Sofia is driven by a passion for deep-sea sharks and aims to produce a fishing handling protocol for deep-sea fishermen in Portugal’s southern Mediterranean and Atlantic waters. She developed the DELASMOP project to assess the condition and survival of elasmobranchs caught in fisheries in the north-east Atlantic. Sofia collects vital information about the fishing vessels while aboard deep-sea crustacean trawlers, and also samples the sharks brought in as bycatch. She tags them before release to gauge their survival rates, and collects tissue samples to understand their diet and assess if there’s overlap between shark feeding grounds and fishing areas.
I grew up in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but the sea was where I always felt safe. As a child I used to watch Jacques Cousteau documentaries with my grandmother and I remember being very drawn to the ocean, but I had no concept that it could provide a career for a city girl. It was only when I was in my late teens, with no idea of which career path I wanted to follow, that something ‘clicked’ while I was watching a documentary, and I ended up chasing my childhood dreams...
DELASMOP aims to contribute to the conservation of deep-sea elasmobranchs by developing a guide to the best fishing techniques and handling practices aboard fishing vessels to decrease the number of deep-sea elasmobranchs caught in crustacean bottom-trawl fisheries, while increasing their chances of survival after release.
Portugal is the leading consumer of seafood in Europe (57 kilograms, or 125 pounds, per person per year), and the south and south-west coasts are the most important areas for crustacean bottom-trawlers. Unfortunately, the estimated deep-sea elasmobranch by-catch in these fisheries is 40%. Although current European legislation requires the mandatory realease of most deep-sea elasmobranchs, it is unclear whether they survive after being released. This is of great concern, since 44% of deep-sea elasmobranchs in Europe are endangered or basic ecological and biological information about them is lacking.
The targeted fishing of deep-sea elasmobranchs (sharks and skates) is prohibited in Europe, but many are still caught incidentally and discarded, especially in the crustacean bottom-trawler fishery. In Portugal, up to 80% of this fishery’s catch is incidental and deep-sea elasmobranchs represent 40%. This is of great concern because these elasmobranchs are extremely vulnerable due to increased pressure and their slower growth rates resulting from the lower temperatures at depth. This means that deep-sea species are overfished more quickly than their shallow-water counterparts because their populations cannot rebound. In addition, overexploitation may have profound consequences for some species not only locally but also globally, because some deep-sea elasmobranchs are migratory. Estimating their immediate mortality rates and post-release mortality is important because it leads to establishing sound management measures. However, this type of information is costly, technically difficult to obtain and varies significantly depending on the fishery, habitat, season, type of gear, etc. Available estimates are therefore disparate and limited to a few species and fisheries. For instance, for longline fisheries the immediate mortality rates for deep-sea sharks and skates can vary from 0% to 100% and the post-release mortality can be as high as 83%. Data on the overlap of elasmobranchs and fisheries are also scarce and difficult to obtain. In a recent study of pelagic sharks, it was demonstrated that there is an 80% overlap between shark habitats and fishing areas, since sharks select and aggregate in areas with high productivity, which are also targeted by longliners. It is likely that an overlap would also occur between deep-sea elasmobranch habitat and crustacean bottom-trawl fisheries, as the elasmobranchs will occupy habitats where food is readily available and the fisheries operate at increasing depths to maximise catches for revenue.
Demian’s team is developing tools that help border control officers identify illegal shark products. His project is sifting through ‘rhino ray’ DNA sequences looking for differences in code between the guitarfishes, giant guitarfishes and wedgefishes nicknamed for their pointy snouts (and Endangered status). Months of testing will help ensure only rhino ray DNA is targeted before the team flies to Hong Kong to help officials use a portable DNA tester. This project will add to the arsenal currently being used to identify illegal shark fins moving across borders, and help stop the trafficking of ‘rhino ray’ fins.
Aristide created a citizen science platform and mobile app for fishers across Cameroon’s 400 km coastline to record sightings of sharks, rays and marine life. These photos are uploaded to iNaturalist where they are identified and will serve to create Cameroon’s first elasmobranch atlas. Together with his team, Aristide ensures data are being uploaded, visits fish landing sites to assess bycatch and measure sharks, and scours the beaches to check for strandings and sea turtle nests. He collects tissue samples of threatened species in these visits that can give more insights into the diversity, population size and structure of vulnerable sharks.
Ali is collaborating with researchers across North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean to develop support tools for guitarfish conservation. As an advocate, much of her work is completed behind a computer and locked in meetings, but her goal is to help bring awareness to the Threatened status of guitarfish in the Mediterranean. As the current Director of Conservation for the Shark Trust, Ali represents a large number of regional partners to engage with governments, develop new resources and coordinate guitarfish conservation activities.