there is a need to emphasize the importance and need for scientific research into these species.

Expeditions brought forward by the protected area management organizations, such as this one, support the necessary research needed for data-driven management solutions. These results will be used to help steer future research activities, inform local governments on the significant impact these species and their habitats have on ecotourism, and ultimately strengthen conservation policies. Ayumi Kuramae, Saba Bank Management Unit Officer shared the importance of this study:

“Through previous tagging expeditions it was clear that the tiger sharks tagged on the Saba Bank can travel as far south as Grenada, crossing many nations’ borders. This shows the importance of protecting the species not only in our waters, but region wide. Seeing male and female tiger sharks together of different life stages, shows us that protection of these species in our water is vital since we may be protecting the future generation of tiger sharks in the region. A decrease in the number of sharks can affect the overall fish stocks which leads to a disturbed natural balance in the sea. Saba, for example, highly depends on fisheries and dive tourism as part of the local economy which also relies on a healthy fish stocks. Thus, understanding the role of these apex predators is extremely important.”

After gazetting, the Yarari Marine Mammal and Shark Sanctuary will encompass the exclusive economic zone waters of the Saba Bank along with Saba, Bonaire and Statia. This sanctuary has the intention to provide a safe place for these animals, but without supportive data and knowledge, it is difficult to ensure they receive the appropriate protection measures. In order to survive, tiger sharks may use the Saba Bank as a key habitat for different stages of their life cycle but are known to travel to other regions during different life stages, making them a transboundary species. This expedition will help identify where larger, multi-national marine protected areas across the Caribbean should be to protect these species during their whole life cycle.

For more information about the work of the DCNA visit their website by clicking here

Images: Daniel Norwood

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Expedition on the Saba Bank to Enhance Tiger Shark Protection

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

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This August a team of researchers will spend a week on the Saba Bank investigating the life-cycle of tiger sharks. Researchers will investigate the migration routes, where and when tiger sharks breed so they can protect them better within the Dutch Caribbean’s Yarari Marine Mammal and Shark Sanctuary as well as beyond. In this expedition members from the Saba Conservation Foundation (SCF), Nature Foundation St. Maarten (NFSXM), St. Eustatius National Parks (STENAPA), STINAPA Bonaire, the Aruba National Parks Foundation (FPNA), the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) and World Wildlife Fund for Nature the Netherlands (WWF-NL) will participate.

In 2016, the Saba Conservation Foundation, Nature Foundation St. Maarten, and Sharks for Kids  partnered together as part of DCNA’s Save our Sharks Project funded by the Dutch National Postcode Lottery. Since then, satellite tagging of tiger sharks has been conducted on the Saba Bank and around Sint Maarten. Through this research we now know that tiger sharks in Dutch waters travel throughout the Caribbean basin, with most of these tagged sharks being sexually mature females. During the upcoming expedition the researchers aim to not only tag and track more tiger sharks to further investigate the life cycle, but they will also measure if and how large the pups inside pregnant tiger sharks are. This will help to determine if the Saba Bank is in fact a breeding ground for tiger sharks, one of the main goals of the expedition.

(c) Sami Kattan

The other objective is to see where these transboundary sharks migrate to in order to better understand the importance of the Yarari Marine Mammal and Shark Sanctuary and protect other geographical areas. The Yarari Sanctuary was established on September 1, 2015 and aims to protect marine mammals, sharks, and rays throughout the waters of Bonaire, Saba, and since September 2018, St. Eustatius. Collaboration between not only the six Dutch Caribbean islands but countries across the wider Caribbean as a whole is necessary in order to protect and conserve these essential species and ecosystems. Therefore the Caribbean Shark Coalition was recently formed to collaborate better in the entire Greater Caribbean region.

Celebrated on July 28 each year, World Nature Conservation Day acknowledges that a healthy environment is the foundation for a stable and healthy society. This includes a healthy ocean which, undoubtedly, depends on sharks. Sharks are large top predators that serve a critical role in maintaining balance in the marine ecosystem. Sharks help keep their prey population healthy by eating the weak while also affecting their prey’s distribution. In healthy oceans, sharks help to maintain stable fish stocks and healthy coral reefs and seagrass beds, which is important for the fisheries and the economy of the islands.

The Tiger Shark research expedition is coordinated by the DCNA and generously funded by WWF-NL through the Biodiversity Funds and the Dutch National Postcode Lottery.

For more information on the Pregnant Tiger Shark Expedition, follow the participating organizations on Facebook, Instagram or DCNA’s website.

Header image: Jarrett Corke (WWF Canada)

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