Marine debris is an ever-growing threat to animals in the oceans. Plastic pollution is known to affect a variety of marine species including turtles, cetaceans and seals. But little is known about the susceptibility of sharks and rays to this threat.
New research led by Kristian Parton, Tamara Galloway and Brendan Godley at the University of Exeter suggests that the threat of entanglement within marine debris for sharks and rays is significantly underreported. Although probably not one of the major threats to elasmobranchs, this issue is of clear animal welfare concern. Collaboration between the Shark Trust, the University of Exeter and citizen scientists will help to shed more light on this issue.
The Shark and Ray Entanglement Network (Sh.a.R.E.N.) aims to collect more data on the susceptibility of sharks and rays to entanglement within marine debris. The project hopes to identify species that may be more at risk. And hopes to identify global entanglement hotspots in the world’s oceans. The project also aims to find out what type of marine debris is affecting sharks and rays and to do this we need YOUR help!
You can submit your sightings of sharks and rays that have become entangled in marine debris, whether this be plastic packaging or fishing gear. We’re calling on all those who may encounter these entangled animals, whether you be a beach go-er, snorkeler, scuba diver, angler or fisherman. We want to hear from you.
To help make this project a success it is first important to distinguish between elasmobranch entanglement and elasmobranch bycatch. Elasmobranch bycatch can be defined as the un-wanted catch of non-targeted shark/ray species in active fishing gear. Elasmobranch entanglement can be defined as the process by which any cartilaginous fish (including sharks, rays and chimaera) becomes entwined or trapped within human-made debris – excluding those bycaught in active fishing gear.
Research has shown that the most common type of debris that is entangling sharks and rays is ghost fishing gear. This is fishing gear that has been lost or abandoned at sea and drifts around indiscriminately catching marine animals. There is often confusion between a shark entangled in drifting fishing gear and a shark caught as bycatch. For this project we are excluding all animals that are caught as bycatch.
Here we need you to make a judgement call: If you encounter a shark or ray caught in fishing gear, it is important to determine if that fishing gear is active or passive. If the fishing gear is attached to a boat or a buoy and looks like it will be returned to by fishermen, then that fishing gear is active, so any animal caught in this is considered as bycatch.
If the fishing gear appears old, worn or abandoned and has entangled animals then this is ghost fishing gear and we want to hear from you! Perhaps it has washed up on a beach, or is drifting freely in the water with no sign of fishing boats nearby. If you see any sharks/rays entangled in this type of fishing gear, please document it and report it via the recording form.
If you would like to read the research that led to the creation of this project you can do so here.