2015 Mission

Impacts of Sharks on Coral Reef Ecosystems

The Problem

In most marine systems, including coral reefs, sharks are the top predator. On near-pristine coral reefs, sharks and other apex-predators may have once made up as much as 85 percent of the fish biomass, but now, thanks to overfishing, are virtually absent. In the last few decades, populations of large shark species have declined by 70-90 percent. The loss of these predators not only threatens the survival of one of the world’s oldest lineages of fish, but has also left scientists scrambling to understand the role sharks play in maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems. Coral reefs face potential collapse in the coming century. Many reefs around the world are transitioning from vibrant coral communities to seaweed-covered rocks. Large predators such as sharks may help prevent this decline. Fear of predation may change the behavior of coral reef herbivores, preventing fishes from wandering in search of their favorite seaweeds and causing them to feed in safer areas near shelter provided by coral.

The Mission

FIU scientists will conduct the first experiment to date using the Aquarius Reef Base, the world’s only operating undersea laboratory - part of FIU’s Medina Aquarius Program, to conduct sampling to quantify how sharks affect the behavior of coral reef fishes. Using low frequency sound to attract sharks, our scientists will use a combination of HD remote video, controlled from within the Aquarius habitat and multi-beam imaging sonar to quantify how different species of fishes’ behavior changes in the presence and absence of sharks. Due to technological constraints of reliably assessing herbivore behavior in the presence of sharks, there have been no quantifiable studies of how sharks impact reef fish behavior. This study, part of the Global FinPrint project, will be the first to utilize imaging sonar and baited remote underwater video (BRUV) to provide exact, quantifiable data on reef fish behavior in the presence and absence of sharks. It will not only provide proof of concept of the utility of imaging sonar in predator-prey studies, but will also fill an important gap in our understanding of the role sharks play in preserving coral reefs.

An Opportunity of a Lifetime

The Teacher Under the Sea (TUS) program at Aquarius capitalizes on this unique asset to inspire millions of students, engage teachers and the public in innovative education programs, and ensure that this national treasure reaches its potential to foster the next generation of both ocean enthusiasts and STEM professionals.

Four (4) teachers will be selected to become a part of the science team and will specifically serve as science translation mission specialists. As a teacher under the sea, primary responsibilities include:

Science team member

In this capacity, teachers will become part of the science dive team and will gain incredible content knowledge that will be disseminated to students everywhere through virtual classes taught live from Aquarius, aboard surface vessels and shore base mission control.

Education content developer

Teachers will build upon existing curriculum devised around Aquarius and the mission science objectives to develop new interactive and experiential activities that will be made available to teachers everywhere during and after the mission.

Creating a community

sing social media, teachers will actively engage students and fellow educators before, during and after the mission to foster engagement by empowering them to become science and conservation ambassadors.

Funding for this research is provided by a grant from the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation. We sincerely appreciate the Foundation's generous support.