The Marshall Islands are home to the largest shark sanctuary in the world, an area of the Pacific Ocean four times larger than California. It's also home to Bikini Atoll, the place where the U.S. performed nuclear tests from 1942 to 1958. In fact, the most powerful nuclear device in the world was detonated here. Codenamed Castle Bravo, this hydrogen bomb was 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during WWII.
In 2015, Patric Douglas, a film producer who doubles as a diver, put a team together to study the effects of hydrogen bomb radiation on the marine life in the Marshall Islands. Due to risk of radiation exposure, very few people visit this area, which is one of the reasons it became a sanctuary for several different threatened shark species. Douglas and his team set out to tag Gray Reef Sharks in order to study the way they rebounded after multiple nuclear explosions.
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Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the famous diver and explorer Jacques Cousteau, is a marine conservationist that worked alongside Douglas and his crew. Cousteau told Seeker he had one question in particular he wanted to answer while studying these sharks: "Reef sharks are non-migratory species. Our question was, how is it possible for these sharks to repopulate these islands if they're non-migratory?"
After such devastation from the nuclear testing, how did these sharks repopulate without really going anywhere?
In order to study their behavior, these citizen scientists had to mark several sharks with satellite tags. From studying the data collected by the tagged sharks, Doulas, Cousteau and their teams were able to see that the sharks actually were moving much further into deep ocean waters than they expected. It looked as though they were swimming far west in zigzag patterns.
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As it turns out, these sharks had actually been caught by illegal fishing vessels, likely for their fins. Shark fins are very valuable in the Chinese market because they are used to make shark fin soup, a delicacy said to be a symbol of prosperity and good health.
Even though all fishing vessels are required to have an Automatic Identification System (AIS), many find a way around it. Some use devices that block the AIS signal and make it look like the boat is in a different location or that they're a different vessel entirely. This makes it very difficult to patrol illegal fishing in the Marshall Islands.
However, Douglas thinks he may have the solution. If he was able to track the illegally captured sharks through tagging, perhaps tagging more sharks, as well as other marine species, could help identify these vessels and put a stop to illegal fishing practices. He believes it can be done with the right kind of people helping out.
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"What's missing is the will and the next generation of really enthusiastic technologists who are looking at this problem out of the box. We could do it. It's not like we have to design new technology to do it. We just have to re-purpose what we have now," he told Seeker.
If this tagging technology was implemented on a large scale, it could help save the world's marine life at an astonishing rate.
-- Molly Fosco
Brookings: Castle Bravo: The Largest U.S. Nuclear Explosion
National Geographic: Marshall Islands Declares World's Largest Shark Sanctuary
PLOS ONE: Estimating The Worldwide Extent Of Illegal Fishing