Earlier this month the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board in Durban played host to the 2ndSharks International conference; a gathering of the world’s leading shark and ray researchers to update and share the results of their current findings. Oceans Research Director Enrico Gennari and I were in attendance and presented some of our current research to over 270 delegates from 37 countries. The conference was an overwhelming success with 169 oral presentations and 52 posters spread throughout the weeklong event. David Shiffman, expert on all things Twitter, provided the ‘official’ reporting from the field, and many more contributed to over 7000 tweets at #Sharks14. For those of you that missed out on the action, David has taken a break from the conference dance floor and compiled a collection of selected tweets from the event here. What follows is a brief recap of the event.
The conference was opened with a message from MEC for Economic Development and Environmental Affairs, Michael Mabuyakhulu who reiterated the value of shark education for the economy of South Africa, and encouraged all in attendance to visitand spend their foreign currencies at Durban’s magnificent Gateway Theatre of Shopping. Dave Ebert, of the Pacific Shark Research Center in Moss Landing, California was the plenary speaker for the day and reiterated the value of morphological taxonomy in light of emerging modern tools like genetic microsatellites. Ebert has close ties to South Africa having completed his PhD studies at Rhodes University, and noted that southern Africa is one of the world’s hotspots for shark and ray biodiversity with a rich history of species discovery, but a surprising lack of young scientists currently training in species taxonomy. The rest of the day saw many of our colleagues presenting their work on white sharks in South Africa, with notable talks from Alison Kock presenting the culmination of her PhD on sexual segregation in False Bay, and Enrico Gennari, presenting his PhD on the metabolism and behaviour of the white shark in Mossel Bay.
Despite the unsuccessful efforts of a small group of protestors to disrupt the proceedings of Day 1, Day 2 began unimpeded with a plenary from Demian Chapman. Chapman shared his team’s genetic work on identifying species and populations of sharks traded on the shark fin market, noting that the potentially endangered guitarfish could be one of the highest value species on the market. In addition to identifying which populations are most affected by the fin trade, Chapman’s team also trains customs officials to identify fins that are illegal to trade. Notable talks from Day 2 included those from the genetics department at Stellenbosch University, and the plethora of Telemetry talks from the likes of Steven Campana, Philip Doherty, Neil Hammerschlag, and Christoph Rohner. And naturally, my talk on the lifetime of SPOT tag technology her in South Africa, for which we received some coverage in the local paper.
On Day 3 the organisers saw fit to provide us with a much needed mid-conference break from the overload of day-time academia and night-time socialising. Many delegates spent the day diving at nearby Aliwal Shoal or on game drives at some of the area’s private reserves. Rumours of an out-of-season Whale Shark spotting spread quickly, leaving those that opted out of any tours green with jealousy.
Day 4 picked up right where we left off on Tuesday with a plenary from Colin Simpfendorfer of James Cook University in Australia. Simpfendorfer shared recent findings that upwards of 25% of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction, and almost half are listed as ‘Data Deficient’. Much of the focus has been on shark populations but rays are bearing much of the brunt. #RaysNeedLove2. For some parts of the developing world, shark fishing is a matter of survival, and some of these species can be sustainably fished, but only with sound, science-based management. Ultimately it is a lack of scientific understanding that makes fisheries management difficult. The days professional and student talks were dominated by the fisheries theme, but the standout talks for me were those from Shaun Collin’s lab of sensory biologists at UWA: Kara Yopak, Ryan Kempster, Laura Ryan, and Lucille Chapuis. And of course our colleagues in False Bay and Gansbaai speaking on the population ecology of the white shark.
And lastly, Day 5 began with an entertaining plenary by University of Windsor’s Nigel Hussey who spoke about the growing field of trophic ecology. Stable isotopes in elasmobranch tissues can be used to reveal the entire story of a shark’s diet, revealing a much wider range of diets on both the individual and species levels. The first Sharks International conference in Cairns, Australia featured 2 presentations on Stable isotope research. This year there was an entire plenary and themed section on trophic ecology research. Friday also saw an entire presentation section dedicated to research on the severely threatened sawfish, perhaps one of South Africa’s first marine extinctions. Other notable talks were those on shark attack mitigation and shark control measures, with a particular standout for me from Francesco Ferretti and his talk on modelling shark attack data along the California coast.
The close of another successful Sharks International was celebrated Friday night with a gala dinner and dancing, where awards were handed out, and the announcement was made that the Brazilian Shark and Ray research community, SBEEL, will be the host of Sharks International 2018. Looking forward to seeing you all again in 4 years in João Pessoa!