Saoirse Pottie is a marine biologist who is interested in elasmobranchs and leads the #IDtheLeopardShark initiative in Mozambique with Marine Megafauna Foundation and Swansea University. She took time out of her busy schedule to talk with The Fins United Initiative about the important work she is doing! Check out her interview.
The Fins United Initiative: First off: how did you get involved with the ID the Leopard Shark initiative?
Saoirse Pottie: The first time I saw a leopard shark was scuba diving in Thailand and I was instantly captivated. In
December 2016, I read that they had were downgraded to Endangered by the IUCN (largely due to some great Citizen Science research by Dr Christine Dudgeon in Thailand). I was due to travel to Tofo, Mozambique in January 2017, I knew there was a leopard shark population in Tofo and I contacted Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) with a research proposal to study the population there.
TFUI: That's amazing!
SP: I got incredibly lucky, MMF had a database on leopard shark sightings since 2010 and were looking for someone to an analyse the data. I saw huge potential to expand the project database, engage more people and raise awareness for leopard shark by incorporating citizen scientists, so in May 2017, I launched ‘ID the Leopard Shark’. I am now also collaborating with NGO, All out Africa (AOA) and several dive centres along the African coastline.
TFUI: Can you tell us a little bit about the work you are currently doing?
SP: I want to collect dive log records and photographs of leopard sharks in the Mozambique channel. I am currently visiting dive centres in Mozambique and South Africa to promote the project, collect data and learn more about the leopard shark populations in those areas. Leopard shark have unique spot patterns that can identify individuals (like a fingerprint), alongside sighting records this information provides baseline data on their distribution, populations and trends. In addition to the citizen science element, I also want to consider the knowledge of the local community. I am conducting interviews with local fishermen to determine if interviews could be an alternative method to determine the presence of leopard shark. This is particularly important in Mozambique as still much of their incredible coastline is unexplored and not yet dived. I am currently just working in South Africa and Mozambique but in the future I am hoping to also work with NGOs and collect photographs from Madagascar.
TFUI: Why is your research important?
SP: When leopard shark were downgraded to endangered in 2016, the IUCN stated that further research needed to be conducted to find out more about their distribution, populations and trends. To date there are no published studies that focus on leopard shark populations along the entire coast of Africa! Leopard shark are not currently listed under CITES and outside of marine reserves there are no protection measures for zebra shark in Mozambique, South African or Madagascar. This study will show the realised and potential distribution of zebra shark in the Mozambican Channel; understanding distribution patterns of species and their habitat use is crucial for many aspects of their conservation and environmental management. It will also help provide a baseline to help establish if populations in the Mozambican Channel are increasing, stable or decreasing. This information can then be used to identify and protect vulnerable populations whilst also ensuring that healthy populations are being maintained.
TFUI: Wow, that sounds amazing!
SP: To date the project has been a huge success. Thanks to MMF’s fellowship scheme, I am working with
a local research assistant, Jorge Sitoe and the preliminary findings of the project have already been shared with the Mozambican fisheries department. The aim is to develop a national plan of action for the conservation of sharks and rays in Mozambique that also includes data deficient and threatened animals that are not currently listed on CITES (Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species).
TFUI: You are currently asking for people to please help find out more about Leopard Shark by sharing both recent and older photos of this endangered sharks in Mozambique, South Africa and Madagascar. Why are you interested primarily in these areas?
SP: While there needs to be a greater understanding of leopard shark populations in all of these areas, it is a particularly an exciting time in Mozambique, as the government are currently drafting the national plan of action for the conservation of sharks and rays. As a standard this would just include the protection of sharks and rays listed under CITES (as seen in South Africa). However, almost a third of elasmobranchs are threatened to extinction, many of which are not listed under CITES or are data deficient. Leopard shark are the perfect advocate of this, they are a species important for eco- tourism, listed as endangered and are not yet listed under CITES. ID the Leopard shark aims to fill the knowledge gap required to create legislation and access if increased protection is required. To ensure the future success of eco-tourism in coastal communities its important that key species for
tourism (such as manta ray, whale shark, leopard shark etc.) receive adequate protection. Most of my research efforts so far have been based in Mozambique and South Africa but I also hope to expand the project to include Madagascar.
