When they first set out to follow grey reef sharks around the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), Darcy Bradley and her colleagues intended to survey their movement in the protected waters there. What they found was a disturbing development for the Pacific island nation.
“It’s not the study we expected,” said Bradley, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Santa Barbaras’s Marine Science Institute and at its Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “Instead, we uncovered a high level of illegal shark fishing from within the Marshall Islands shark sanctuary.”
Indeed, of the 15 adult grey reef sharks they satellite tagged to follow around the Marshall Islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone—roughly 2 million square kilometers of which has been declared a safe haven for sharks—eight were suspected of having been illegally fished from the RMI “shark sanctuary.”
“There was nothing ‘sharky’ about the movement patterns we were tracking,” Bradley said. Instead of staying relatively close to shore, the tags had moved thousands of kilometers across the Pacific Ocean at speeds much faster than a reef shark is able to sustain, she explained. Some tags even ended up in local ports in both Guam and the Philippines.
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