Who I amFor most people, sharks don’t fit the cute and cuddly image that has been cultivated for iconic megafauna. They just aren’t members of the clique of lions, tigers, elephants and the like that inspire a warm and fuzzy feeling in wildlife lovers. Growing up in North Africa as an only child with an unbridled curiosity, I learned two things: that I didn’t quite fit in (although that never stopped me from talking to anyone and everyone) and that my sense of not fitting in stoked my love for animals that no-one else cares much for, like snakes, bats – and sharks. After a peripatetic upbringing, it took a few more years for me to return full circle to my childhood fascination for sharks. A series of dives at Ras Mohammed on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in 1990 propelled me towards the course I follow today. Of course life’s pursuits, like a good movie, are rarely linear in their unfolding and another seven years would pass before I was well and truly working with sharks. My curiosity about sharks came flooding back in 1998 when I bumped into a whale shark at Gladden Spit in Belize while working on a large project that focused on artisanal fisheries and fish-spawning aggregations. So little was known about whale sharks at the time that I set out to discover as much as I could and by means of early satellite-tagging technology I followed their movements when they left Gladden Spit. And that led me to Cuba. In 2000 I had the good fortune to meet the country’s pre-eminent ichthyologist Dr Rodolfo Claro, who recommended that I focus on Jardines de la Reina, a remote archipelago off Cuba’s southern coast. He also introduced me to Dr Fabián Pina Amargós from the Centro de Investigaciones de Ecosistemas Costeros who, like me, was a graduate student at the time. It took until 2004 to find the funding to start working in Jardines in partnership with Fabián.
Where I workMy first visit to Jardines de la Reina Marine Protected Area (MPA) left me in complete awe and all subsequent visits have had the same effect. The corals and fish assemblages are some of the healthiest I have seen in the Caribbean and have been used by several colleagues to demonstrate what a Caribbean baseline should look like. Aside from the whale sharks that seasonally frequent this wild and beautiful collection of sandy mangrove islands underpinning Cuba’s southern coast, several other shark species find a haven at this coral site. Large Caribbean reef sharks, silky sharks and nurse sharks, as well as the occasional blacktip or great hammerhead, vie for your attention during dives in reef channels and lagoons or along the fore-reef cliffs and slopes. This abundance of apex predators in one area begged a key question: is the Jardines de la Reina MPA providing effective protection for them? Although shark fisheries have existed in Cuba for decades, the trajectory of shark populations was unknown and the information about coastal elasmobranch populations and their critical habitats was limited. The ultimate goal for our SOSF-funded project has been to establish robust baseline data for elasmobranchs in the Jardines de la Reina MPA and neighbouring areas that will enable us to assess the MPA’s role in maintaining shark abundance. Jardines will serve as the initial site for surveys of sharks and rays along Cuba’s southern coast, and we intend to expand our monitoring efforts to other MPAs over time.
What I doBased at the Avalon Dive Center in the central part of the Jardines, five hours from mainland Cuba, we conduct our field research from the 10-metre Itajara, a refitted fishing boat. Sampling days are long, often lasting from 6 am to 7 pm, or later if night sets are included, and they involve travelling to monitoring sites along the edge of the fore-reef or to the north of the archipelago. Using a sampling design developed with noted biostatistician Dr Samantha Strindberg, we employ standardised monitoring techniques (hanging long-lines and underwater visual transects, and soon also baited remote underwater video) to determine the abundance and distribution of sharks and rays throughout the archipelago and MPA. Areas outside the MPA have also been sampled for comparison, and demographic details and the diversity of catches are noted too. The baseline survey is revealing patterns of species distribution according to habitat and environmental preferences. Recaptures of tagged sharks outside Jardines are also showing that fishing pressure is high outside the MPA. Our standardised baseline and survey efforts will enable us to compare this site with others in the Caribbean where, with a range of local partners, we are monitoring elasmobranch populations. By publicising our results through state-sanctioned channels and by getting involved in shark management meetings, we are raising awareness for sharks in Cuba. We are also contributing to the country’s National Plan of Action for Sharks and trying to prioritise elasmobranchs in plans for the management of southern Cuba’s MPAs. The remit of the Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF) dovetails with our own in that we share a mission to foster the protection of sharks and rays by means of novel and timely initiatives. Support from SOSF has enabled us to complete the baseline for these species in the Jardines de la Reina region and to demonstrate that the public–private partnership between the government and the Avalon Dive Center helps to ensure that apex predators are protected effectively in Jardines de la Reina.