TFUI: How can TFUI readers help?
SP: TFUI readers can directly help in two ways; firstly, by contributing any new or existing dive log data or photographs of leopard shark in these key areas. Secondly, by sharing the facebook or twitter page so the project can reach a wider audience. On the grand scheme, TFUI readers can help by sharing and supporting schemes such as MMF fellowship scheme that gives Mozambican Scientists the skills they need to obtain careers as marine biologists. I am very fortunate to be collaborating with Jorge Sitoe from the scholarship scheme, he’s helping to conduct the interviews and present the findings to the Mozambican government. For the future of marine conservation, I think its really important that younger generations of Mozambicans have a relatable role model, so that they too can aspire to become marine biologists and ocean ambassadors.
TFUI: In your opinion, what makes the leopard shark unique?
SP: The more I learn about leopard shark the more they fascinate me! Their biology alone is incredible but for me its their behaviour underwater that makes me love them more. Many people perceive all sharks as dangerous, man eating monsters... one experience with a leopard shark and you know that it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Leopard shark are nocturnal and most have an incredibly relaxed nature, they remind me of an old family retriever curled up in front of a fire. Unlike many other shark species that are scared of scuba divers, leopard shark are super curious and on several occasions I’ve seen them swim up and greet every person in the dive group before resting down to resume their nap. Lastly their tail is the second longest length to body ratio of all sharks, it gives them this beautiful and unexpected grace when you see them move through the water.
TFUI: Do you think people in your these countries (Mozambique, South Africa, and Madagascar) have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
SP: I can only really base this on my personal experience of living in Mozambique but in some ways I believe that people living in developing countries are more connected with the ocean than many people living in western countries. For example, when we think of tuna, most people in the developed world associate it with a tinned good from a supermarket and most don’t consider the highly adapted and impressive predator it is. Mozambique has one of the lowest GDPs globally and fishing provides both an income and a direct source of protein. Although advocating for the protection of elasmobranchs, the daily challenges fishermen overcome in their efforts to provide an income must also be considered. Local communities are witness to the changes in the marine environment and are equally concerned. What is lacking is formal education and opportunities for Mozambican scientists; for most, class sizes are extremely large and many people cannot afford to stay in school.
TFUI: That's an interesting point of view.
SP: In Tofo, fishermen are encouraged to attend workshops by MMF on the marine environment, plastic pollution, sustainable fishing and eco-tourism. A programme called Nemo's Pequenos educate local schoolchildren on marine life and teach the students how to swim. It’s great education programmes like these that will help change any negative perceptions on elasmobranchs and help to protect the local reefs. However, we also have to consider the negative effects industrial scale fishing can have upon marine life. In order to inform policy and protection, the effects of large scale fisheries need to be monitored. I believe training and developing native scientists will be the most effective method to monitor the data and liaise with the government in the long term.
TFUI: Do you see a difference in attitude towards the ocean between all these countries? If so, what do you think has caused this difference?
SP: Thus far in the project, I have only been working in Mozambique and South Africa. In both countries there is a strong and passionate connection with the ocean. The coastline is famous for its game fish and there is a large community of sports fishermen (often catch and release) in South Africa. In Mozambique there is a mixture of sports fishing from tourists and local artisanal fishermen often with non-motorised boats. I think it is important that we maintain the personal connections and enthusiasm for the ocean, whilst doing so in a sustainable manner.
TFUI: What has been your most exciting dive trip?
SP: I love diving with leopard shark and still get very excited every time I see them underwater. My favourite dive trip with Leopard shark was personal to me because it was the first time I recognised an individual leopard shark called Leo underwater (now photographed on 18 occasions!). However, having the opportunity to dive with humpback whales cannot be beaten, and every winter in Tofo, Mozambique some lucky scuba divers can see them. On this occasion, we were just finishing a beautiful dive filled with the humpback whale songs, as we started to ascend the whale songs were getting louder and louder. As we waited on the safety stop the songs were so loud you could almost feel the vibrations passing through your body, and then all of a sudden it went completely silent. It felt very eerie and everyone started looking at each other with confused expressions.
