Focus on a Researcher: Simon Pierce

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Focus on a Researcher

Researcher Simon Pierce

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I thought I’d be attacked by lions when I stepped off the plane.

Before I decided to move there, all I’d heard about Mozambique was

that it was recovering from civil war, riddled with landmines and

someone had once been bitten by a sea snake. So when I arrived in the

small picturesque coastal village of Tofo Beach, with its sweeping

beach, restaurants, bars and internet, I was almost disappointed (for

about five minutes). Civilisation does have its downside though: in

case you were wondering, it’s really hard to escape Justin Timberlake

songs these days.

Simon the Clown (2)

Backing up a little, in the middle of 2005 I was finishing off my

field research for my PhD work at The University of Queensland. One

night at home in Brisbane, I received a call from my friend Andrea

Marshall, who was then working on her PhD on manta rays over in

Mozambique. “Hey”, she said, “it’s Andrea. I’ve just moved to a nice

lodge over here and they’ve asked me to find them a whale shark

researcher! Want to come over?” “Ah, sure”, I replied, “but I’ve never

seen a whale shark?” “Yeah, true,” she paused, “no problem, I just

won’t tell them.”

 

And so I became a whale shark researcher, and the adventure began. I

didn’t know much about them when I started, but I quickly realised

that the whale shark is a genuinely amazing animal. These huge sharks

are the world’s largest fish, with the largest recorded individual

measuring 20 metres (about one and two-thirds the length of an average

bus). The best estimate of their maximum lifespan is around 100 years,

and they are capable of diving to depths of at least 1500 metres.

 

The name “whale shark” comes from their huge size, but that’s not

where the similarities between these behemoths and their mammalian

namesakes end. Both are highly-migratory plankton-feeders and as such

are completely harmless to humans. Sadly, these friendly giants have,

until recently, faced the prospect of extinction. Up until 2008,

their numbers were decimated by targeted fisheries in the

Indo-Pacific with up to 96% reductions recorded in some countries.

Simon with whale shark 1

Unfortunately the cessation of major fisheries for the species in

recent years was probably more related to declining catch rates and

therefore poor economic return, rather than burgeoning awareness of

their dire conservation status. Whatever the case, the situation now

presents both a challenge and an opportunity: how can we protect Earth’s

largest fish from further exploitation and help them bounce back?

 

Whale shark research sounds like a dream job to many people. And it

is! A huge upside of working with whale sharks is that we can get in

the water and swim with them. This also allows me to use some research

techniques that aren’t possible with many other sharks. My research is

based upon the photographic identification of individual sharks. Based

on their unique spot patterns, I can follow the life of each shark to

some extent: how long they spend in Mozambique, where they travel,

their rate of growth, even the threats that they face and escape from.

 

Photo-identification was the perfect way to start learning more about

the lives of these sharks. It was cheap, which appealed as I had no

research budget at all and although it is time-intensive the idea of

time on and in the water with these awesome fish wasn’t exactly

unappealing. Whale shark tourism was in the early stages of

development in Tofo at the time, so I started jumping aboard the

commercial snorkelling trips to investigate what was going on at sea.

 

I saw eight whale sharks on my first jaunt and have been completely

hooked ever since. Fast forward to the present, and my team and I have

identified over 600 whale sharks, representing around 19% of the known

global population of the species. Tofo is now understandably regarded

as a global hot-spot for whale sharks and as such is an important

area to preserve.

Simon with whale shark 4

Although we’re still learning more about how and why the sharks are

present in such large numbers in Mozambique, our knowledge of their

habits is rapidly expanding. Most of the sharks using the Tofo coast

are juvenile males of six to seven metres in length. Their whereabouts

remain a mystery from birth (at around 55 cm) until they reach a

length of three to five metres. I think of ‘my’ sharks as being like

teenage boys, hanging around at an arcade somewhere. Once they get

older, guys realise that they’re going to have to leave to find the

girls: something similar appears to occur in Tofo, as it’s very rare

for us to see adult sharks of either sex.

 

My research in Mozambique could not proceed without support from Casa

Barry Beach Lodge, Peri-Peri Divers, the Shark Foundation, Ocean

Revolution, All Out Africa and Fujifilm cameras. With their help,

we’ve begun to achieve some great conservation results for the

species. Whale sharks have become the basis of an important marine

tourism industry in Mozambique and we’ve been working with the

government to help them decide on the best way to conserve the

species. I’m happy to report that they’ll be fully protected this

year and the continuing development of the tourism is also being

carefully managed to ensure ecological and economic sustainability.

 

We’re now turning our attention to their primary aggregation site, the

10 kilometre strip of coast immediately south of Tofo. Even though the sharks

are moving through the area quickly, the high numbers at this site

mean that it is important to protect this habitat and ensure that no

threats emerge in the future.

 

So, once the key whale shark aggregation site is protected in

Mozambique, they’re protected from fisheries and their live economic

value is realised in a carefully-managed tourism industry, what’s

next? Well, despite dedicated researchers working on the species, huge

gaps in our knowledge still remain. A vanishingly small number of

pregnant female sharks have ever been sighted and it looks like only

mid-sized juvenile sharks use coastal aggregations where most of the

current research effort is focused. I think the next stage is to find

these “lost giants”. And so, the adventure continues…

 

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