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Chicago Teens Participate in Global Research Project to Help Save Sharks

Shedd Aquarium Teen Learning Lab and Volunteers Lend an Eye to Global FinPrint Researchers

November 07, 2017

Pasama Cole-Kweli, an assistantship in Shedd’s Teen Learning Lab, works with high school students on an international shark conservation project. She’s shown with Shedd’s shark researcher Steve Kessel, left, and Global FinPrint scientist Dr. Demian Chapman.

Shedd Aquarium is teaming up with an international research project called Global FinPrint, a Paul G. Allen initiative, to engage Chicagoland teens with a hands-on STEM application through citizen science. The research project looks to fill a critical information gap about the diminishing number of sharks and rays in our oceans.  The collaboration marks the first time a group of teens will contribute to Global FinPrint’s studies. Data gathered by the teens will directly aid management and conservation efforts for a number of aquatic species.

In Shedd’s Teen Learning Lab, teens will have the opportunity to use a Vulcan Inc. software program specially designed for Global FinPrint to record data on reef ecosystems in the Bahamas and Caribbean. 

For each survey, the teen participants will watch 60 minutes of underwater footage with the goal of recording information on what they see including: the number of sharks and rays present; the time stamp which they came into view of the camera; and the species of each animal. Information collected will be added to Global FinPrint’s database, which stores data about the presence of sharks and rays in oceans across the globe.

The project enables the teens to gain experience identifying wild marine species, an important skill when studying marine ecology and biology, and learn about the full process of conducting applied scientific research.

“Too often, our oceans are out of sight and out of mind for people in the Midwest,” said Wade Berger, manager of the Teen Learning Lab at Shedd Aquarium. “This opportunity to work with Global FinPrint will show Chicago’s youth that they can each play an active role in protecting the species that live in our oceans, even though we’re thousands of miles away.”

Shedd Aquarium is the second aquarium to become a collaborator on the project, but the first to make the program available to teens. In addition to activating teens, the aquarium is also opening the citizen science project to its volunteer base of more than 800.

“As Shedd Aquarium’s conservation research team begins our own project to study Caribbean shark species, we’re excited to also bring shark research inland to Chicago,” said Dr. Steve Kessel, director of marine research at Shedd Aquarium. “With unique opportunities to work with world-renowned scientists like Dr. Demian Chapman, we hope to inspire the next generation of shark conservationists.”

Research suggests that some shark populations have declined heavily over the past few decades. The removal of predators like sharks and mesopredators likes rays can disrupt the balance of marine food webs and cause large-scale habitat changes. As a result, fishing regulations, marine protected areas and trade controls have been put in place to prevent further decline, but there is still a long way to go. The Global FinPrint’s program will help assess current initiatives and better guide future efforts.

“While the precipitous decline of sharks and rays is clear, there is still much to learn about where they live in our oceans, their influence on coral reef ecosystems and the human impacts on their habitats,” said Dr. Demian Chapman, lead scientist at Global FinPrint and professor at Florida International University. “Our research project looks to answer some of these questions by individually counting what’s out there and mapping species abundance across the world’s reefs.”

In order to count the sharks and rays of the oceans, Global FinPrint activates scientists, shark enthusiasts and volunteers around the world to watch thousands of hours of underwater video footage captured at reef locations. This partnership saves hours of time for researchers and more efficiently consolidates the data.

The project is especially pertinent to Chicago-based Shedd Aquarium, as one of just a few Midwest locations that allows visitors to see marine animals in person. The aquarium is home to many shark and ray species, some of which are critically endangered in the wild.

One example: Affectionately named “Ginsu,” the aquarium’s green sawfish (Pristis zijsron) is an elasmobranch – a shark, ray and skate – whose species is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. Shedd visitors can learn more about Ginsu’s imperiled species and other elasmobranchs by visiting the aquarium’s Wild Reef exhibit.