Who I am
Growing up in New Zealand, I developed a love of bush-walking and surfing that fuelled an interest in conservation and led me to undertake a degree in conservation management. During my studies I was fortunate to be exposed to pioneers in marine conservation research, in particular Bill Ballantine, the grandfather of marine reserves in New Zealand, and Steve Dawson and Liz Slooten, both marine mammal experts. Following the management degree I was inspired to take a broad and practical view of marine conservation and undertook a PhD in marine ecology and sustainable fisheries management tools.
I have carried out research in marine ecology at Otago University in New Zealand, at the University of Western Australia and at Curtin University, which is also in Western Australia and where I currently hold the position of professor of marine science.
Pelayo Salinas de León
I’m a happy marine ecologist! Since I was a child, I have loved spending as much time as possible in the water. I spent my childhood summers between the rugged Cantabrian coast of Asturias in northern Spain, where I was born, and the idyllic Mediterranean coast of southern Spain, where my dad’s family is from. I moved to the UK when I was 18 to study marine and freshwater biology at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. I got carried away and four years later I found myself completing an MSc in the environmental management of marine ecosystems. Then the opportunity arose to conduct my PhD at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, where I became a ‘Jedi’ in marine biology in 2010.
As much as I loved collecting samples in temperate intertidal regions, after spending a great proportion of my MSc and PhD research in Indonesia I decided to pursue my career in tropical locations where I could ride my bike to the office wearing sandals and shorts.
I am a Spaniard native to the Canary Islands, where I spent all my boyhood close to the sea, swimming, snorkelling and collecting shells. When I wasn’t in the water, I was watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau television series and dreaming about getting aboard the Calypso and studying sharks all around the world. I remember believing that beyond the ocean realm familiar to me, which was the shallow water around the coast, the blue, deep ocean was full of amazing creatures, including sharks – many sharks. As I grew older I got to explore those deeper waters and was fascinated, but at the same time I realised that I could not find any of the sharks that I was sure were there in great numbers. Then I learned that the Canary Islands have been severely exploited in terms of fishing, with countless long-liners, purse-seiners and trawlers operating in and around the archipelago.
At university I studied marine biology and after getting my degree I worked for several government institutions in different parts of Spain, providing technical support and advice for the management of endangered species in marine protected areas. I had the chance to work in some of the best-preserved marine protected areas in Spain, but even there, there was no evidence of sharks, the top predators of our oceans. They were long gone, fished to extinction.
Where I work
Over the past 20 years I have pioneered the use of baited remote and diver-operated stereo-video systems so that we can collect data without having to capture or disturb the animals we are studying. These techniques are now well accepted internationally and are being used in ecology. Although I work mainly in the temperate and tropical areas of Western Australia, I am collaborating with community groups and other researchers from all over the world, such as South Africa, the Dutch Caribbean, Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands. Because we collect data in the same way, using the same techniques, our information can be shared and merged to gain a more global understanding of the status of fish and shark populations.
The Galapagos Islands are the birthplace of evolutionary ecology and conservation. Underwater Galapagos is world famous for its diverse marine life, including turtles, marine iguanas and schooling hammerhead sharks. It is also recognised internationally as a hotspot for sharks, yet there is little or no information about the status of its shark populations.
Pelayo Salinas de León
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to work for the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) in the Galapagos Islands and in 2012, at the age of 29, I finally managed to fulfil this lifelong dream. The CDF is the official scientific adviser to the government of Ecuador and for more than 50 years it has been conducting scientific research from the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz to inform the conservation of the Galapagos archipelago.
The Galapagos Islands are listed as a number one tourism destination and their iconic terrestrial fauna of giant tortoises, finches and iguanas often feature on the front pages of travel and conservation magazines. However, being a marine biologist, for the past three years I have been trying to convince the world that the most mind-blowing part of the Galapagos lies underwater! And what is most impressive about underwater Galapagos is the sheer abundance of sharks that inhabit the 133,000-square-kilometre Galapagos Marine Reserve. Sharks have been protected in this reserve since 2000 and, despite the ongoing threat from illegal fishing activities, the general impression is that the reserve is fulfilling its mandate to protect. I say ‘impression’ because we don’t have the scientific data necessary to evaluate the so-called ‘reserve effect’ on these highly mobile species and this is why our SOSF-funded project is so relevant.
