eDNA – the 21st century way to keep an eye on shark populations

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 4 December 2017

Scientists say that traces of DNA in the sea can be used to monitor shark populations.

This kind of innovation that can be a game-changer, and significantly improve the way we monitor and protect threatened species.

Dr Peter Richardson,
MCS Head of Ocean Recovery

Current methods of baiting, hooking and filming sharks, rays and other large fish are invasive and costly and require teams of scientists spending much time at sea.

Now a UK study, published today in Scientific Reports has shown it is possible to monitor these animals via environmental DNA (eDNA), whereby a sample of seawater can provide the identifiable ‘tracks’ of numerous species of shark.

“Water contains minute fragments of the skin, excretions, blood of animals that have swum through there,” explains Stefano Mariani, professor of conservation genetics at the University of Salford.

“It’s just like when detectives do a forensic search of a crime scene, and can locate tissues and cells that contain the DNA of the suspects”

“This new research is very interesting and we look forward to seeing how it develops. The work is in its infancy, so at present does not replace the fine-scale behavioural data we can collect through our basking shark satellite tracking, for example. But it is this kind of innovation that can be a game-changer, and significantly improve the way we monitor and protect threatened species,” said Dr Peter Richardson, MCS Head of Ocean Recovery.

Almost half of all known shark species are classified as ‘data deficient’, in part, because of the expense and complexity of finding the animals in the first place.

“The beauty of our method is that we can get a picture of shark diversity without the need for chasing, baiting and hooking them – so it is a lot faster for conservation scientists and less traumatic for the animals,” added Judith Bakker, the lead author of the study.

The team, which included scientists from six countries, from Europe and the Americas, took water samples in four sites in the Caribbean and three in the Pacific Coral Sea. Using a process called metabarcoding, the team recovered significantly more shark DNA sequences in less anthropogenically impacted areas. In the Caribbean, the most diverse site was the Bahamas (a shark sanctuary) where 11 species were identified; in the Pacific, the samples from the remote, inhabited archipelago of Chesterfield proved to contain the largest amount of shark DNA .

Bakker said: “To be able to glean so much information about these charismatic predators by simply sampling a few litres of water is truly astonishing.”

“Sharks are vulnerable to overfishing, often have slow growth rate and low fecundity, and therefore are a flagship species in marine conservation.

And Professor Mariani believes this flexible and cheap new way of tracking sharks will help improve conservation: “In order to protect these elusive animals and their ecosystems, we must be able to rapidly assess many areas at repeated time intervals.

“eDNA should prove a big step forward because basically anyone can collect water samples, and every bottle of water is a potential gold mine of data.

Of course much remains to be done to make the approach more effective: the molecular tools can be improved, so that every species of interest can be identified unambiguously; and finer-scale studies are required to understand the impact of oceanic currents and depth on the transport of trace DNA”.

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Did you know?…

An area over 9 times the size of Wales is now in marine protected areas in the UK, but less than 1% is considered by MCS scientists to be well managed

To the shelf limits, Scotland has 61% of UK waters, of which 23% are now in existing or new ‘marine protected areas’

Over the last century, we have lost around 90% of the biggest predatory oceanic fish, such as tuna, swordfish and sharks

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