Whale Shark Monitoring Program
Whale sharks are a poorly understood species globally. Many unknowns remain about their feeding behaviour, life cycle, and distribution around the world. Utila has one of the few, year round population of whale sharks, however we still have not answered such as:
- What attracts whale sharks to Utila and where do they go before and after here?
- Is the number of whale sharks visiting Utila increasing or decreasing?
- How can our community reduce its impacts on whale sharks while continuing to benefit from their presence?
Answering these questions might help us to better protect whale shark populations in the region and ensure that we can continue to benefit from their presence in the long term.
Current Research Efforts
Late 2015, WSORC teamed up with Liquid Robotics to commence a project using autonomous drones to follow acoustic transmitters tagged on whale sharks. The Wave Glider system harnesses wave and solar power to generate propulsion, with no excess emissions, and are capable of following transmissions for up to 2 years. With large data sets being processed onboard, and real-time communication to our office, we’re able to create records, previously unknown, of whale shark’s precise behaviour here in the Caribbean, from migration routes, to feeding behaviour, and seasonal movements.
WSORC has been monitoring the distribution, abundance, and population demographics of whale sharks around the island of Utila since the late 1990’s. In addition to the data collected pertaining to size, sex, and behaviour of whale sharks, WSORC are building our own photo ID database of individuals using the photo recognition software I3S. The software uses photographs of the spot patterning behind the gills of the shark, and any scar observations to distinguish individual whale sharks. WSORC also contributes information to the non-profit scientific organization Wild Book, which collates whale shark sightings from around the world and allows users to track movements of individuals across different countries.
Carribean Coral Reef Surveying
Utila is located on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world. Although dive tourism forms a major part of the economy on Utila, there remain several threats to the coral reefs on the island. Anthropogenic threats exist such as invasive lionfish which threaten natural species. In addition, the high densities of divers is having an impact on the physical structure of coral species, while climate changes threatens to bleach entire coral colonies.
Current Research Efforts
WSORC’s Reef Monitoring Program, initiated in 2015, aims to further understand the ecological condition and development of the coral reef in Utila and create a database for possible comparison with other Caribbean sites undergoing the same local impacts and global challenges. Benthic communities (living and non-living components), fish, and invertebrate populations are monitored and recorded in our database. For each category we identify the major functional groups understood to exert top-down control on reef dynamics and considered indicators of resilience; following methodologies based on ReefCheck and IUCN protocols.
To monitor fish populations, we participate in the Reef Environmental Education Foundation’s (REEF) Fish Survey Project. Developed in 1990, divers and snorkelers submit fish species and abundance surveys from temperate reef areas throughout the Caribbean to REEF’s growing database. This standardized method, using the roving diver technique, provides data that is used by agencies and scientists. Publications have been written on species both locally and globally from the data, which also helps conservation agencies and organizations.
Lionfish are beautiful but voracious predators, invasive to the Caribbean and present in the waters around Utila. They are known to eat native fish and crustaceans in large quantities, including economically important species such as snapper, nassau grouper and cleaner shrimp. Lionfish do not have natural predators in the Caribbean, and proliferate rapidly (females can reproduce every 4 days!). Due to this, they can outgrow native species with whom they compete for food and space. Throughout the Caribbean lionfish hunting is seen as a past time for the regular diver. However due to misconduct of spears, and lack of training in correct techniques, Honduran Government has requested that those willing to hunt lionfish here in the Bay Islands are requested to undergo in-water training, to reduce damage done to our underwater environment by divers. Here at WSORC, we are one of two operators in Utila able to train divers and liscnece them in lionfish hunting.
Current Research Efforts
WSORC has collaborated with Oxford University and Operation Wallacea to assist research into the lionfish epidemic here in the Caribbean. WSORC has created a training workshop for volunteers and interns to teach safe spearing techniques., and once or twice per week we send out our staff, research assistants, and volunteers on a designated lionfish hunting boat. This is followed by dissections and analysis of certain anatomical features used in research. All those interested in joining us here will be trained in both hunting and dissection techniques.