Catherine is intent on helping better monitor flapper skates and spurdogs in the North-East Atlantic. To do so, she is developing a tool that can use DNA from egg cases, skin mucus and historical samples to analyse the diversity, kinship, connectivity and adaptations of these species. She and her team are identifying a subset of the most informative genetic markers for each species, which will help inform conservation strategies and MPA management for both species in Scottish seas.
Growing up in the middle of England away from the coast a trip to the seaside was a treat; unforgettable days peering into rockpools, seeking out their darting inhabitants hiding amongst the seaweed. My family house was old, so observing indoor wildlife eventually led to an academic interest in mice as models of evolutionary genetics during a PhD at London University. This led to studying the genetics of more challenging, less well characterized species at Oxford University. Research fellowships on aquatic species allowed me to study genetics of blood flukes and tropical freshwater snails in Africa; figuring out why...
To establish a practical genetic monitoring tool for rapid, high-throughput genotyping that is accessible to researchers monitoring flapper skate and spurdog. These standardised marker panels will produce additive datasets in perpetuity, providing invaluable repositories suitable for temporal and cross-laboratory comparisons and will permit ongoing monitoring across multiple legislative authorities.
As high-value fisheries species, many north-east Atlantic elasmobranchs have been significantly impacted by targeted fishing and by-catch. As a consequence of their low intrinsic rate of increase, recovery of their populations can be very slow and in some species a significant proportion of their valuable genetic resources may have been lost forever. This makes genetic monitoring to assess the variability and connectivity of populations essential components of management for identifying the best practices that are likely to benefit elasmobranch conservation.
Marine protected areas are increasingly used as a tool to promote conservation across locations chosen for their habitats that are likely to be important to species of conservation concern. Elasmobranchs in the north-east Atlantic have site-associated behaviours, which means they stand to benefit greatly from marine protected areas, as will other species in the local ecosystem in which these top predators play a pivotal role. The ‘Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura’ marine protected area in west Scotland was chosen to protect the flapper skate, one of two ‘common skate’ species now recognised as endangered. Large numbers of skate in the area indicated important habitats and it was hoped that protecting this population would allow connectivity with others, as the larger the interbreeding unit, the better it is able to maintain the valuable genetic diversity that allows the species to adapt to environmental change. The spurdog, an endangered elasmobranch, is incidentally protected in the same protected area and its genetic health and connectivity also need monitoring. Our initial work suggested that the flapper population in the marine protected area comprised individuals with unique maternally inherited genetic components. This could reflect that females are not breeding or travelling much beyond the protected area and that they are more isolated than initially hoped, thereby limiting the area’s effectiveness as a conservation tool that maintains genetic variation as part of a regional population. Genetic markers with a higher resolution suggest there is some connectivity with other populations, but this requires further investigation and the results need to be made capable of being interpreted by future generations of conservationists. Assessing variation with a monitoring tool of a smaller panel of highly informative flapper skate and spurdog markers should allow new technologies to standardise genetic assessments, removing any bias of individual laboratories and operators. Placing samples and data in a free-access national repository will encourage the formation of larger working groups to monitor further flapper skate and spurdog populations and make it possible to determine the effectiveness of marine protected area management.
Outside the USA, The Bahamas is the only place where Critically Endangered smalltooth sawfish can reliably be found. Tristan wants to ensure that protection measures in The Bahamas are understood and enforced as far as sawfish are concerned to close the current gap between policy and the people. He’ll be using aerial surveys, sonar and BRUVs, combined with interviews that draw on local knowledge, to identify essential sawfish habitats that need protection. Engaging with the community through workshops and by training students and meeting with government, Tristan intends to advocate for smalltooth sawfish protection throughout The Bahamas’ territorial waters.
Steven and Kevin are using genetic techniques to understand how Caribbean reef shark populations are connected across the extent of their range. Populations of this Endangered shark are in decline generally, but where they are managed and there is effective protection, their numbers are stable. With the integration of the correct information, Steven and Kevin are convinced that we can give Caribbean reef sharks a better shot at recovery and population stabilisation. They will also explore any barriers to connectivity, looking to the future recruitment and recovery of these sharks.
With very little information available about Endangered sicklefin devil rays, their seasonal aggregations at sea mounts in the Azores give Sophie an opportunity to learn more about their lives. She will be collecting satellite-tracking data that show how they move in the Azores’ exclusive economic zone. The information she collects will be used to develop maps of how the rays are using the zone and to identify essential areas that multiple species use. With this information at hand, Sophie hopes her work can contribute to a network of marine protected areas.