Shark ambassadors at a public event educating the Galapagos local community about the value of a much-feared species.

The most common response when I talk to non-scientists about sharks, is that they are dangerous animals that, among other things, kill people. Actually, sharks are not killers; they are very interesting animals and science has helped us to discover some of their marvelous secrets. Besides being top predators in the oceans, and helping to keep oceans healthy, sharks are very important for Galapagos livelihoods that depend on tourism.

CDF scientist diving with a whale shark at the Darwin Arch in the Galapagos Islands.
CDF scientist diving with a whale shark at the Darwin Arch in the Galapagos Islands. Photo by: Pelayo Salinas-de-Leon.

I will never forget the first time I saw a hammerhead while diving in the Galapagos Islands; it was amazing to watch a shark getting closer, with its funny and curious face making soft movements. That was when I realized how marvelous and special these animals are. After watching other species of sharks close to me, I wondered how to make people feel as curious as I felt, and how I might involve them in the adventure of discovery and learning about sharks.

Hammerhead at the Darwin Arch in the Galapagos Islands.
Hammerhead at the Darwin Arch in the Galapagos Islands. Photo by: Pelayo Salinas-de-Leon.

After a first educational campaign, I realized how knowledge has a direct impact on the perceptions people have about a topic. Sharks have a bad public image, and if we do not share the information we have about them, it will not be easy for people to support its conservation.

Local children in the shark week public event to share information about the importance of sharks for the marine ecosystems and for tourism.
Local children in the shark week public event to share information about the importance of sharks for the marine ecosystems and for tourism. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova.

Last year, we developed a new campaign in favor of sharks called “Protect the fins and the ocean wins”, with the aim of changing negative perceptions about these animals and to promote the Galapagos as an example of co-existence between humans and sharks. We developed workshops, field trips, contests and public events to communicate specific messages about the physiology, ecological role, population status, socio-economic value of sharks, the importance of science in shark conservation and reflecting the role of science in obtaining this information.

Local children of San Cristobal Island learning about the ecologic role of sharks in the marine ecosystems.
Local children of San Cristobal Island learning about the ecologic role of sharks in the marine ecosystems. Photo by: Beatríz Mariño.

We created characters as shark ambassadors, using representative species of the Galapagos and to encourage people to have a closer relationship with the ocean. We developed a shark story contest between all the schools of Santa Cruz, motivating children to research sharks,and then taking the winners on a fieldtrip to snorkel with sharks in their natural habitat.

“Teaching these kids to interact with sharks was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life; these activities are essential to understand that sharks are not killer machines, but they are very important for the marine ecosystems and the local economy”, said Dr. Pelayo Salinas, CDF Shark Project Coordinator.

 

Red spiny lobster (Panulirus penicillatus).

Past and Present of Fisheries in Galapagos

Fisheries is one of the oldest economic activities on the Islands, which were annexed to Ecuador in 1832. One of the first attempts of colonizing the islands, which do not have ancestral cultures, was in the early 1920s by a group of Norwegians settlers that intended to whale, and fish and can groupers, lobsters and sea turtles. This attempt ended in the late 1920s when their boiler exploded. However, because of these attempts and in order to protect the unique marine communities of the islands, the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) was created in 1998 as a multi-use protected area.

The declaration of the GMR also came with a ban on industrial/commercial fishing but allowed artisanal ones in specific areas under a coastal zoning scheme. Despite the creation of the GMR the number of fishers rose to over 1200, particularly during the sea cucumber boom in early 2000s, until its collapse in the later part of that decade.

Sea cucumber (Isostichopus fuscus).
Sea cucumber (Isostichopus fuscus). Photo by: CDF.

At present, although there are over 1200 licenses, fishing is only carried out by ~400 fishers and is the least managed of economic activities. Of the more than 60 fish and invertebrates fished only 4 have species-specific regulations. Fin-fishes are, along with lobsters, the largest fishery and mostly targets bottom dwelling fish such as groupers and snappers that are commonly slow growing animals that reproduce later in life and are therefore very vulnerable to unregulated fishing.

