“There she goes!” one of the team members cried out in joy. Scientist Nesha Ichida couldn’t tell who the cheer came from, her eyes focused intently on the small spotted shark in her hands that was bobbing on the surface of the warm, turquoise ocean water. A member of the family Stegostomatidae, the zebra shark (Stegostoma tigrinum) she currently held onto was named Kathlyn – and Kathlyn was a little shark making big history.
Kathlyn wriggled out of Nesha’s hands into the waters of Indonesia’s Wayag Islands, the first time she would swim out in the open ocean. Kathlyn and Charlie (a male zebra shark that had been released earlier that day) were a beacon of hope for scientists from aquariums around the world that were working together to rebuild the wild population of zebra sharks that have been wiped out from overfishing and shark finning. A large shark that undergoes a radical transformation in coloration with age, this animal lives in shallow coral reef habitats in warm tropical waters. As the zebra shark ages, it sheds its black-and-white stripes for small black dots on a tan body, closely resembling the leopard. Their ability to wriggle into narrow crevices and caves allows them to find food here, such as small fish, snails, sea urchins, crabs and other small invertebrates. Many inshore fisheries take the zebra shark for its meat, which may be sold fresh or salt-dried in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, and other countries. As well as its liver for vitamins, shark fin soup is made from its fins.
ReShark is an international project that releases aquarium-bred zebra sharks into marine protected areas such as Raja Ampat with the help of shark nannies and scientists. Made up of 75 partners from 15 countries, 44 aquariums have bred these gentle predators from eggs to pups to juveniles. Like Kathlyn and Charlie, future zebra shark pups will be released into Marine Protected Areas patrolled by conservation rangers. The project marks the first-ever efforts to restore sharks in areas where they are extinct… and it took years to get here!
“While scientists rewild animals on land all the time, no one has ever tried to do the same with endangered sharks – until now. […] The first two baby sharks, Charlie and Kat, have been successfully released, while the team hopes to release 500 more over the next several years,” the National Geographic press release stated. Scientists hope that this same framework can be used for other endangered shark species, slowly ‘rewilding’ their struggling populations and giving them a much-needed numbers boost.
“The ReShark collective is committed to ensuring that wherever in the world we are working, that work happens shoulder-to-shoulder with local communities, government agencies and elected officials and leading conservationists,” the project’s website says. “Our goal is to ensure that our efforts are sustainable, culturally respectful and add value to both the local environment as well as the communities who live alongside them.”
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