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Eco-tourists connect the dots in shark, ray studies.

Whale sharks and spotted eagle rays are polka-dotted beauties, beloved by divers and snorkelers with cameras. Now these photogenic fishes are spotlighted in two new studies, showing how ecotourists can become citizen scientists by turning their photos into data goldmines.

Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus)--gentle, polka-dotted plankton-eaters that can attain the size of a bus--are the darlings of ecotourism dive operations in multiple nations but face many threats: unintentional bycatch by fishing vessels, targeted fishing in some places, pollution, ship strikes and habitat loss. Spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari)--whose leopard-patterned wings can stretch wider than a human is tali--are ecotourism icons but are fished for consumption in several places. Their mollusk prey are vulnerable to habitat loss.

Both have declined over the past decade in several areas. Their recovery depends on knowledge--which habitats they need, why, and where and when they travel, However, scientists can't follow large numbers of them everywhere, all the time.

Enter the citizen scientists.

"There's a wide network of interested divers and snorkelers who want to contribute to conservation, and collectively they spend way more hours in the water than scientists could do on their own," said Kim Bassos-Hull, Senior Biologist with Mote's Sharks & Rays Conservation Research Program. "This is where citizen science starts--with people who care enough about conservation that they're willing to make real contributions to research."

Citizen scientists--members of the public who collect data or otherwise contribute to projects led by professional researchers --have mattered for more than a century. For example, the Audubon Society's popular Christmas Bird Count began in 1900.

Underwater "birding" with eagle rays?

"We knew that spotted eagle rays could be identified by taking photos of their unique spot patterns, thanks to research initiated in Bimini, Bahamas in the 1990s; we also knew divers were seeing the rays around popular sites like coral reefs and shipwrecks," Bassos-Hull said. "If we could have divers send us their photos with the location and time, we could use special software to identify each ray--that's really important data."

During 2010 in the Florida Keys, Bassos-Hull and colleagues started one of the world's first efforts to engage divers in spotted eagle ray photo-ID research, thanks to a grant from the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI). Meanwhile, they photographed, tagged and collected various data from the rays off Sarasota, Florida.

"During Mote's initial tagging research in 2009 and 2010, we learned that spotted eagle rays are not in Sarasota waters during winter months and are likely migrating elsewhere," Bassos-Hull said. "Upon further investigation, we found that researchers in Mexico and Cuba were documenting large numbers of these rays being taken in fisheries, especially in winter months. Was it possible that spotted eagle rays, though protected by law in Florida waters, were crossing borders into international fisheries?"

In Mexico and Cuba, no management plans restrict spotted eagle ray-focused fishing and tourism. To help sustain both activities and avoid depleting the rays, managers need solid scientific data,

To meet that need, Mexican scientists from Blue Core A.C. visited Bassos-Hull to hone their eagle ray research skills. In 2015, Blue Core Lead Researcher Dr. Florencia Cerutti-Pereyra and colleagues launched a Citizen Science Outreach Program around the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, asking more than 40 recreational dive and tour operators to provide spotted eagle ray photos--an effort supported by Aquaworld-Cancun.Solo Buceo and SCUBA Cancun.

"Divers love the eagle rays and want to keep them around," said Blue Core Field Technician and Environmental Education Coordinator Ximena Arvizu-Torres. "We want policymakers and fishers to come up with regulations to protect the rays. If they are highly migratory, which we suspect they are, it doesn't make sense to have them protected in Florida and not Mexico. We need consistent levels of management for fisheries and tourism."

Blue Core staff found study participants easily.

"The dive shops, divers and underwater photographers were very excited," Arvizu-Torres said, "Some people love the project so much that they decided to send us photos every year. We email them if their ray has been seen again."

In November 2017, Mexican and U.S. project contributors published their initial results: the first-ever photo-ID catalog of spotted eagle rays in the Mexican Caribbean.

The catalog was shared through a study in Environmental Biology of Fishes, authored by Blue Core A.C., Mote Marine Laboratory, Chicago Zoological Society, University of Florida and ECOSUR scientists. It described 1,096 photos identifying 282 individual rays wintering off Mexico during 2003-2016. Of those, 14.9 percent were seen twice, several were observed three to eight times per season, and two were seen across consecutive winters.

Though data were limited by the timing and location of recreational activities, the citizen-scientists vastly expanded the study's reach, providing 60 percent of its photos.

The study begins to uncover where certain rays go and return, adding new pieces to a region-wide puzzle. "Next we want to develop a Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico catalogue, especially to look for movement across and between Florida, Mexico and Cuba," Bassos-Hull said. "With that, we should better understand how managers can protect the species based on their geographic needs."

Whale shark enthusiasm means big data

While citizen science was budding for spotted eagle rays, it was blooming for whale sharks, Earth's largest fish.

In January 2018, a study published in the journal Bioscience revealed the results of the 22-year, worldwide, citizen-science program Wildbook for Whale Sharks.

Through Wildbook, citizen scientists submit whale shark photos for researchers to identify using special software. As one of the largest efforts of its kind, Wildbook includes 42,988 reported whale shark sightings with 8,813 individual animals identified --the incredible results of researchers and citizen scientists working together.

November's study--led by ECOCEAN Inc. with co-authors from Mote and other institutions in more than a dozen countries --shares findings across 54 countries, noting that citizen scientists helped researchers expand their global list of whale shark hotspots from 13 to 20.

"One of the most valuable results is a world map of whale shark hotspots, indicating where the sharks are found and which places are connected by their movements in between," said Dr. Bob Hueter, study co-author and Director of Mote's Center for Shark Research. "This provides helpful clues to scientists planning more targeted studies of whale shark population structure and potential long-distance migration."

Key study results offer helpful knowledge for conservation:

* Some of the most populous whale shark hotspots include Ningaloo Reef in Australia, the Gulf and Caribbean coast of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Mozambique and the Philippines.

* 66 percent of documented sharks are male, at those coastal places where the sharks are observable.

* For the most part, whale sharks aggregate around the same hotspots from year to year.

* Few individual whale sharks have been observed by the citizen scientists to move between countries. However, some do and can travel hundreds to thousands of miles, according to satellite-tagging studies by scientists,

"One of the most active whale shark hotspots is located off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, where we and our Mexican colleagues began tagging and tracking whale sharks in 2003, publishing the first scientific journal articles on this unique, huge aggregation," Hueter said. "Since then, our knowledge has grown tremendously with help from divers contributing to Wildbook for Whale Sharks. Wildbook photos and data have revealed more individual sharks at this Mexican hotspot than at any other known whale shark hotspot in the world. In essence, citizen scientists have helped confirm that this is truly a special place."

Caption: Above: Photo from citizen-science project Wildbook for Whale Sharks.
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Title Annotation:CITIZEN SCIENCE
Author:Rutger, Hayley
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2018
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