The Marine Megafauna Foundation’s decades-long research has been pivotal in establishing new Important Shark and Ray Areas for the IUCN
By Madeleine Pierce
The Marine Megafauna Foundation’s dedicated research has been instrumental in identifying key habitats in the Western Indian Ocean that have been newly designated Important Shark and Ray Areas (ISRAs) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The research, which has taken place across Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar, Qatar, Oman, and Mayotte has been recognised as crucial for showcasing biodiversity hotspots for various species of shark, ray, and chimaera.
The new ISRAs will be pivotal tools in guiding the development and implementation of area-based conservation strategies – including Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – marking a major step forward in marine conservation research.
ISRA is an initiative by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which plays a critical role in the worldwide conservation of sharks and rays. The areas are identified based on their ecological significance as key habitats such as breeding grounds, feeding areas, or migration routes. Highlighting the essential zones helps to guide further conservation efforts, such as the implementation of new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
Vital pre-conservation research
MMF’s research has been instrumental in the designation of four ISRAs along the Mozambican coastline; the Greater Bazaruto area, Pomene, Southern Inhambane Province (Tofo and Zavora), and a substantial part of the southern Mozambique migration corridor.
In Tanzania, MMF’s decade-long whale shark research has led to the designation of the Kilindoni Bay ISRA at Mafia Island, centred on a significant whale shark feeding area.
‘We are incredibly proud of how our long-term sightings, aerial surveys, and tagging datasets have contributed to this important recognition,’ said MMF co-founder, Dr Andrea Marshall. ‘It underscores the critical role of rigorous scientific research in effective conservation.’
‘It’s fantastic to highlight the importance of Mafia Island as a home for endangered whale sharks, added Dr Chris Rohner, MMF Principal Scientist. ‘Some of the individual sharks have lived in the Bay for more than a decade – as well as the other shark and ray species that share this habitat.’
The establishment of ISRAs in the Western Indian Ocean is a vital precursor to dedicated conservation efforts in the region. ISRAs are selected based on comprehensive scientific data, which is subsequently collated into an ISRA e-Atlas, a dynamic and accessible tool enabling governments, conservationists, and communities to make informed decisions about how best to protect endangered marine species and their core habitats.
Collaboration for conservation
MMF worked with a number of different conservation organisations, such as the Madagascar Whale Shark Project, which led the charge for an ISRA in the waters around Nosy Be in northwest Madagascar, a major feeding area for whale sharks and mobulid rays.
The Foundation also worked alongside Parc Naturel Marin Mayotte to designate areas around the Mayotte lagoon in the northern Mozambique Channel – a key habitat for reef manta rays – and also contributed to ISRAs focused on major whale shark feeding areas and movement corridors in Qatar and Oman, which was led by Sundive Byron Bay and the Qatar Whale Shark Project.
The compilation and analysis of many years of data from these sites was a massive team effort, with additional contributions from All Out Africa Marine Projects, Wildlife Conservation Society Moçambique, SAAMBR, Oceans Without Borders, Mission Blue, KAUST (Reef Ecology Lab), Alison Kock at SANParks, the Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI), and the entire process was guided by the ISRA team.
‘The ISRA initiative has been a fantastic way to pull together and summarize these large collaborative datasets to showcase sharks and ray hotspots and, in doing so, to illustrate how important the Western Indian Ocean is to the global conservation of this group,’ said MMF co-founder Dr Simon Pierce.
‘We are looking forward to working with national governments to ensure that these critical habitats are well-managed for the benefit of both wildlife and people.’