Ducie Island, Shark Finning, and BIRDS!

Ahoy, mateys! As you can see from this blog, I was not consumed or mortality wounded by an elasmobranch. In fact, we just completed a third dive at Ducie Island and I have seen a total of 0 sharks. I did see a freaking sailfish and that was awesome, but alas no sharkie sharks.  Now normally this wouldn’t bother me and in most places I wouldn’t think anything of it. But this island WAS known for sharks.  Perhaps a little too well known I guess.  While I didn’t see any sharks I did find evidence to why.

As scientists we seek answers to perplexing observations. Past reports said there would be sharks, so our hypothesis was that we would see sharks. Our hypothesis was rejected by a replicate of three dives across three very different sites on the islands. So we formulated several new hypotheses. 1) The sharks are gone because its winter. 2) The sharks are really there but we just haven’t been to the right place or dove at the right time. 3) The sharks aren’t here because someone or something made them go away. Well on my first dive I found pretty strong evidence that is was the latter hypothesis.  

While looking at the corals, Pete, the dive photographer (who BTW filmed Steve Irwin get killed by sting rays and has hung out with Patrick Stuart OMG) and I found two ‘shark clips’ connected to some brand new rope. My guess is whoever left that tackle did it not but one week ago because those clips were brand new and the line had no algae or anything on it. So there was some data to suggest that the sharks were fished recently. (Please note…if you don’t want to be depressed skip to paragraph that starts “To end the blog on a good…”)

But what about the other hypotheses. In my distress of not seeing any sharks, yesterday I emailed a colleague, Alan Friedlander, who was the first author on that paper about the unusual amount of shark biomass here on Ducie Island. I asked him if he only saw the sharks in one place on the island. He immediately responded and said no, the sharks were everywhere and they saw lots on every dive. Thus hypothesis 2 was rejected. I guess we will never know if the sharks simply come here only in March (hypothesis 1) when the last survey was done unless someone comes back in a future March to document that.

So most of the evidence and rumors about fishing boats in the area suggest that the sharks were poached. Yes, poached! This is a British Island and they don’t fin sharks here. For those not familiar with finning, it’s the process of catching a live animal, namely a shark, and cutting all its appendages off while it is alive and then throwing it overboard to die from a) suffocation b) bleeding to death c) being eaten by other animals or most likely d) all of the previously mentioned combined. Personally I think it’s a brutal and savage way to kill an animal…any animal. Clearly I’m upset. In fact I’m truly depressed about this. I came here thinking (see blog #1) that we would see an unspoiled habitat, one somewhat untouched by humankind. But clearly that was a fantasy and there is no such place anymore. As most of you know I’m a pretty positive person, but this really makes me sad and extremely angry.  I was up all night thinking about it. I don’t have any answers, but I do know that as a society we should fight finning as much as we can. Sharks kill a handful a people a year, but we kill millions upon millions. Sorry for the grim post, but unfortunately a lot of marine biology is sad news these days.  

To end the blog on a good note, despite the sharks, we had a wonderful last two days here at Ducie Island. It is a postcard island with amazing breaking waves on one side, a huge lagoon on the inside, and several sets of motus filled with trees and birds. The weather is fair and cool with onshore breezes refreshing us during the day and night, but mostly sunny and clear during the day. It feels a little unfair that we get to experience such perfection. I can certainly understand why those guys on the Bounty wanted to stay because this is truly a tropical paradise.

All the science teams had successful collections of corals, fish, water, and video.  All the crew worked tremendously hard to make a flawless day on the water and on Tara. The fish here are shockingly friendly and a tad annoying as they follow us very closely (dude, fish, get out of my face) as we dive and collect. Now we also have some resident fish who’ve taken up living under the boat and who’s days are likely numbered given the spear fisherman on the boat.

We plan for more sampling tomorrow and hopefully more shark sightings and encounters. We hope to find a way to enter the lagoon which remains shrouded in mystery. Alan told me that they sampled inside it, and that’s its very different than the forereef. I asked him how they made it in, and he replied “crazy kiwi.” Well we don’t have a crazy Kiwi. We have some crazy Frenchies but none that are willing to be that crazy. It’s like Jaws on the outside, barrels 10 feet tall that break on the reef. We’ve watched the tides and even at high tide it seems semi-suicidal to attempt getting a zeppelin in there. And if you did make it in, how the hell would you get out? So right now the plan is to find a way to venture on foot. I am particularly excited about this because I’d like to see the very populous bird colonies that are all over the tree and ground. There are masked boobies, white terns, tropics birds, and Murphy’s petrels. These petrels are special here. 90% of the total world population live at Ducie. So if we travel across land we need to be very careful not to disturb the birds or trample on their nests. So we likely try and stick to the beach and give the birds their space. But still…BIRDS!!!    

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