I Spy, Shark Spy

Citizen Science project ‘Shark Spy’ takes communities under the current

Shark Spy lead Rob Lewis explains the technicalities of deploying baited underwater video cameras to an enthralled school group

What is Shark Spy?

Shark Spy is an Otago-based citizen science project that collects baseline data on Aotearoa New Zealand mangō / sharks using community knowledge and sightings in tandem with scientific survey methods. Coordinated by the Otago University Marine Studies Centre, the project connects local schools and communities to their coastal environment while educating on and improving science skills. The collected data is freely available for community groups, schools, and iwi to view and use.

Shark Spy sources data in two ways: via sightings reported by community members, and through baited underwater video cameras. Local communities are, unsurprisingly, highly knowledgeable about their own waters. For example, local fishers are often cognizant of the seasonal appearances of different shark species. These unique insights and historical information may otherwise go unrecorded; thus, local involvement is an important aspect of shark monitoring in this project.

Using baited video cameras allows the opportunity to include schools and community groups in the full scientific process: formulating questions to answer, forming hypotheses, collecting, and analysing the data, and then discussing its implications. The project has improved the participants’ confidence in using science-based skills, ensuring both the collection of useful data and the scientific empowerment of the community.

A class analysis session, with students sifting through video data and answering some pertinent questions.

One of the project’s main goals is to foster community engagement by inviting their questions and keeping them informed on the latest findings. The sightings submission platform is set up specifically to facilitate two-way communication; with the community’s help, Shark Spy has added almost a hundred sightings of 13 species of coastal sharks, eight of which are either vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.

The project’s outcomes present a compelling case for the combined use of incidental sightings and baited underwater cameras in the long-term monitoring of shark species to support conservation initiatives. The project’s success is also mirrored in its impact on the local community: Shark Spy has encouraged people to connect with their own backyards and learn more about these amazing animals.

Why sharks?

Mangō / sharks are important parts of local coastal ecosystems, acting as middle or top predators in marine food webs. They are crucial in maintaining balance in coastal ecosystems by adjusting the abundance and behaviour of their prey species. Declines in shark numbers have been recorded worldwide, correlating to substantial impacts on their ecosystems. To conserve sharks in the future, it is imperative to understand their population demographics and how they change over time. Unfortunately, much of this information is missing for many shark species around Aotearoa New Zealand.

Some curious spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias) checking out the bait box

Besides their ecological importance, sharks are also just incredible animals. Love them or hate them, people are fascinated by sharks; the communities’ genuine interest fuels their drive to use science to answer questions about these creatures.

How can you help?

Report a sighting

A sighting report requires, at minimum, a photo with a date and a location for entry into the database; any further information is more than welcome! The team are happy to take historical and anecdotal reports as well, as these can help them identify shark hotspots. 

Sightings can be submitted to us in three ways:

Analyse shark footage

Shark Spy’s Zooniverse project features clips from the project’s baited video cameras. You can help analyse the video data and identify sharks, rays, and skates caught on camera, contributing more sightings to the database.

Explore their work

All Spy Shark sightings are stored on the iNaturalist Shark Spy project where anyone can explore what sharks have been found, and where and when. The data can also be exported for school projects, science fairs, or local community interest.

Spread the word!

The Shark Spy team offers educational talks to schools and community groups upon request. For more information about the project or how to get involved, feel free to contact them via the Shark Spy email (shark.spy.otago@gmail.com) or via Facebook.

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