A Stony Brook University professor is leading a three-year project to survey sharks and rays in hundreds of coral reef ecosystems worldwide to identify population hot spots and habitats that support or repel the animals.
Data from the survey could be used to identify areas for protection and conservation of threatened species and to inform policy decisions, supporters of the effort said.
Global FinPrint researchers will place cage-like frames on the sea floor, equipped with video cameras and baited with chunks of chopped-up local oily fish, to catalog shark populations at 400 sites, including off the Florida Keys.
"Anything that swims into the frame of view after the bait will be filmed," said Demian Chapman, an assistant professor at Stony Brook's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and head of the Global FinPrint initiative. "Once you determine the hot spots, these should be priority areas for protection."
The data are expected to be available in summer 2018 through an open-access database.
A 2014 report from the Shark Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, based in Switzerland, found that one-quarter of the world's sharks and rays are threatened with extinction. Better fisheries management is needed to prevent extinctions and promote recovery, the report said.
Vulcan Inc., a Seattle company founded by philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, has committed $4 million to the project, as well as in-house technical expertise to create the database. Another $2 million will be raised through in-kind donations and fundraising, said Dune Ives, Vulcan's senior director of philanthropy.
"It's actually quite difficult in certain dive sites to find sharks these days," Ives said. "There really wasn't a data set one could point to to really understand what was going on with sharks."
The health of coral areas, their proximity to population centers, marine regulations and other factors will be examined to see whether there are correlations with the populations of sharks and fins, Chapman said. If some areas are hot spots, the data could help determine whether unstudied areas with similar characteristics also could have high populations.
"We will be able to test which factors are best for sharks and fins," Chapman said.
The information will add to knowledge in certain well-documented areas and establish baseline numbers in places where there are data gaps, such as in the tropical waters of the western Atlantic Ocean.
Fishing pressures, encroachment and pollution are among the reasons populations are in decline.
"What we don't know are which of these pressures are more impactful than others," Ives said.
The effect of shark populations on the health of coral is another focus of the research.
Sharks -- which are among animals that researchers call "apex predators" -- feed on the animals that eat parrotfish and surgeonfish, which in turn eat the algae that can damage coral. If enough sharks are present, researchers said, more algae-eaters are likely to survive and help the coral remain healthy.
"Where there's abundant apex predators, we're expecting to see healthier ecosystems," Ives said.