To protect endangered sharks and rays, scientists are mapping the most important locations of these species.

Un tiburón tigre nada entre peces cirujano frente al atolón Fuvahmulah, Maldivas, en el Océano Índico.  <a href=imageBROKER/Norbert Probst via Getty Images” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTYzOA–/ 71f21db96b77774db6″ data- src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTYzOA–/ 1f21db96b77774db6″/>

All bodies of salt water on Earth form one large ocean. But within it, there is infinite variety: ask any diver. Some places have more coral, more sea turtles, more fish, more life.

“I’ve been diving in many places around the world and there are few places like Fuvahmulah Atoll in the Maldives,” Amanda Batlle-Morera, research assistant for the Important Areas for Sharks and Rays project, told me. “You can observe tiger sharks, thresher sharks, hammerhead sharks, oceanic manta rays and more, without throwing out bait to attract them.”

Identifying areas like Fuvahmulah that are especially important for certain species is a long-standing strategy to protect threatened terrestrial animals, birds and marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. Now our team of marine conservation scientists at the Important Shark and Ray Areas project are using it to help protect sharks and their relatives.

I am a marine conservation biologist and communications manager for the project. This initiative is working to identify places that are critical for sharks and rays, so that these areas can be marked for future protection or fisheries management measures.

where are the sharks

Sharks and their relatives are some of the most endangered animals on Earth: more than a third of all known species are at risk of extinction. Many of these animals play vital roles in their ecosystems. The loss of marine predators can destabilize entire food webs and the ecosystems on which these food webs depend.

In recent years, the management of sharks and their relatives, rays and chimeras, has largely focused on curbing the impacts of fishing and trade on these species. But their populations continue to decline rapidly, so new strategies are needed.

To effectively protect these important and threatened animals, my colleagues and I believe it is vital to identify and protect parts of the ocean, as well as some freshwater habitats, that are especially important to their lives. Some areas, for example, are important migratory routes, feeding or mating areas, or places to lay eggs.

Our team has created a list of technical criteria so that areas around the world can be examined and potentially designated as Important Shark and Ray Areas. We model these criteria after similar approaches already in use, such as important marine mammal areas, which we adapt to the specific needs and biology of sharks and their relatives.

We are now hosting a series of 13 regional workshops around the world and inviting local experts to nominate preliminary areas of interest for evaluation by our team and an independent expert review panel. So far, we have completed three workshops, one focused on the Pacific of Central and South America, another on the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, and the third in the western Indian Ocean, with a workshop for Asia planned for early 2024.

Following workshops and expert reviews, each completed Important Shark and Ray Area will be added to our electronic atlas, which can be viewed online. The Important Shark and Ray Areas for each region are published in a formal compendium, and the entire global process will be repeated every 10 years. This cycle will allow us to consider changes in areas that have already been mapped, such as new fishing policies or impacts of climate change, and take into account new research that can help us identify new areas.

Inform conservation policies

We recently published our compendium for the Mediterranean and Black Sea region, reflecting contributions from more than 180 experts from across the region. It identifies 65 important areas for sharks and rays that vary widely in size and habitat type. Our Western Indian Ocean compendium includes more than 125 areas.

These areas are important for species such as the critically endangered black-chinned guitarfish (Glaucostegus cemiculus), as well as highly fished shark species such as the common smooth shark (mustelus mustelus).

Some of these areas, such as the island of Benidorm off the Mediterranean coast of Spain, are located in shallow coastal areas. Others, such as the Cocos-Galápagos Channel off Costa Rica and Ecuador, reach deep ocean waters.

The smallest area identified so far, Israel’s Palmahim brine pools in the southeastern Mediterranean, measures just 0.09 square kilometers (0.03 square miles), about half the size of the city’s Grand Central station. NY. Blackmouth sharkgaleo melastomus) breed and lay eggs there, and the threatened rough angular sharks (Oxynotus centrina) they feed there, including blackmouth shark eggs.

The largest area is the Strait of Sicily and the Tunisian Plateau, which extends over 77,000 square miles (200,000 square kilometers) – about the size of Britain – in the Mediterranean between Sicily, Malta, western Libya and Tunisia. This area is home to at least 32 species of sharks, rays and chimeras, including many that are at risk of extinction, in habitats ranging from shallow seagrass beds to deep ocean trenches.

Identifying a location as an Important Shark and Ray Area does not mean it will automatically be protected. Our goal is to inform countries’ existing spatial planning and fisheries management processes and other conservation plans. Over time, these areas may be incorporated into marine protected areas or other types of ocean reserves.

Sharks and their relatives need human help to survive and maintain their important biological functions in the ocean. Through the Important Areas for Sharks and Rays project, hundreds of scientists and other experts are helping to identify special places for these species that we believe need additional attention.

Dr Rima Jabado, Chair of the Shark Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, contributed to this article.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit news organization bringing you data and analysis to help you understand our complex world.

It was written by: David Shiffman, Arizona State University.

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David Shiffman does not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.

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