Five years ago I had the chance to move to the Galapagos Islands and work at the Charles Darwin Research Station, an NGO that has been the official adviser to the government of Ecuador in terms of Galapagos conservation for the past 50 years. Our mission is to provide the authorities with management proposals for the Galapagos Marine Reserve that are based on scientific evidence. Here I could finally focus my work and efforts on studying sharks in their environment, as the Galapagos is one of the last remaining shark sanctuaries in the world. Working here has also given me the opportunity to collaborate with world-renowned shark scientists and become immersed in a vibrant research programme. I also work in collaboration with other researchers and institutions in the Tropical Eastern Pacific, as we believe that shark research needs a regional and global approach in its effort to be efficient and produce good results.
What I do
Using remote camera techniques, we will conduct research to understand the conservation status of key shark species as well as local people’s perceptions about sharks. The knowledge acquired will be translated into management proposals and educational campaigns to share the ecological and socio-economic importance of sharks for the Galapagos Islands.
Thanks to support from the SOSF, we will use bottom and mid-water Baited Remote Underwater Video systems to document the distribution, habitat use and numbers and sizes of key shark species in the Galapagos Islands. Our video imagery and data will help to inform local people about the importance of the shark populations and will be used to guide management of the Galapagos Marine Reserve.
Pelayo Salinas de León
Originally appointed the senior fisheries ecologist, over the past three years I have became an all-rounder ecologist. Nowadays I supervise a portfolio of four major research themes: fisheries management; ecology and conservation of sharks and mantas; evaluation of marine ecosystem services; and the Galapagos Google Street View Project. I am also fortunate to coordinate a research group of very talented CDF staff members, PhD candidates, undergraduate thesis students and passionate international and local Ecuadorian and Galapagueño volunteers.
The main focus of our SOSF-funded project is to establish a reference point for the relative abundance and spatial distribution of the most common shark species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. To achieve this, we are using a combination of stereo Baited Remote Underwater Video Stations (BRUVS) and stereo Diver-Operated Video Surveys (DOVS). Believe it or not, most sharks are very shy of divers, so many species don’t show up in traditional underwater visual censuses. On the other hand, many of these species love to perform in front of baited cameras! Establishing this first reference point for shark abundance will be a key step for future similar monitoring efforts to evaluate the effect of the Galapagos Marine Reserve on this threatened group of species and ensure the implementation of effective conservation measures.
I am also the coordinator of the science network of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor Initiative (CMAR in Spanish), an initiative between the governments of Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama. Our short- to medium-term goal is to implement this study in other marine protected areas of the region where sharks are abundant, such as the Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary in Colombia and the Isla del Coco National Park in Costa Rica.
Another important component of our SOSF project is to share project results and key shark conservation messages with Galapagos residents, especially local schoolchildren. Effective education and outreach programmes are vital to highlight the ecological and socio-economic importance of sharks for the Galapagos archipelago and the global oceans. Our ultimate goal is to transform any fear of sharks among local residents into a feeling of pride that they live in one of the most ‘sharky’ places on earth. By educating the next generation of Galapagos conservationists, we aim to ensure the long-term legacy effect of this project and share with a global audience that a model of sustainable coexistence between sharks and human beings is possible.
These past five years I’ve been working with the most common shark species in the Galapagos Islands, including scalloped hammerhead, Galapagos, blacktip, silky, tiger and whale sharks. In the first years I focused on shark telemetry, as we wanted to understand how sharks move and migrate within and outside the Galapagos Marine Reserve. At present I am tagging tiger sharks and following their movements in the Galapagos. Even after years of shark research here, we realised that we still did not know enough about the dynamics of the sharks’ distribution and abundance patterns in the marine reserve. Understanding this is essential if we are to provide them with the best conservation framework in a spatially managed area such as the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Knowing more about their distribution and abundance will also enable us to establish baseline information, a reference that can be used in the future to determine the temporal trends of shark populations in the Galapagos. This in turn will help us to assess the effectiveness of the marine reserve in terms of shark conservation. After trying and comparing all available methods for surveying sharks, we are going to use baited remote and diver-operated stereo video systems (BRUVS and DOVS) to conduct our surveys.
I am also working on a social research component that tries to understand how local communities perceive sharks, what their images of sharks are and why they regard sharks in this way. With this information we will be able to design and conduct an effective educational campaign that helps to set up generalised support for shark conservation. I believe that this social component, usually overlooked in shark conservation programmes, is as necessary and important as our ecology studies.
These two components, shark spatial ecology and social perceptions, are part of my PhD thesis, which I have just begun at Massey University, New Zealand, under the supervision of Professor Marti J. Anderson, Professor Euan Harvey and Dr Pelayo Salinas, among others. My vision is that the Galapagos Islands may provide a model of sustainable co-existence between humans and sharks for the rest of the world.