Second mission of the shark and ray project in the Red Sea

3 April 2013

The Cousteau Society and its partners returned to the field to undertake the second mission of the Red Sea Shark and Ray Conservation and Management project, and conduct wider survey on the reef ecosystem and food web.

During a two weeks mission, the research team, led by Nigel Hussey and Steven Kessel (University of Windsor – Canada), carried out state of the art research studies using a combination of techniques including acoustic tags and monitors, underwater fixed camera (BRUVS – Baited Remote Underwater Video Stations), biological sampling for food web work and visual surveys. For the first time, two members of the Cousteau Divers community were invited to join the expedition team during one week to observe and assist the scientific team.

After more than 24hours of travel for some members of the team, the whole group finally met in Dubai for the last step of the travel to Port Sudan. Warm and windy weather welcomed us when we landed at the International airport of Port Sudan, but unfortunately two bags with equipment were missing. So the day after our arrival, part of the team went on land to buy some missing materials, while another part of the team went to a meeting with representative of the recently created Sudanese Steering committee for the project. This including representatives of the Ministry of Environment, the Wildlife administration, Fisheries Administration, the Red Sea University and the Marine Security. Two staff members from the Wildlife Administration in Sudan joined the team in the afternoon and then, the whole team left Port Sudan aboard Elegante, the boat base for the mission. The vessel Elegante stopped at Wingate reef for the night and, a team went out to collect some biological sample from reef fishes.

The next morning, we set sail early to Shaab Rumi, the fist studied site for this mission, that is key reef for sharks and marine biodiversity like Sanganeb, Shaab Jumna and Shaab Ambar. Every day began with the team briefing to define the schedule of the activities for the day.

Julia helped by another member of the team deployed underwater cameras at each studied site resulting in around 50 hours of BRUV footage from the four sites. BRUV surveys are used to monitor broad trends in the relative abundance of sharks. BRUVS consist of video cameras in simple underwater housings held in steel a frame with a small cage full of bait on the end of a metal arm in the field of view. The cameras were deployed from the surface or by two divers, under ropes and floats, to be picked up after two to three hours filming at the seabed.

Michael undertook the fish diversity/biomass transect surveys at different depths on Shaab Rumi and Sanganeb. The data collected will provide a benchmark for comparison with other regions and a starting platform for future work. Preliminary analysis suggests that Sudan has some of the healthiest reefs in the world.

All food web and genetic sampling for compound specific work conducted by Mike, Camrin and Tane was highly successful - they obtained nearly all required samples from Shaab Rumi, Sanganeb and Sha'ab Ambar. Every organism needs to obtain energy in order to live. For example, plants get energy from the sun, some animals eat plants, and some animals eat other animals. This survey will allow them understand the food webs on these key reefs of Sudan and reveal critical energy pathways. The results will help to more accurately assess the function of complex reef systems and predict how reef fishes will be affected by climate change.

The shark tagging team began their steep learning curve to reveal the best techniques for catching sharks in this previously un-surveyed system: intense efforts and hours spent to try to catch sharks provided two scalloped hammerheads for acoustic tagging. During the second week, Nige and Steve collected the data recorded by the acoustic monitors located on Shaab Rumi. These data reveal timed movements between North and South plateaus of the scalloped hammerhead tagged during the first week.

The weather conditions, with a majority of windy and cloudy days, and unusual current conditions did not help the team. The team is currently discussing with the Steering Committee to organize a next fieldwork focused on tagging sharks at the end of the dive season. This mission will be based at Sanganeb lighthouse allowing dedicated time to refine fishing times and techniques. Increasing the number of tagged sharks is now a priority given the acoustic monitor array now in place. Indeed, the team successfully deployed acoustic monitors at Shaab Ambar and Jumna, two reefs where sharks are commonly seen. Our network of acoustic monitors now covers all offshore reefs along 190km of coastline.

Besides assisting the team during their work, the two Cousteau Divers members, Burçak (see the summary of her experience) and Lisa (see the summary of her experience), were in charged of testing the Cousteau Divers Red Sea Dive log and Manual, that will be released soon on the Cousteau Divers Website. They also conducted Divers Aware of Sharks dives to collect data on sharks and establish baseline data on the abundance of sharks and ray species at key sites.

At the end of the mission a final meeting with the Steering Committee in Port Sudan and a presentation at the Red Sea University were organized. These two events went extremely well – all stakeholders were very supportive and a great interest for our longterm project has been raised. We now have to follow up on the next mission focused on increasing our success with shark tagging and reach a sufficient number to understand the life history of these amazing animals and better protect them.

Sudan expedition 2013

The Cousteau Society, Cousteau Divers and its partners are in Sudan for the second field mission of the shark and ray project. Video & Photos: Michael Berumen, Lisa Capelli, Tane Sinclair-taylor, Noémie Stroh