Sunday, January 24, 2016

MCAF: Sawfish research in the Eastern Tropical Pacific

This post is one of a series on projects supported by the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists and grassroots organizations all around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the ocean.

In the blog post below, MCAF grantee, Ruth Leeney, PhD, founder and director of Protect Africa’s Sawfishes describes working with the Peruvian NGO, Planeta Oceano on groundbreaking studies of sawfish in Peru and Ecuador; a collaboration that was facilitated by MCAF.

One sawfish species — the largetooth Sawfish (Pristis pristis) — is thought to have occurred
historically in the eastern Pacific, along the coasts of northern Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and the
Pacific coast of Central America. Until recently, there was little research focusing on sawfishes in
Central or South America, but a number of projects have recently developed which promise to change all that.

A largetooth sawfish (c. 5.6 m total length) captured off northern Peru in February 2015.
(c) Alejandra Mendoza/ ecOceanica

The Marine Conservation Action Fund has been a strong supporter of projects focusing on rays. Until
recently, rays attracted less attention and research than sharks, despite being just as endangered, if
not more so. For example, the sawfish family, which consists of five species globally, is the most
endangered of all shark and ray families (sawfishes may look like sharks but they’re actually
classified as rays!). The MCAF supported my research on sawfishes in Mozambique in 2014 and a
number of projects on manta and mobulid rays, including research activities by Peruvian NGO
Planeta Océano. So when Planeta Océano was developing a new project to investigate whether
sawfish were still present in Peru, MCAF’s Elizabeth Stephenson connected them with Protect
Africa’s Sawfishes, and a new collaborative project was born.

Ruth Leeney discusses sawfish with the owner of the fishing boat that
caught and released a largetooth sawfish in northern Peru, February 2015.  © Angel Escobar

In February 2015, Planeta Océano ran a training course on sharks and rays. As part of the course, I
provided both an introduction to sawfish identification, ecology and conservation, and training on
how to use interview surveys to collect baseline data on rare species. The training course was
attended by participants not only from Peru but also from Ecuador and Colombia, including
undergraduate students, fisheries officers, and even a professor from Tumbes University, where the course was held.

After a day of intensive training, Planeta Océano staff and the course participants visited fishing
ports and landings sites in northern Peru. Very recent captures of largetooth sawfish have occurred
in northern Peru, including one 5.6-metre long adult caught and released alive in February 2015 (see photo above), so we were eager to learn more about that capture and why the fishermen had been motivated to release the sawfish. I was delighted to meet the fisherman who owned the boat from which that catch had been made, and whose sons were amongst the crew that day. He explained that one of the crew members knew that sawfish are rare and had contacted a local NGO for advice on what action to take. The crew brought the sawfish back to the port, got assistance from local fisheries officers with untangling it from their net, and released it. This is a wonderful example of the positive impact that numerous Peruvian NGOs are having on the attitudes of small-scale fishers towards marine conservation issues.

A fun feedback session with the course participants.
© R. Schwoerer

After our first day of interviews, I gave the students feedback on the information they had collected
during interviews. I was genuinely impressed with the high standard of data collection and the
enthusiasm of everyone involved. We conducted two more mornings of interviews at other sites
along the coast, and even got to visit the Reserva Nacional Manglares de Tumbes, – a beautiful area
of mangrove forest and creeks, winding out towards the coast and the border with Ecuador.

Dr. Rigoberto Rosas-Luis from Ecuador, interviewing fish vendors in northern Peru.
© Ruth H. Leeney

The interviews with the men and women involved in fisheries along Peru’s north coast revealed
some fascinating information, which suggests that sawfishes were more common in the waters of
northern Peru than previously thought. Planeta Océano has also built collaborative links with teams
in Ecuador, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, supporting them to collect data on sawfishes using similar
methods, and developing community awareness activities and educational materials on sawfishes,
to be used throughout the region. Planeta Océano's collaborators at the Universidad Laica Eloy
Alfaro de Manabí (Ecuador), many of whom attended the training course in Tumbes, conducted 429
interviews with fishermen throughout Ecuador in 2015, and documented a recent capture of a
sawfish (in 2014) in San Lorenzo, northern Ecuador.

A fisherman being interviewed by course participants Cristhian and Andre at Zorritos beach.
© Ruth H. Leeney

I was heartened to meet so many students with curiosity, insightful questions, and an energetic
approach to research. This project was a wonderful example of the work MCAF facilitates, not only
by supporting projects financially but also by creating a network of marine conservationists and
researchers, bringing together people with similar goals. Continued collaboration amongst NGOs,
researchers and other teams in Central and South America will allow for a faster, more comprehensive assessment of the conservation status of sawfishes in this region and the actions we
need to take to protect them.
"The visits to landings sites and ports in the Tumbes area (northern Peru) were great. …..the course has provided me with new skills and the knowledge to create new research projects in Ecuadorian waters." 
– Jonathan Pincay, student at Universidad Laica Eloy Alfaro de Manabí, Ecuador
Ruth Leeney and Kerstin Forsberg with some of the course participants
and a local fisherman, at Zorritos beach, northern Peru. © Ruth H. Leeney

Ruth Leeney was supported by the Swiss Shark Foundation. Planeta Océano's sawfish research is funded by the Mohammed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. Many thanks to Elizabeth Stephenson of the New England Aquarium's Marine Conservation Action Fund, for linking Planeta Océano with Protect Africa's Sawfishes and encouraging collaboration to advance sawfish research and conservation!

— Ruth Leeney

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