The problem: lack of information.

How do we intend to fix it?:  by studying young fish and invertebrates in their environments

One of the main problems for the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), which manages the marine resources in the GMR, is the lack of information on these animals, particularly during their initial lives. To fill these knowledge gaps, scientists at the Charles Darwin Foundation’s Marine Science Program are studying biological communities present in mangroves, sandy beach surf zones and other coastal environments, which often function as home for young fish and invertebrates. We use a combination of field, lab and computer analysis to carry out these studies. In the field we use traps that employ light to attract animals, baited video cameras and a traditional fishing hook-and-line method called empate.

Light traps are used in rocky and sandy habitats.  The trap on the right shows funnels through which the animals can enter but not leave.
Light traps are used in rocky and sandy habitats. The trap on the right shows the funnels through which the animals can enter but not leave. Photo by: P. Marti-Puig and S. Andrade.

In the lab, besides describing the animals collected, we analyze fish otoliths or ear bones. These bones are analogous to trees in that they have daily and annual rings that allow us to age the animals and estimate their growth since the width of the ring is related to how much the fish grew during that particular time.

Otolith or fish ear bone of four year old Peruvian hake (note four rings) collected in continental Ecuador.
Otolith or fish ear bone of four year old Peruvian hake (note four rings) collected in continental Ecuador. Photo Credit: M.L. Cardenas and A. dos Santos

We hope the information from our studies will allow the GNPD to take management actions, such as setting size and catch limits, or closure to the fishery during reproductive periods, to reduce the impact of fishing on these iconic animals. 

This blog was written as an exercise of a National Geographic Storytelling bootcamp carried out at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador.

Large schools of endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks are a common encounter in the Galapagos.

Elasmobranchs (sharks, rays and chimaeras) are among the most threatened group of species on the planet1. Since the end of World War II, we humans got too good at fishing and have managed to remove 9 of 10 sharks and other large predatory fishes from the global oceans2. Only few isolated and/or well protected places still maintain healthy shark populations, and the Galapagos Islands rank as the sharkiest place in the galaxy3.

Because sharks have been totally protected from fishing by the Galapagos Marine Reserve for over 15 years, healthy populations thrive around this volcanic archipelago. Shark-diving tourism generates millions of dollars for the local economy. It is estimated that each live shark in Galapagos is worth U.S. $360.000 annually 4.

Most visitors believe that tohave a shark encounter you need to embark ona multi-day live-aboard mission around the archipelago.However, what most people ignore, even many local residents, is that right on the doorstep of Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the archipelago, anyone can have a close shark encounter.

Blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus) are coastal sharks commonly encountered around the archipelago. During the first months of the year, and after a 11-12 month gestation period, females give birth to 4-6 half-meter-long pups. Freshly arrived to a hostile world where larger sharks (even members of the same species!) or Galapagos sea lions are trying to have them for lunch, baby blacktips quickly learn to seek shelter. And what better place to hide that an intricate system of roots in shallow water with plenty of baby shark food available?

Galapagos mangroves create oases of life on an otherwise barren lava coastline.
Galapagos mangroves create oases of life on an otherwise barren lava coastline. Photo by: CDF/Octavio Aburto-Oropeza.

The Galapagos is also one of the few places on the planet where mangroves, coastal plants that have evolved to tolerate salt water, grow directly on lava. Galapagos mangroves are productive oases of life on an otherwise barren lava desert. Mangroves’ root system, evolved through time to capture sediment and maximize oxygen intake, creates an intricate habitat that serves as substrate for rich invertebrate communities to thrive, and as an essential kindergarten for baby fish. Baby blacktip sharks spend their first year of life in this sheltered environment, a perfect practice ground for their hunting skills, something key for their adult lives as fearsome top reef predators.

Blacktip in mangrove Isabela Galapagos.
Blacktip in mangrove Isabela Galapagos. Photo by: Pelayo Salinas-de-Leon.

