Malpelo Island Expedition Reveals Shark Migratory Habits

The Mission Blue Expedition Team traveled to Malpelo Island Hope Spot off the coast of Colombia in August 2019 to collect data on sharks’ migratory habits and document the unique triumphs and challenges involved in enforcing the local marine protected area (MPA) and protecting the sensitive species that live there, including whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, and groupers. The trip offered opportunities to gain new insights about a place that has only been well explored for the past 30 years. 

The expedition was organized with partners including the Malpelo FoundationConservation International Colombia, and Migramar. The delegation of scientists from Migramar on board included two stars: Dr. Mauricio Hoyos and  Dr. Cesar Peñaherrera, both widely published in the scientific literature and two of the foremost experts on sharks in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.

Malpelo Island, located in the Eastern Pacific, is rugged, remote and difficult to get to.  The expedition was accompanied by Sandra Bessudo, marine conservationist and founder of Malpelo and Other Marine Ecosystems Foundation. Through her tireless work, Malpelo became a Mission Blue Hope Spot in 2016, which she champions. Sandra was one of the first divers to explore the waters around Malpelo, in 1987.

Malpelo might be inhospitable to humans, but it’s a haven for biodiversity– two endemic species of lizards and one species of crab are found nowhere else on the planet. Under the waves, at least 5 species of endemic fish call Malpelo’s waters home. Due to Sandra’s efforts, their future looks brighter now than before. Malpelo’s newfound bounty shows that with dedicated conservation work, places in the ocean can be restored to their thriving past.

Scientific research conducted by the Malpelo Foundation showed that Malpelo’s wildlife ranged outside the previous boundaries of the protected area. Acting on this information, the Colombian government expanded it in 2017 to triple its previous size. Fishing is now forbidden in 27,096 square kilometers, extending far out from the island. It’s good news for fish and sharks!

The team connected acoustic and satellite tags to the metal wires that come with them and added the leader blade used to secure tags onto the sharks. Separately, they added blunt tips with a short (1-2 inch) hollow cylindrical end to some of the pole spears to take tissue samples.

“Besides tracking sharks through satellite tags, we want to understand if the populations are connected… DNA samples allow us to determine if the populations of sharks at Malpelo for example, share the same genetic pool as the sharks at Galapagos or Cocos.”

The science work completed on Mission Blue’s expedition in Malpelo will help find all migratory routes in order to protect those places.

Migramar, in Sandra Bessudo’s words, “is a network of scientists that shares information. This permits governments to take measures for conservation. This scientific information has helped us enlarge marine protected areas.”

Tagging and tracking sharks has already helped identify critical areas for conservation. “The Gulf of Tribugá in the north of the Colombian Pacific Coast is a nursery area for hammerhead sharks. So if we want to protect the adults that are here [in Malpelo], we also have to protect that place.” Sandra shares. 

Read more in the Expedition Ocean Story, Investigation for Conservation.

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