They call it "the chum cam." And, for the first time, it's showing that protecting areas of the ocean works not just for fish but for sharks too.
The Stony Brook University study, published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS 1, dispels the notion that reef sharks simply swim too far and wide to benefit from marine protected areas. While some shark species do, in fact, swim thousands of miles outside protected areas, other species that focus on reefs do benefit.
"This could be extrapolated to other species" of sharks, says Demian Chapman, co-author of the study. His team installed the underwater camera that was aimed at a cage full of fish parts to attract sharks to a concentrated area inside a protected area off Belize. Then they moved the "chum cam" to a similar reef area far outside the protected area and found vastly fewer sharks. Indeed, the ecosystem in unprotected areas had essentially collapsed, with fewer sharks, fish and most everything else.
The visual study comes at a time when scientists estimate 70 million sharks are killed each year globally, largely for their fins for soup.
"I believe that the public has really in the last few years have really become aware about the plight of sharks," Chapman says. "I like to say sharks have become the new whales. I think that’s a very true statement. What our study shows is that, in some cases, protecting an area is as good a protecting the sharks within it."
Scientists say we would have more sharks and fish for fishermen to catch and consumers to eat if we protected 20 percent of the sea. Florida protects a fraction of that.
The other way to protect sharks is to ban shark finning, as Florida and other states and nations have. But some conservation groups – including Oceana – want Florida to go a step further and ban the sale, trade or possession of shark fins in any manner, including soup.
Legislation was introduced last year in Tallahassee but did not reach a vote. Oceana is more hopeful this year and is seeking similar legislation up the Eastern seaboard.
When the ocean's top predator declines, the impact cascades downward – reducing the number of lobsters, for example.
Chapman says "people in Florida may be moving in that direction, where they just don’t want any trade in sharks whatsoever."