Global FinPrint Project Provides Closer Look at Shark Population

The video is crystal clear and clearly dramatic. Sharks swimming up to and around the camera, sometimes hitting it, sometimes trying to take a chomp out of bait protected by a cage which is attached to the camera apparatus.

It's not for one of the sensational shark shows scaring viewers on two networks this week. The videos are part of a scientific shark survey, a population census just getting started called the Global FinPrint project.

"So this is a great example of the kind of footage we get," explained Dr. Mike Heithaus of FIU, pointing at a computer screen. "You can see the pole here with the bait out front and this is a beautiful tiger shark that's come in to have a sniff."

Heithaus is one of the leaders of the three-year project to count sharks and rays at coral reefs all over the earth.

"If we think about coral reefs, they're worth billions of dollars to people all over the world, and if we need healthy shark populations to have healthy reefs, we better figure out their status so we can make sure we know where to protect sharks and where we may even need to rebuild their populations," Heithaus said.

In some parts of the world, 90 percent of the shark population is in danger because of overfishing.

Despite what you may think if you watch the fear-inducing shows about shark attacks on people, it's people who are decimating the shark population. That's why the census can provide valuable information, and the concept could not be more simple: Drop video cameras, with bait attached, onto coral reefs and then count the sharks that appear on the videos.

"One of the really cool things about it is we're gonna have hundreds of collaborators all over the globe, so we're not gonna have to do it all ourselves," Heithaus said. "We're going to get local scientists and groups to work with us and then we're going to put it all together into one big project."

So far, they've collected video data from coral reefs in Australia and Belize. Of course, they will be deploying cameras on the reefs of South Florida as well, from West Palm Beach down through the Keys.

"We can compare information we get here in Florida with what's collected in Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, so we really get a global snapshot of where sharks are in trouble and where their populations are really healthy," Heithaus explained.

A side benefit of the videos is that they show the prevalence of other fish and their behaviors as well. In one scene, a grouper decides the bait is in its territory and pushes a reef shark away from it. In another, a moray eel investigates the bait.

Heithaus said all the videos will be made public, and eventually, distributed to schools. So your kids might soon get involved with Global FinPrint.

"We're trying to bring the resources together to create video projects that we can put into classrooms all over the world so they can kind of use that excitement of sharks to learn more about science, get inspired by the environment and actually participate in real research," Heithaus said.

The next step will be enlisting citizen volunteers to help gather data and count sharks on the thousands of hours of video, most of which is, well, stupefyingly boring until a shark shows up.

Heithaus said he's hoping the project will eventually expand its scope to include shark habitats beyond coral reefs.

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