Grey nurse sharks ‘Missing in Action’

It’s not often that people actively seek out sharks, but that’s exactly what this team of researchers are doing, thanks to a project in Australia dedicated to uncovering the secrets of a diminishing grey nurse shark (GNS) population.

The Missing in Action research project forms part of a larger marine incentive known as Grey Nurse Shark Watch. Launched in Queensland earlier this year, Grey Nurse Shark Watch is the first of its kind to collect and collate results on the population and behaviours of the Endangered grey nurse shark shark species.

Missing In Action forms the field investigation component of the broader GNS Watch project. The population of GNS off the east coast of Australia is considered Critically Endangered with less than a thousand sharks left in the wild. Hunted almost to extinction in the 1950s, the GNS only breeds once every two to three years. This combined with their low population numbers and other threats such as accidental capture by fishers and protective beach meshing continue to impact on recovery efforts for the ferocious-looking but gentle giant.

Project partner Australia Zoo have assisted the first team of researchers to begin investigating Queensland’s ‘missing’ aggregation sites – where the sharks meet to breed, feed and gestate, by generously donating the use of their world-famous vessel Croc One to the project.

Croc One Photo: Australia Zoo

Without the use of Croc One and its highly specialised crew, this marine environment would be virtually impossible to navigate.

Wes Mannion, Director of Australia Zoo said, “This vessel was designed by Steve Irwin himself. It’s a 75 foot, purpose built craft, guaranteed to deliver the ultimate in performance during wildlife expeditions. This deep probe expedition boat gives us the chance to research marine wildlife in remote locations, which makes it ideal for the work being carried out by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and Grey Nurse Shark Watch. Australia Zoo has a long-standing and very close relationship with FFI and we are pleased to offer our equipment and expertise to them.”

The first research expedition departed on 7 November and will continue through December 2011. Researchers are confident further aggregation sites are still to be located in Queensland waters.

Following an extensive Geographical Information Systems (GIS) review of potential sites, 25 locations were selected for the first round of field investigations with the field team deploying remote underwater video cameras and acoustic listening stations from Guthrie Shoal, Bustard Head and Lady Elliot Island near Gladstone, Fraser Island, the Sunshine Coast and south to Moreton Bay.

Jack Whelan FFI Australia Executive Director said, “We are grateful to all our partners for their support of this programme. It demonstrates a real commitment, not only to increasing our knowledge about the grey nurse shark, but ultimately conserving them.”

The project is a massive exercise in logistics – not only with vessels, equipment, researchers and volunteers, but in terms of funding and supporters.

To undertake this exercise FFI are being assisted by the University of Queensland, Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management, the Burnett Mary Regional Group for NRM, Reef Check Australia, Australian Capital Equity, the Ronald Geoffrey Arnott Foundation (managed by Perpetual Trustees Australia Ltd), Lady Elliot Eco Resort and Australia Zoo.

Jack concluded, “There is no doubt that a collaborative approach is essential to ensure the success of this research.  Catalysing local partnerships has been at the heart of FFI conservation activities for over a hundred years.”