Weymouth Sea Life Adventure Park is to recruit ‘shark watchers’ to help with a special breeding programme.
Dozens of black-tipped reef sharks at centres across Europe have all reached the sexually mature age of five years or more, and a breeding bonanza is anticipated.
Now marine experts hope the sharp eyes of Sea Life visitors can help them rear dozens of baby sharks to help safeguard the species in the wild.
Weymouth Sea Life Adventure Park has four mature black-tipped reef sharks based in the Ocean Tunnel. Now they are to be monitored closely by visitors armed with specially formulated survey sheets.
There have already been successful births at Sea Life centres in Holland and Germany, and Weymouth may well be next.
“We have the opportunity to establish a world-leading captive breeding programme, but we will need to learn a great deal very quickly,” said Sea Life senior curator Chris Brown.
“It will require very close monitoring of our sharks, but our aquarists also have thousands of other fish to care for, which is why we plan to involve visitors,” explained Chris.
“With their help we can detect courtship activity when it first occurs, we will know when mating has taken place and be able to monitor females through their pregnancy.”
Some trial and error is inevitable as the Sea Life team continue to research whether pregnant females are best left in situ’ or should be removed to secure birthing tanks.
“In some cases we may leave them where they are and move other sharks out, to help the females feel safe and reduce the risk of predation on new-born pups,” he said, “or find a way of securely corralling the expectant female in a holding pen within the ocean tank.”
“We have suspected pregnancies at several centres including Weymouth” said Chris.
“The pressures on sharks in the wild, mainly from shark-finning have been devastating to shark populations. What we learn from our captive breeding programme could help scientists calculate how quickly the wild population may decline.”
“We have already learned that a female can give birth to six pups, which is one more than the previous assumed maximum” Chris added.
“Although there are currently no plans to reintroduce captive-bred blacktips into the wild, the knowledge we gain may make this a viable option in the future if disaster strikes.”
Sea Life visitors at more than 25 Sea Life centres across Europe will be invited to become Shark Watchers right through the summer.
Each will receive a four-page guide telling them what to watch out for and how to record any significant observations.
The guide was developed with the help of Canadian artist and wildlife expert 63-year-old Ila France Porcher, who spent 15 years snorkeling daily with the same group of blacktips off Tahiti, until they were tragically caught and finned.
Ila visited the UK this week to see the first surveys being completed at the Sea Life centre in Brighton.
The forms will be handed in on site and checked regularly by the displays team at the Park so they can act swiftly.