These scientists wanted to tag sharks in a marine sanctuary to see how they moved around — instead they stumbled on an illegal shark fishing operation.
As Science Daily reported, researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, were studying gray reef sharks in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
It's a small area between the Philippines and Hawaii that's home to a reserve designed to protect sharks. The Coral Reef Alliance reported that the sanctuary is the largest for sharks in the world, spanning over 750,000 square miles.
But it turns out it's not such a safe place for the sharks.
The UC Santa Barbara press release on the matter reported that of the 15 sharks the team tagged, eight of them had suspicious travel routes. They moved thousands of miles quickly — much faster than a shark could swim — and some tags ended up in port cities in Guam and the Philippines.
"It's not the study we expected," said researcher Darcy Bradley Bradley. "Instead, we uncovered a high level of illegal shark fishing from within the Marshall Islands shark sanctuary."
The press release reported that the problem with the sanctuary is that it's only protected for sharks. Commercial fishing operations are still allowed in the area, so long as the fishermen aren't collecting sharks.
The overlap in shark activity and commercial fishing all but guarantees that sharks will at least be bycatch, if not caught on purpose.
In July, Oceana teamed up with shark experts at Beneath the Waves and the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. They wanted to show just how frequently ships and sharks are interacting with an interactive map available here.
You can see just how often they overlap.
The UC team found that if the rates of shark fishing in the reserve stays consistent with the numbers from their study, the whole area's population could collapse in just five years.
So how do we stop this? For one, fishermen need to hold each other accountable.
As Azula previously reported, a survey of fishermen found that the most common action when they saw poaching was to do nothing. That's unacceptable.
There needs to be easy ways to report marine poaching, and fishermen need to come together to report it. The more poaching that goes on, the more unstable stocks will be — so the less legal fishing will be permitted. That's why it's really in their best interest to report illegal activity.
As NatGeo noted, fines for illegal shark finning also need to be higher than the price the fin could fetch at market.
That way you truly discourage fishermen from actively seeking sharks out.
And the UC research team had another idea inspired from their own satellite tagging of sharks — ships should be satellite-tagged too.
According to the press release, many vessels already have tracking systems designed to prevent accidents and help with navigation and security.
The UC team suggests that this data could also be processed to watch fishing vessels and observe behavior when those ships are in protected areas.
Whatever the solution, this is a problem that needs solving.