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Marine Life & Conservation

UK Blues – are sharks being stressed out in the name of science or to make a few quid from tourists?

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I was recently invited to a Blue Shark diving day in the UK. I am being a bit vague about where because my article really is a generic one and not aimed at anyone specifically.

UK Blues 6

The day started with laying out a trail of chum as we drifted. In this ‘scent trail’ the skipper set a line and baited hook for catching a shark with the intent of bringing it on board, showing the guests, taking measurements for research statistics and then letting it go.

Over the years as a TV wildlife filmmaker I have come across many such trips of which some are good and others really bad. Sometimes the quest for good research and care for the animals is diminished behind the need to make each trip pay financially by entertaining guests with a ‘shark experience’.

It was not long before the first shark was hooked and being played alongside the boat. A few of the guest divers were quickly in the water in the hope of seeing the shark swim past. Having tried to dive deep to safety, the shark, now nearing total exhaustion fights with the last of its energy, twisting and thrashing against the line holding it. For me this is a very sad sight and I know at least two of the divers left the water close to tears. At the same time, others thought this was great excitement.

UK Blues 1

UK Blues 3Getting wrapped in the line during this period can be harmful to the shark as well as increasing the time for lactic acid to build up in the muscle tissue which is one of the contributors to the inability of the shark to recover when released. Ideally the shark should be brought in as quickly as possible and so released the same.

UK Blues 5

UK Blues 7It was hauled by the hook and line over the side of the boat where a hose pipe was immediately pushed into its mouth to give a flow of water through its gills in order to help keep the shark alive while measurements were taken and people held the shark in their arms for a photo.

The internal skeleton of a shark is made of cartilage and connective tissue making the shark very flexible and light. The shark has no rib cage, so when it is on land its own weight can literally crush its internal organs. Hence the longer it is on the deck the more damage is done. Also when pulling a shark up and over the side of the boat, the internal organs are pulled by gravity to the lower end of the body. Generally it is far better not to bring any shark on board that is over a meter in length.  Any science such as measuring and tagging should be done in the water when ever possible.

If it is necessary to bring a shark aboard then the technique recommended by many marine biologists is to use a sling at the side of the boat bringing the fish alongside and into it. Then lift it horizontally and gently onto the deck. I have done this myself and found it to be very workable and this method decreases the stress and strain on the shark. This sling can then be used to lower the shark back into the water.

At this stage there should be no reason to keep it out of the water for more that a few minutes. I have talked to shark biologists about the practice of putting the hose in its mouth and continually flushing the gills. The over-riding opinion is that this is not a good idea, or necessary, as it is likely to damage the gill tissues and so severely reduce the shark’s ability to recover. However, others are convinced that this hose pipe action does work and is necessary.

UK Blues 4

Finally the shark was released and lowered back into the water where it finned slowly while sinking out of sight into the depths. Did it live or die? We don’t know. The general consensus from the majority of marine biologists is that the rate of survival is good when care is taken to keep the shark free from over stress and physical damage.

We will forever debate the pros and cons of various opinions on how best to carry out our shark research, while at the same time, caring for the welfare of the individual animals. But in the end, it is the sharks who are paying the terrible price of pain and annihilation. To me we are simply recording statistics of the shark’s demise.

I sat on the boat after the shark was released and found myself gazing at all the incredible technology that lay in front of me. Diving equipment that allows us to explore the underwater world, computers that keep us safe from decompression, clever materials that keep us warm and dry. In the wheelhouse, the navigation equipment, the radar, the depth profilers, the coffee machine. Yet, with all this, we still find the need to put a hook into a shark’s mouth, drag it from the sea and possibly kill it all in the name of science and research. In many ways the human race has come a long way forward from the days of kill or be killed, but at the same time we seem to have kept one foot firmly in our primitive past.

So what do you think? Is it worth stressing out this magnificent creatures in this way to gain scientific research, or is the risk to their health just too high? Let us know in the comments section below.

Jeff Goodman is the Editor-at-Large for Scubaverse.com with responsibility for conservation and underwater videography. Jeff is an award-winning TV wildlife and underwater cameraman and film maker who lives in Cornwall, UK. With over 10,000 dives to his credit he has dived in many different environments around the world.

Marine Life & Conservation

Caribbean Conservation in Action: Tagging Turtles in the BVI

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For centuries, the Japanese artisans have used hawksbill turtle shells to make a variety of trinkets such as eyewear, combs and cigar boxes. By the 1800’s, a fad had spread to the America’s and Europe to obtain hawksbill shells and green turtle soup had become a delicacy around the world. It wasn’t until the late 1970s when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates cross-border trade in wildlife banned the international commercial trade of sea turtles and in 1978, the United States banned the intentional killing of all sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act.

However, In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Japan tried to lift restrictions under CITES to reopen the trade of hawksbill turtle shells with Cuba. Because sea turtles are a regionally shared resource due to their highly migratory range over an individual’s lifetime, many Caribbean countries became concerned that Japan and Cuba’s proposal would undermine some of the long-standing conservation efforts that had already been implemented. This prompted the United Kingdom to launch the Turtles of the UK Overseas Territories (TCOT) project in 2001 to address critical gaps in the knowledge of marine turtle populations found in all their Caribbean territories (Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman, Montserrat and Turks & Caicos Islands).

