Peter credits the recent location of the rare and relatively unknown clownfish wedgefish to searching social media posts of wedgefish catches. But his focus now is ground-truthing where this species occurs in the wild, and what habitat it uses. For this, he is engaging with local fishers around the Riau Islands in Indonesia. Using local knowledge and participatory mapping, fishers will guide Peter and his team to where to collect environmental DNA (eDNA), a relatively new and rapidly evolving tool that uses genetic techniques to search for the DNA of the target species – in this case, the clown wedgefish.
I grew up on the doorstep of the stunning Ninety Mile Beach, east of Melbourne in southern Australia. That connection to the beach fostered an early love for the ocean that ultimately led to my career in marine conservation. After undergraduate studies in Melbourne, I gradually migrated northwards to Brisbane to undertake my Honours degree on a local rhino ray species (the eastern shovelnose ray), followed by my PhD on reducing shark and ray by-catch in a trawl fishery. My first job post-PhD would lead me to Darwin in northern Australia, a remote and vibrant tropical city closer to many...
The clown wedgefish is one of the most threatened and poorly-known species in the world. This project will use a variety of tools to determine the geographic range and habitat of this species and undertake planning to secure its future, and the future of rhino rays more broadly.
Wedgefishes are amongst the most threatened species on the planet. They are intensively harvested for meat, snouts, and highly-valued fins and exploitation has driven severe declines in all species. The clown wedgefish is one of the most poorly known wedgefishes and may be on the verge of extinction. Given its extremely precarious status, the urgency of our international partnership to understand its geographic range and habitat and to conserve this species cannot be overstated.
Rhino rays are some of the most threatened fishes. This is a diverse group of shark-like rays characterized by some sort of extended snout or ‘rostrum’. This is most pronounced in the sawfishes which have long tooth-studded snouts. Easily entangled in fishing nets, sawfishes are now extinct in many countries and are highly threatened. Unfortunately, other groups of rhino rays – the giant guitarfishes and wedgefishes – have joined the sawfishes as being of urgent conservation concern. All 6 species of giant guitarfishes and 9 out of 10 species of wedgefish are now considered to be Critically Endangered (that is, they face an extremely high risk of extinction). The Indo-West Pacific Ocean region is the centre of rhino ray diversity. Southeast Asia, and Indonesia in particular has high species richness. Rhino rays face considerable fishing pressure across much of this region. Their occurrence in shallow coastal waters results in high overlap with fishing activities. They are susceptible to a wide variety of fishing gear and high levels of exploitation has driven severe population declines. The clown wedgefish is the most poorly-known Indo-West Pacific wedgefish and possibly the rarest. Historic records are limited to fish markets in Jakarta and Singapore and it had not been seen for >20 years, until a 2019 Singapore fish market record. Despite considerable coverage of fish landing sites by the scientific community, these are the only records, and the wild range remained a mystery. Matt McDavitt of the Sawfish Conservation Society, and part of the Clown Wedgefish project team, recently identified the first wild occurrence records using social media searches. However, its full contemporary range remains a mystery, presenting a major conservation challenge (it is difficult to conserve a species when you don’t know where it lives). The Clown Wedgefish project aims to address that challenge.
This project aims to secure a future for the clown wedgefish, one of the world’s most threatened species. This project will take a multi-disciplinary international approach to refine the distribution and status of this Critically Endangered species, promote its status (and rhino rays more broadly) locally and nationally in Indonesia, and plan for its long-term conservation and recovery.
The project has five central components:
Interviews will gather information on fishing effort, catches of rhino rays and other sharks and rays, the economic value of catches, and their use and trade; and participatory mapping will identify fishing grounds, clown wedgefish occurrence, and habitats.
Local small-scale fishers and traders will be trained to record catch information. Training will include species identification, fish photography, and catch data recording. We will develop a locally-specific identification guide in Bahasa Indonesian for distribution as part of the project’s training and education components.
Surveys will be undertaken in parts of the Riau Islands using an eDNA assay specifically designed to detect clown wedgefish. eDNA analyses will use technology that allows for the most sensitive detection and the highest likelihood of detecting rare species.
The clown wedgefish will be used as a flagship species for Provincial-level conservation planning for rhino rays. A conservation planning workshop led by local agencies will bring together wide stakeholder perspectives to plan for the future of the clown wedgefish.
Lastly, we aim to transition knowledge gained into policy. Local partners will take the outcomes of conservation planning to Jakarta to give government the information needed to drive policy change aimed at rhino ray conservation.
This project is an international collaboration between Indonesian fishers and community partners, Australia (Charles Darwin University), and the United States (University of Southern Mississippi).
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. 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.