Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) is the only UK registered charity to focus exclusively on the conservation and sustainability of the Galapagos Islands. One way we do this is by supporting projects on the Islands that fit in with our two programme areas, Science & Conservation and Education & Sustainability. The Galapagos Bullhead Shark Project, which we support with help from the National Marine Aquarium, aligns well with both of these areas, combining robust science with tailored outreach to engage with a variety of audiences.
The Galapagos bullhead shark is a small, elusive shark that is mostly found in shallow sandy and rocky areas along the coast. Despite being discovered 175 years ago, it has more or less been ‘forgotten’ by science so little is known about its life history, habitat requirements or threats such as fishing. Its larger cousins such as scalloped hammerhead and whale sharks may provide a huge draw to Galapagos tourists, but the bullhead shark has just as much potential to prove a star amongst locals and visitors alike.
The Galapagos Bullhead Shark Project was set up in 2015 by Max Hirschfeld to try and answer some of the questions surrounding it, with the aim of improving conservation management for the species. The project is a mixture of ecological surveys and citizen science, ranging from basic identification of individual sharks and nursery sites, to taking measurements and tissue samples in order to build up our understanding of the species. While the researchers undertake the more intricate scientific research, by calling on local communities, dive operators and Galapagos visitors to help spot the sharks, it is a fantastic way to communicate the importance of protecting sharks in the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR).
The Galapagos bullhead shark is unique in the Archipelago as it is the only egg-laying shark species regularly seen around the Islands. More excitingly, it could also possibly be the only endemic shark species to the Galapagos Islands as it is extremely sedentary. If this proves to be true, it would definitely draw increased interest and have an economic value as a tourist attraction, making the protection of this species and its habitats more likely to be included in legislation in the future. To this end, the project team take tissue samples for genetic analysis, and aim to visit sampling sites in Peru to see if there are any similarities between the bullhead sharks found there and those found in the Archipelago.
The project has made great strides in its first year. Fifty Galapagos bullhead sharks have been recorded around four different islands: Isabela, Floreana, Fernandina and Espanola. The researchers have also identified sites that seem to be used as nursery areas by the bullhead sharks, which will be important areas to protect. These sites, and others where bullhead sharks have been seen, will be revisited by the team in order to determine population size, and the movement of individual sharks. Even if the sharks are seen in areas that are protected from potential threats such as fishing, there is the possibility that they move between sites, and that these corridors are not protected.
The education and outreach for the project has been well-received by the local community. The project has engaged with the Galapagos Ministry of Culture, over 500 local naturalist and dive guides, Galapagos National Park rangers, local fishers, local and international volunteers, and two local NGOs. GCT have also helped to develop a strong collaboration to produce a suite of educational activities and resources for an annual Shark Day. Held on San Cristobal island, the day engages with local children and their families by providing hands-on activities, presentations and videos about the project and the importance of sharks in Galapagos.
We are hugely grateful for the support of the National Marine Aquarium for making this project possible.
You can find out more about the project here: galapagosconservation.org.uk/projects/galapagos-bullhead-shark/
If people have sightings of Galapagos bullhead sharks they can submit them here: http://www.bullheads.org