Searching for South Africa’s ‘lost sharks’ to save them from extinction

When people think of sharks, all too often it’s images of a large, fearsome, toothy predator with its large dorsal fin cutting its way through the waters’ surface that come to mind.

But this isn’t the reality, says David Ebert, a research associate at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, who is known as the Lost Shark Guy.

“Sharks and their relatives, the rays [flat sharks] and chimaeras [ghost sharks], come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colours and can be informative of the health of the marine environment,” says Ebert, the director of the Pacific Shark Research Centre.

South Africa boasts one of the top five richest and most diverse chondrichthyan faunas (sharks, rays and chimeras) in the world, comprising more than 15% of all known species. Despite this, most sharks and their relatives have largely been “lost” in the hypermedia age, where a few large charismatic sharks overshadow the majority of shark species. 

“While these mega-stars, such as the great white shark, receive much media adulation and are the focus of numerous conservation and scientific efforts, South Africa’s ‘lost sharks’ remain largely unknown not only to the public, but also to scientific and conservation communities,” said Ebert.

Many may be vanishing before our eyes without anyone paying any real attention, he says, citing for example how two sawfish species, historically known to occur in local waters, have not been seen in more than 20 years. “This makes us wonder what other species are disappearing or have gone extinct without us even knowing. 

“These lost sharks are really the proverbial ‘canaries in the coal mine’ because they will tell you more about what is happening in the marine environment than these mega-sharks, such as the white shark.”

Across the world’s oceans, sharks are in deep trouble. The latest International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) shark specialist group assessment, which was released last month, revealed that a third of the world’s shark and ray species are threatened with extinction because of overfishing. Ebert was a co-author of the paper.

The world’s sharks are facing an “unprecedented crisis”, according to the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, because of long-term overfishing, illegal trade, poor fisheries management and international inaction. 

Traffic has now unveiled SharkTrace, a suite of innovative apps to help tackle the shark and ray “population catastrophe”. This uses technology to trace species from capture to consumption, designed for use onboard fishing vessels, in fish processing plants and on transport vehicles to ensure transparency throughout the supply chain.

South Africa has an obligation to protect its sharks and rays, says Jennifer Olbers, a marine biologist at WildOceans who is focused on the South African Shark and Ray Protection Project.

The country has a national plan of action for the conservation and management of sharks, which is being rolled out, she says. “In terms of its objectives and action plan it’s a very good document, but it’s all a matter of whether we’ll achieve it and implement what’s in there.”

Of the 192 species found in local waters, about 100 are threatened by fisheries. 

“We need to re-legislate some of our shark species,” says Olbers. “For many years we’ve had a handful of sharks on our prohibited list and what we need to do is to make sure that our critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable sharks are properly legislated in South Africa, which they’re not at the moment.

“We’ve got some species that are being heavily fished, like the soupfin shark. We know that it’s critically endangered and that it’s over-depleted in fisheries but they are still fishing for it — there’s no restrictions on it. Some of our fisheries are still not complying with the legislation in terms of putting their catches to a species level — they’re lumping species together. We’ve got so many species but we don’t know what’s actually going on with each species because the fisheries are lumping them together.”

One of the recommendations the project is making to the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment is “to get the fisheries to tighten up on their identification and stop this lumping so we can get a handle on these lesser-known sharks”.

Ebert has developed the first dedicated checklist of all the sharks, rays, skates and ghost sharks that occur in South African waters, their distribution and current IUCN Red List status, which is a vital tool for conservation efforts. It shows how 45% of all shark species (50 of 111 species) and 33% of all ray species (24 of 72 species) in local waters are at risk of extinction. 

Ebert, whose global explorations have led to the discovery of more than 50 new shark species, says he has made it his life’s work to seek out and find lost sharks — and bring attention to them before they disappear forever.

He has discovered and named 11 new shark ray and ghost shark species from South Africa alone, the most recent finds announced in February this year — the Barrie’s lanternshark, the Malagasy blue-spotted guitarfish and the Socotra blue-spotted guitarfish. 

“There is still a lot to be discovered,” he says.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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