Gazing up at Shedd’s shark reef habitat in Wild Reef, you may see a long and sleek caudal fin swaying behind a spotted body as it slowly glides through the warm, blue water. Although the adults’ spotted pattern doesn’t match their name, zebra sharks (Stegostoma tigrinum) are stunningly beautiful.
The zebra sharks at Shedd also serve as ambassadors for their species and bring attention to the challenges facing their wild counterparts. Zebra sharks are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with several populations across the globe at risk of extinction. But Shedd — as part of a new, international and collaborative effort to recover threatened sharks and rays around the world called ReShark — is taking immediate action to bolster zebra shark numbers.
Healthy populations of zebra sharks are essential to maintain thriving ecosystems in their native range in the Indian and west-central Pacific Oceans. And as a founding partner, Shedd is lending our expertise for the StAR Project to reestablish the population of zebra sharks in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.
Aquariums around the world, including Shedd, have decades of experience caring for zebra sharks. Shedd is among the few institutions with expertise in breeding, hatching and raising zebra shark pups. In fact, more than 100 zebra shark pups have hatched at the aquarium since 2004 through our robust, scientifically managed breeding program. Those pups have been placed at 17 different zoos and aquariums across the country – and some have even traveled to zoos and aquariums internationally. This dedicated work has allowed the zoo and aquarium community to create a population of zebra sharks in human care that is healthy, sustainable and genetically diverse.
In recent years, zebra shark populations in Raja Ampat (West Papua province, Indonesia) have quickly and dramatically declined due to habitat degradation, overharvesting and finning. Additionally, zebra sharks — and many other shark species — take years to reach sexual maturity, which slows populations from naturally rebounding.
Even though Raja Ampat now contains an extensive network of some of the world’s most well-enforced marine protected areas, experts believe additional efforts are needed to ensure that this population can effectively recover.
Leadership from the West Papua Provincial Government and the Research and Innovation Agency of Indonesia, and their commitment to conservation, has allowed for the creation of the StAR project to help intervene. Using the knowledge from government agencies, aquariums, researchers and more, this collective has developed a pilot conservation model — the first reintroduction of a shark species of this kind — that will aid in this population’s recovery.
Raising and Releasing Pups
Saving an endangered species is a big task, so how is ReShark approaching this complex problem?
First, zebra sharks in scientifically managed populations in aquariums around the world will breed and lay eggs. After ensuring the eggs are healthy and genetically viable (meaning they have the right genetic mix to safely join this wild population), they are transported across the globe to hatcheries in Indonesia.
Local teams then manage and care for the eggs and pups, encouraging important survival and foraging skills. When they are old enough and well prepared for life in the wild, they will be tagged for monitoring purposes and released into a Marine Protected Area.
What's Happening Now?
In an exciting step for the project, Sea Life Sydney Aquarium in Sydney, Australia sent the first several eggs to Indonesia in August 2022.
Recently, Shedd senior animal care specialist Lise Watson — who has more than 30 years of shark husbandry experience — journeyed 9,000 miles to the Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Center to help share her skills and support the staff who are raising the pups for future release.
"It has been an amazing experience being part of this program aimed to make an impact on shark populations in the wild,” Watson said. “The team of biologists and staff in Indonesia caring for the sharks are hard-working, dedicated and wonderful to work with. I'm thrilled the pups are growing and thriving in their care and can't wait for the next steps of the program where we move the animals to sea pens and finally tag, release and monitor. I'm honored to be part of this conservation initiative."
The hatchery pups are fed a diet of live foods like clams and snails and frozen foods including squid, prawn and crab. Eating live food, that might be a bit more difficult to catch, helps teach them the critical skills they’ll need to find invertebrates like snails, shrimp, crabs and small fishes that may be hiding in crevices and caves among coral reefs.
The pups are progressing well and will continue to grow and practice their survival skills until their release.
How Can You Help?
These pups are just the start of the StAR project and growing efforts to help zebra shark populations return to their historic numbers in Indonesia. Work is underway to send more eggs to Raja Ampat to ensure that the species can thrive.
You can support zebra shark conservation and protection for all shark species, no matter where you are in the world, if you:
- Educate yourself and others about the importance of sharks for healthy ecosystems
- Donate to conservation-based organizations like Shedd