TFUI: Ooh! What happened next?
SP: All of a sudden an excited scream from the dive leader broke the silence. She points behind me and as I turn, I see my dive buddy dwarfed by a HUGE humpback whale, flanked my two smaller individuals. At that moment it looked like the humpback was going to swallow my dive buddy and the dive group. Everything goes into slow motion, as the humpbacks reach about 5- 8m away and I am still there banging my heart to start, they dive beneath us, swimming on their sides to have a better look then disappear into the blue. It was honestly the most incredible and equally terrifying moments of my diving career. I hope I can keep this memory until my dying days because it is always going to remind me how privileged we are to share an ocean with such intelligent, beautiful and inspiring creatures.
TFUI: If you could only tell people ONE fact about leopard sharks, what would it be?
SP: One fact is hard because the more you learn about leopard the more fascinating they become and they are so so cool! They’re common name ‘Leopard Shark’ often creates confusion though, so I feel I should clear that up. If you have been scuba diving in Asia, Africa or the Red Sea you will probably know Stegostoma Fasciatum (the species I am studying) as ‘Leopard shark’. However, if you do a google search for ‘Leopard Shark’, you will mostly find pictures of Triakis semifasciata - a small species of hound shark found off the Pacific Coast of North America.
The less known common name for Stegostoma Fasciatum (the species I am studying), is Zebra Shark. They are known as Zebra Shark as when they are born they have bold black and white stripes that break up after a month. Between 50 cm and 1m they make this transformation from stripes to spots; importantly once the spots are formed they remain the same for the rest of their life. A lot of other species of carpet shark (including the whale shark) are also thought to go through this huge ontogenetic change, however scientists still do not fully understand why! One theory is that is may be a form of Batesian mimicry - where a harmless species has evolved to imitate the warning signals of a harmful species. In this case they think zebra shark pups black and white stripes, long elongated body and undulated swimming mimics that of a banded sea krait. Sea snakes are very
toxic to eat, due to their powerful venom, and most predators avoid them. Just one reason why zebra shark are awesome!
TFUI: What's next for you and the ID the Leopard Shark Initiative?
SP: I love doing research and I am driven by the ultimate goal of benefiting the conservation of the species or its habitat. By the end of 2018 the project aims to be able to provide baseline information on the population structure, realized distribution and potential distribution of zebra shark in Mozambique and South Africa. This information alongside the feedback collected from the fishermen interviews will be shared with the Fisheries Department of Mozambique and other relevant national departments. It is hoped the data can be used to better inform research
requirements set by the IUCN and the national plan of action for shark and ray conservation, currently being developed for Mozambique. Fishermen interviews conducted in this project will show the feasibility of conducting a larger and more detailed assessment of zebra shark presence along the coast of Mozambique.
TFUI: Where do you see the initiative in five years?
SP: My ambition is that the project can continue to have long term benefits for zebra shark. In Mozambique, researchers from AOA, MMF and myself will continue to analyse photo ID contributions and MMF will continue to engage and share data with Mozambican authorities at the regional and national levels. The national plan of action for shark and ray conservation is expected to have significant and lasting effects as it becomes incorporated into national legislation and policies.
Photographs collected during the course of the study will also become freely available and I am hoping to collaborate with other zebra shark researchers to create an online global database. This project is only the start and there is still much to be done to protect the marine life and livelihoods of fishermen in Mozambique. Ideally my dream is see Mozambican Scientists receiving funding and support so they can lead and continue similar projects in 5 years’ time. I would like take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to everyone who has helped support and develop the project so far. Jorge Sitoe and Nelson Miranda from Marine Megafauna, Katie Reeve- Arnold from All Out Africa, James Bull and Luca Borger from Swansea University. Dive centres, Peri Peri, Liquid and Tofo Scuba in Tofo, Barra Reef Divers, Zavora Marine Lab, GOZO Azul in Ponta and Coral Divers in Sodwana Bay. THANK YOU!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK saoirse FOR Her TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
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