In the third of our series of blogs highlighting the work of the Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) we look at two marine conservation projects in the Galapagos set up to improve our knowledge of two shark species; the Galapagos Bullhead Shark and Whale Shark.
Studying marine animals is by its nature more complex than tracking land-based animals; especially those that cover a large range. For this reason, not much is known about the habits of these sharks and the health of their populations.
Galapagos Whale Shark Monitoring
One of Santiago’s all time highlights of his 20 years’ guiding in Galapagos was swimming with one of these gentle giants. The whale shark is the world’s largest fish yet surprisingly little is known about it. We have yet to discover where they go to breed, give birth and spend the first few years of their lives. Understanding these basic life story elements is critically important if we are to protect whale sharks from exploitation around the world for their meat and fins.
The Galapagos Islands are one of several locations that whale sharks are known to congregate at certain times of year. Unlike gatherings in the Indian Ocean, which are largely made up of small immature males, the majority of those who visit Galapagos are large females, and over 90% of them appear to be pregnant. This presents an exciting research opportunity to study these enigmatic animals provide crucially needed information on their breeding habits.
Since 2011, the Galapagos Whale Shark project, sponsored by the GCT has tagged over 35 whale sharks, the majority of which were pregnant females. The tags then record the position of the shark each time they surface, allowing their migration around the planet to be tracked. Although none of the tagged sharks remain in the Galapagos Marine Reserve for more than a few days, their predictable annual appearance suggests that this area is important to them and further research into how individuals use this area could provide valuable insights. By increasing our knowledge of migration patterns and educating local authorities and communities, the Galapagos Whale Shark project aims to drive the development of effective management strategies for whale shark populations.
Galapagos Bullhead Shark Study
The small and inconspicuous Galapagos bullhead shark remains something of a mystery and currently there is very little scientific information available for this species. One of the biggest (and most exciting!) questions is whether this shark has potentially diverged into a completely separate species. Many of the questions around its conservation status and threats, life history and distribution are set to be answered with the first ever scientific study on this species in the Galapagos Islands.
The Galapagos Bullhead Shark Project is a long-term research project aiming to map the distribution of the species throughout the archipelago to identify key habitats and guide conservation efforts. By identifying hotspots for the survival of this species, the team will provide compelling evidence to include these areas into an improved zoning of the Marine Reserve. A ‘citizen science’ approach is involving the local community and visitors in conservation research by reporting shark sightings. This will build on the data gathered during research cruises to collect further data on individuals encountered and build up a more complete picture of the habits of this small shark.
Although sharks are officially protected from industrial fisheries within the Galapagos Marine Reserve, there is still a significant amount of incidental shark catch by local fisheries as well as illegal fishing and finning of sharks. The effects of these threats on the Galapagos bullhead shark are uncertain and this project is vital to protect this unique species.
To read more about the marine conservation work of the Galapagos Conservation Trust, click here.