Although the BVI was already monitoring nesting leatherback sea turtles, this 3-year UK-funded project brought a new dimension to turtle monitoring to the BVI and other UK Territories. In-water turtle tagging of foraging populations commenced which identified healthy populations of juvenile to sub-adult (teenage) green and hawksbill turtles in the BVI. Through genetic sampling of those turtles tagged, green turtles were identified as coming from as far away as Ascension Island, Venezuela and Costa Rica with hawksbills coming from Brazil, Barbados, and Cuba. Subsequently, some of the tagged turtles have migrated from the BVI on to their adult foraging grounds and travelled as far as Nicaragua, Bonaire and Guadeloupe.

Although the TCOT project ended many years ago, in-water turtle tagging of foraging populations continued over the years. Now, with an extensive baseline of information and a growing need for changes in local sea turtle management, the BVI was awarded a Darwin Plus grant worth over US$300k from the UK’s Overseas Territories Environment & Climate Fund in June 2020. This newly implemented STEEL Project (Sustainable turtles, environments, economies & livelihoods) is aimed to ramp up tagging efforts to better understand changes in the status of BVI turtles based on nearly 20 years of data collected. Additionally, foraging turtle habitats will be assessed on how to build resiliency in areas that were impacted by the 2017 hurricane events. An educational programme to provide the community with a better local understanding of turtle conservation will be implemented and, using the MCS Community Voice Method (CVM) of engagement, the project will engage BVI communities to develop new legislation recommendations and a conservation action plan to safeguard BVI’s turtle populations for future generations.

The STEEL Project is being led by the Marine Conservation Society UK alongside local organisation, the Association of Reef Keepers (ARK) and partnerships with the BVI Government’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Ministry of Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration. Additionally, local dive and tour operators such as Sail Caribbean Divers are participating in the project by providing boats and assisting local turtle scientists in capturing, tagging and releasing of sea turtles.

For more information see www.bviark.org

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Marine Life & Conservation

Beers raise cash for ocean clean-up

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The Driftwood Spars Brewery, a pioneering microbrewery based on the North Cornwall coast, is donating a percentage of all profits from its Cove range of beers to Fathoms Free, a certified charity which actively cleans the ocean around the Cornish peninsula.

Each purchase of the small-batch, craft beers – there are four different canned beers in the Cove range – will help generate funds to purchase a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and fund retrieval dives; every brew will raise the equivalent cost of a fully-funded dive. 

Fathoms Free is a Cornwall-based charity whose day-to-day mission involves dives from their fast-response specialist vessel to recover ghost fishing gear; abandoned nets, pots, angling equipment and other plastic causes severe damage to the marine environment and the death of countless seabirds, seals, dolphins and other sea life.

The campaign to raise funds for an ROV is a new initiative which will take the clean-up work to a new level; the highly manoeuvrable underwater vehicle will be used to scour the seabed, harbours and remote parts of the coastline for abandoned fishing gear and other marine litter.

Project Manager Natallia Paliakova from Fathoms Free said: “Apart from helping us locate ghost gear underwater, the ROV will also be capable of recording underwater video which is always great for raising awareness about marine pollution issues.”

She added: “We are really excited to be partnering with The Driftwood Spars Brewery and appreciate the proactive support of Mike and his team in bringing the purchase of an ROV a step closer to reality.”

Head Brewer Mike Mason personally approached the charity after their work was featured on the BBC 2 documentary, ‘Cornwall with Simon Reeve’.    

He said: “As a keen surfer I am only too aware of the problem of marine litter and had heard about Fathoms Free, but seeing them in action prompted me to find a way of contributing. The scale of the challenge is scary, but the determination of organisations like Fathoms Free is inspiring.”

Photo by Beagle Media Ltd

Photo by Beagle Media Ltd

The Driftwood Spars Brewery was founded in 2000 in Trevaunance Cove, St Agnes; the microbrewery is just a few steps away from it’s co-joined brewpub, The Driftwood Spars; both pub and brewery are well-regarded far beyond the Cornish cove they call home. 

You can hear the waves and taste the salt on the air from the door of both brewery and pub, and the rough seas along the rugged North coast often throw up discarded nets and other detritus; Louise Treseder, Landlady of The Driftwood Spars and a keen sea swimmer, often collects washed up ghost gear on her daily beach excursions.     

Louise commented: “This is a great partnership to support a cause close to our hearts – I know the money we raise will have a positive and lasting impact. The Cove range was inspired by our unique surroundings and the artwork – by local artist Jago Silver – reflects that. Now donations from each purchase will contribute towards the vital ocean clean-up taking place right on our doorstep.”

The Cove range can currently be purchased online here, and is available in good independent bottle shops in Cornwall.

To find out more about Fathoms Free visit their website here.

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