Sharks are born survivors, and they have the fossil records to prove it. While seemingly impervious to the ravages of geological time, however, sharks cannot withstand the industrial-scale hoovering that is sucking the life out of our ocean.

Within the space of a few decades – the evolutionary blink of an eye – global shark populations have plummeted by an estimated 90%. One species of hammerhead has been reduced to just 1% of its historical level.

Sharks have ruled the ocean for over 450 million years. Credit: Kimberly Jeffries/Ocean Image Bank

The scale of the threats now facing these irreplaceable apex predators means that they urgently need greater protection if we are to reverse their potentially catastrophic decline.

Sites of special shark interest

Recognising the existential threats to these ecologically vital species, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has identified project sites within its existing marine portfolio that merit special attention in light of their crucial importance as shark havens. Here are three examples of how we are putting sharks front and centre in our marine conservation efforts, in close collaboration with our partners around the world.

Ray of hope in Cabo Verde

A global hotspot for marine biodiversity, the waters of the archipelago nation of Cabo Verde harbour over 60 species of elasmobranch including manta rays, whale sharks and key breeding populations of other threatened sharks.

The waters around Cabo Verde are a crucial refuge for sharks in the north-eastern Atlantic. Credit: Felipe Spina/Fauna & Flora International

With FFI support, in-country partner Fundação Maio Biodiversidade (FMB) has been gathering urgently needed baseline data, to bridge the knowledge gap on shark and ray distribution and abundance in Cabo Verde and help shape local conservation initiatives. In the course of its work, FMB has identified at least two, possibly three, nurseries for species including nurse, lemon, tiger, milk and scalloped hammerhead sharks.

The marine team has also recorded two species of ray that are new to the country’s list: the smoothtail mobula – also called, more evocatively, the bentfin devil ray – was confirmed back in 2017; more recently, the West African torpedo – a rare and red-listed electric ray – was added to the Cabo Verde collective. It’s the first time that these elusive and endangered elasmobranchs have been reported there.

“I love when we find new species or try new methodologies,” says Sara Ratao, FMB’s Marine & Terrestrial Programmes Coordinator. “For example, we’ve just started to use drones to count and identify shark species in a particular bay in Maio (classified as a marine reserve because of its importance as a mating and nursery ground for several species). We have already seen that the bay is not only full of nurse sharks, but also has a few big tiger sharks and some smaller species including juvenile lemon sharks. 

Nurse sharks observed during a drone survey in Cabo Verde. Credit: Fundação Maio Biodiversidade

We used to do these surveys by snorkelling, but poor in-water visibility made it difficult for us to estimate shark numbers. Where we used to count three to seven sharks while snorkelling, now we can see over 30 sharks." 
Sara Ratao Marine & Terrestrial Programmes Coordinator, Fundação Maio Biodiversidade (FMB)

The use of Baited Remote Underwater Video Stations (BRUVS) to film sharks and rays is also revealing more about abundance and species richness.

Elasmobranchs are also among the many beneficiaries of the “Guardians of the Sea” initiative started by FMB in 2016. Fishers from different communities have been equipped and empowered to monitor and report on illegal fishing activities at sea, and they also collect data on marine megafauna include sharks and rays. Fishers have received training in species identification, GPS use and legal issues relating to marine protected areas and protected species. This initiative is now being rolled out across seven of the nine inhabited islands in the archipelago.

Meet the Guardians of the Sea protecting Cape Verde’s marine life 3

Guardians of the Sea in Maio, Cabo Verde. Credit: Fundação Maio Biodiversidade

Sightings reported by the public and FMB survey teams have also contributed to shark and ray knowledge: “For example, we now know the timings of manta rays in Maio, as well as of whale sharks (which we didn’t before) thanks to the massive contribution of fishers to local information. The local authorities have also helped in safeguarding the local sharks with the support of FMB by making sure the no-take areas are protected, and they have taken legal action against sport fishing companies caught fishing there.”