And right on the doorstep of Puerto Ayora, in Academy Bay, hundreds of baby blacktip sharks patrol this large mangrove foreston a daily basis, providing an excellent opportunity for a close encounter while snorkeling in less than a meter of water.

”Interacting with sharks is the best therapy to confront any unfounded fear towards sharks. These gentle creatures are not only essential for ecosystems, but they also bring millions of dollars to the local economy,” says Daniela Vilema, Charles Darwin Foundation VP of Education and Outreach.

If you are afraid to get your feet wet, in the evenings the lights of Puerto Ayora’s passengers’ wharf lures baitfish that in turn attract dozens of baby blacktips, creating a unique experience. Where else on the planet can you witness a miniature feeding frenzy while enjoying an artisanal ice-cream? 

Juvenile blacktips at passengers wharf.
Juvenile blacktips at passengers wharf. Photo by: Pelayo Salinas-de-Leon.

References

1.   Dulvy, N. K. et al. Extinction risk and conservation of the world’s sharks and rays. Elife 3, e00590 (2014).

2.   Myers, R. A. & Worm, B. Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities. Nature 423, 280–283 (2003).

3.   Salinas-de-León, P. et al. Largest global shark biomass found in the northern Galapagos Islands of Darwin and Wolf. PeerJ (2016).

4.   Lynham, J., Costello, C., Gaines, S. D. & Sala, E. Economic valuation of marine and shark-based tourisms in the Galápagos Islands. 46 (National Geographic Pristine Seas, 2015).

Participants of the Sciencetelling Bootcamp.

Written in collaboration with Paola Diaz-Freire.

A National Geographic team arrived in Galapagos for four days to run a Story Telling Bootcamp directed to our staff members and other organisations that work for conservation in the archipelago. This intensive course included, public speaking, video production techniques, photography and writing including practical exercises.

The first day the international expert Liza Witter provided excellent tools and practical advice on public speaking based on behavioral techniques. Her inspiring stories provided the inspiration for group exercises to pitch who we were and what we do. At the end of the first day we had the opportunity to have a social gathering at the Finch Bay Hotel which offered networking opportunities for all participants.

Activity developed by Lisa Witter at the CDRS facilities.
Activity developed by Lisa Witter at the CDRS facilities. Photo by: Paola Díaz.

Anand Varma, National Geographic photographer showed us his cover photo and told us about his experience. Gave us ten suggestions on how to tell stories through photographs. We had a practical session at the Research Station grounds based on his suggestions and mentoring.

Carolyn Barnwell showed us ten tricks to share our stories through videos. We received selfie sticks to practice. Carolyn showed us how to use a phone app – Adobe Clip to produce short video stories. The beach outside of our offices was our playground for these activities.

Carolyn and participants of the bootcamp filming videos in the Ratonera beach at the CDRS.
Carolyn and participants of the bootcamp filming videos in the Ratonera beach at the CDRS. Photo by: Paola Diaz.

The last day of the workshop, David Braun the Editorial Director of Voices, the National Geographic blog for communities gave us tips on how to write stories and we were all able to draft texts and had David review our writing. The stories of each participant reflected the great effort that the different members of each organization do to work for the conservation of this unique place on earth. We are sharing the stories from CDF team members that have already been published in Voices.

David Braun in his presentation about telling stories through writing techniques.
David Braun in his presentation about telling stories through writing techniques. Photo by: Paola Díaz.

Aurora Elmore, Program Officer, A Changing Planet for National Geographic showed us the opportunities offered to d individuals interested in different areas of conservation. There is different grants and programs that fund interesting projects and individuals. Finally Jen Shook gave us advice in how to use social networks and messaging in effective ways using the current tools.

We want to thank all the National Geographic team that came to Galapagos and inspired our team so much to excel in Story Telling. We hope to see you again in coming years!

The “Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands”, in French “Fondation Charles Darwin pour les îles Galapagos”, Association International sans but lucratif (“AISBL”), has its registered office located at Drève du Pieuré 19, 1160 Brussels, and is registered under the trade registry of Brussels under the number 0409.359.103.

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