A Tech Billionaire’s Plan to Save Endangered Sharks and Coral Reefs

Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen has funded a project to count the world’s reef sharks and rays and assess their risk of extinction.
(Photo: Global FinPrint)
Jul 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Throughout the world’s oceans, sharks and coral reefs are in danger of extinction.

A new project aims to not only assess those risks but learn just how much coral reefs and sharks depend on each other.

The Global FinPrint project, funded with a multimillion-dollar investment by billionaire Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, will spend the next three years traveling to the world’s coral reefs to examine the health of the sharks and rays—collectively known as chondrichthyans—that live there.

At each of some 400 locations, scientists will set up underwater cameras, attach bait, and wait for hungry sharks to come by. The video will then be examined by visual identification software—many individual sharks can be identified by the markings or scars on their fins—which will help the scientific team understand the health of each species’ population.

The scientists will visit well-studied reefs as well as ones that have rarely been seen by researchers. “Some of these locations have never been sampled before,” said Raechel Waters, senior program officer of ocean health at Vulcan Philanthropy, the charitable arm of Paul Allen’s company. “They may see some unexpected species.”

So, Why Should You Care? The Global FinPrint project will do more than just count sharks. It will also help to pinpoint shark species and regions of the world’s oceans that are in need of conservation. The data collected will be made available to other researchers, as well as regional managers and nonprofits, so they can determine the most important areas for future conservation efforts. “It’s likely that a lot of these remote locations will be in need of critical protection,” Waters said. “It’s important that we learn this now so we are able to protect them.”

Research published last year indicated that 25 percent of the world’s 1,000 shark and ray species are threatened with extinction. Even worse, there is not enough data to understand the risks faced by another 46 percent of shark and ray species. This research project will help to close a large portion of that data gap.

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The project will also help to verify a hypothesis that sharks are often necessary for healthy reefs, something that some isolated research has suggested. As the apex predator in a reef ecosystem, sharks eat other predatory fish. “When you remove the sharks, populations of other predatory fish increase,” Waters said. They in turn eat herbivorous fish that would otherwise be munching down on the algae and plants that grow around reefs. “Without the herbivorous fish, that plant growth can actually overtake and suffocate the coral,” she explained.

Project leader Demian Chapman of Stony Brook University said understanding sharks’ role in coral ecosystems can provide broader benefits, such as shedding light on whether reef sharks help coral to recover faster from coral bleaching or hurricanes.

The research team has started its work and will be posting updates over the next three years on its website, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. After that, the real work begins. “We’re really excited about how the results are going to inform conservation priorities for what is likely to be a large number of very vulnerable species of sharks and rays,” Waters said.