South Africa is one of five hotspots for endemic sharks - these are shark species that are not found anywhere else in the world. In late April a group of shark experts from around the globe gathered at NRF-SAIAB in Grahamstown to assess the conservation status of South African shark species.
The workshop at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), a National Research Facility of the NRF, is the first in a series of ten shark assessments to be conducted worldwide by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Shark Specialist Group (SSG). SAIAB has an outstanding collection of preserved fish specimens, which includes a large collection of sharks, rays and skates. This collection has been built up over many years and provides an essential point of reference for the 15-strong shark assessment team which looked at 105 species endemic to the region – of which 21 have not been assessed before.
The IUCN SSG’s Vice Chair of Taxonomy, Dave Ebert, Director of the Pacific Shark Research Centre at Moss Landing in California, has a long-standing association with SAIAB having begun shark research at the institute over thirty years ago with ichthyology stalwart, Leonard Compagno. Ebert and Compagno picked up on research that had been carried out ten to twenty years earlier and in the late 1980s a new era of shark research began in earnest. Ebert has continued working with SAIAB and during the last 15 years, this research has been stepped up in collaboration with SAIAB’s Principal marine scientist, Paul Cowley, through acoustic telemetry and tracking the movement of important shark species along South Africa’s east coast.
With technological advances and access to remotely operated submersible vehicles (ROVs) through research platforms such as SAIAB’s Marine Platforms, scientists are also finding sharks that have not been seen in their natural habitat before.
There are still many new species being discovered that need to be identified and described. This has implications for the effective management of sharks, especially as many of these unknown shark species are of high conservation concern as they live off-shore at greater depths than coastal sharks and are increasingly being caught as bycatch in trawl nets or targeted for their flesh and fins.
Asked why the assessment team chose SAIAB for this workshop, Nick Dulvy, who heads up the IUCN shark assessment team, replied that the SAIAB Fish Collection is a mecca for ichthyologists and every ichthyologist should aim to visit the institution at least once in a lifetime. At least ten of the 17 species Ebert has described from the region have type specimens housed at SAIAB. In the past 18 months Ebert has described nine new species from the southern/southwestern African region alone, and of the twenty new shark, ray and skate species named in 2017 globally, seven were from South Africa which is why the country is considered a hotspot for endemic sharks. In trying to tackle food security and other environmental issues linked to population growth, governments worldwide are committed to holding to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, but there are very few marine indicators for fisheries species. Dulvy confirms that sharks are useful indicator species for assessing the health of marine ecosystems so as to inform marine management decisions but, as is the case with sharks, scientists are constantly discovering new species, so it is very difficult to assess the conservation status of fisheries species accurately.