Winning hearts and minds in Myanmar

FFI has been working on shark and ray conservation in Myanmar for eight years. Before the latest military coup, we were working with the government to develop a national action plan for sharks and rays in close collaboration with the Department of Fisheries.

In the absence of reliable data, this work has included a thorough assessment of the status and distribution of these species, including the extent of trade in sharks and rays, particularly in the Myeik archipelago.

Juvenile scalloped hammerhead sharks, found during a market survey in Myanmar. Credit: Robert Howard/Fauna & Flora International

BRUV surveys were initiated to identify key areas for elasmobranch conservation, along with scuba-diving and snorkelling surveys and, more recently, drone surveys. To complement the field studies, FFI’s close partner Myeik University has conducted interviews with fishers and carried out surveys at markets and landing sites.

Initially, very few live sharks were recorded, highlighting the urgency of introducing better protection measures. More recently, however, juvenile and adult whale sharks have been recorded inside a proposed protected area, very close to one of the Locally Managed Marine Areas that FFI has been supporting for several years.

An awareness campaign, including educational videos (see below) and signage at markets and landing sites, has been launched to promote sustainable use of sharks and rays and, in particular, to reduce trade in endangered species and those protected by international treaties.

Encouragingly, these measures are already having an impact, according to FFI’s Marine Project Officer in Myanmar, Soe Tint Aung. “Last year, a national newspaper had an article on the importance of shark conservation. Public engagement can be seen on social media, especially when they find shark products for sale. Sharks are still landed, but they are no longer a target species. Accidental by-catch is down since fishers stopped using multiple hooks and longlines, which were used extensively before we engaged.”

Keeping threats at bay in Turkey

The Mediterranean waters around Turkey are an important nursery and breeding ground for sharks, but these are vulnerable to illegal fishing and accidental by-catch. Gökova Bay is the main nursery ground for the Mediterranean population of the endangered sandbar shark and crucial to the survival prospects of this species. The bay’s deeper waters are also believed to harbour the critically endangered angel shark.

Since 2012, FFI’s long-term partner Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (AKD) has led conservation efforts in Gökova Bay, the site of Turkey’s first and – until 2020 – only actively managed marine protected area. AKD has helped protect sandbar sharks in Boncuk Bay, a suspected shark hotspot in the larger Gökova Bay project area, since 2013.

Boncuk Bay lies within one of Gökova’s six designated no-fishing zones, which AKD manages, patrols and monitors with its rangers, protecting sharks and their prey from fishing pressure and from disturbance caused by high boat traffic during the tourist season.

A ranger on patrol in the Marine Protected Area of Kas, Turkey. Credit: Akdeniz Koruma Derneği

A solar-powered remote underwater video monitoring system, installed in May 2021, now complements and enhances manual monitoring efforts, providing continuous data on shark presence in this area. With this new system, AKD recorded 17 adult sandbar shark encounters from around 300 hours of recording in 2021. Drone imagery from the area has confirmed the presence of at least seven individual sharks, which were observed at the same time. This included a juvenile under one metre in length, an indication of reproductive success in this population.

Supported by the Endangered Landscapes Programme, AKD’s collaborative, community-led approach has seen an increase in fish biomass within Gökova Bay’s no-fishing zones, thereby improving small-scale fisher income and increasing availability of prey for sharks and other predatory marine species.

A sandbar shark photographed on a drone survey in Boncuk Bay during the installation of a new monitoring system for the species. Credit: Akdeniz Koruma Derneği

Vahit Alan, AKD’s Conservation and Monitoring Studies Manager, who has been involved in shark monitoring work since 2013, views the work in Boncuk Bay as a prime example of successful species conservation through habitat restoration action:

Boncuk Bay is one of the rare and lucky areas where ecosystem restoration actions are carried out. Thanks to all of these efforts sandbar sharks can live safely in the bay.
Vahit Alan Conservation and Monitoring Studies Manager, Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (AKD)