Making your dive experience count – citizen science for sharks

October 17, 2017

By guest author Dr. Alex Hearn, Professor and Researcher at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito’s Galapagos Science Center.

The Galapagos Marine Reserve is the largest of several areas in the Eastern Tropical Pacific where sharks, along with other threatened marine megafauna species such as sunfish, giant mantas and sea turtles, are protected from fishing. In close collaboration with the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), my colleagues and I have been tracking their movements throughout the region for the past decade, in an attempt to understand how marine reserves contribute to the conservation of highly mobile species such as these. However, there is one big question that we have simply been unable to address — is the abundance of these species in the marine reserve changing over time?

Whale shark tagging

Whale shark tagging in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. (Photo © Jonathan Green)

This is never an easy question to answer, and is often addressed by looking at catch rates from fishing fleets — but of course in Galapagos, where industrial fishing is banned, this is not an option. We have tried using creative methods such as a combination of tagging and intensive visual surveys, but even this only gives us a snapshot. A recent study leapt to some amazing conclusions about shark abundance based on only two short surveys and huge variance around their data. The reality is that Galapagos is too large and the sharks and turtles too mobile for us to get a good grip on their abundance, given the size of our science team.

A couple of years ago, we looked to nearby Cocos Island for some insight. There, three dive boats have been recording what they see on every dive consistently for over a quarter of a century. This amazing dataset of over 1,000 dive reports each year, was recently analyzed by scientists and showed how some shark species had continued to decline despite the 12-mile marine reserve around the island. This was just the kind of dataset we needed for Galapagos.

Silky shark

A silky shark in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. (Photo © Jonathan Green)

About 18 months ago, staff at Galapagos Conservancy contacted me to discuss the possibility of developing technology to engage dive guides and the significant numbers of dive tourists visiting Galapagos (approximately 6,000-7,000 per year) in shark monitoring. This turned out to be the opportunity we had been waiting for. In the past, we had asked dive guides to fill in reports and hand them in, we had sent people to survey tourists…but neither method was found to be sustainable. No-one wants to fill in a survey at the end of a long day, and people complained about the lack of feedback. However, a short, pacey, attractive App for smartphones might do the trick.

We spent the next year or so working with the GNPD and with an App developer based in Boston, and after many trials and errors, we came up with Shark Count Galapagos — a free App which is deceptively simple-looking and easy to use. One of its most important features is that you can upload dive reports even in remote locations such as Darwin and Wolf, where there is no cellphone or internet coverage.

Shark Count app screen grabs

Screen grabs from the SharkCount app.

We imported the dive records from our science surveys into Shark Count — around 350 dives taken over a 10-year period, and in early June the App was made available to the public for testing. Since then, we’ve recorded another 250 dives already. Dive guides and tourists have been enthusiastic in their support — we have over 90 users already, with limited promotion. What is so attractive about the App is that it provides instant feedback — I love to check what people have seen on recent dives, but you can also ask the App the best time of year or location to see particular species.

Of course, there is a real conservation benefit associated with Shark Count. By engaging dive guides and dive tourists in recording this information, we are able to get eyes in the water all over the Archipelago, and throughout the year. We are able to get a good baseline of where these animals are at different times of year, and how many we can expect to see at different sites. This can then be used to track changes over time. For example, we had nine dive reports from Gordon Rocks since 2007…but have logged another 33 since June. This allows us even to see daily and weekly changes in abundance. The true value of this will be seen once we have notched up a decade or more of dive reports, but the early data are promising. So much so in fact, that we now have plans to expand to the rest of the region, so that divers (and snorkelers*) at Socorro, Malpelo, Isla de la Plata and other places can also contribute and benefit from the App.

Hammerheads at Darwin Island

Hammerheads at Darwin Island. (Photo © Jonathan Green)

*If you are a snorkeler, you are more than welcome to use the App —  please just mention that you are snorkeling in the Comments section.

Dr. Alex HearnDr. Alex Hearn is a Professor and Researcher at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito’s Galapagos Science Center. He has been working on shark research and conservation in Galapagos for over a decade.

SharkCount Galapagos is available for download on both Android and iPhone devices here. You can also watch a short video to learn more about the app here.

Galapagos Conservancy would like to thank the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust and Jeannie & Muray Kilgour for funding the development of Shark Count Galapagos.

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