“There she goes!” One of the team members cried out with delight. Scientist Nesha Ichida couldn’t tell where the cheers came from, her eyes focused intently on the small spotted shark in her hands, hopping up and down on the surface of the warm, turquoise ocean water. A member of the Stegostomatidae family, the zebra shark (Stegostoma tigrinum) she was currently holding on to was called Kathlyn – and Kathlyn was a little shark who made big history.
Kathlyn wriggled out of Nesha’s hands into the waters of Indonesia’s Wayag Islands, her first time swimming in the open ocean. Kathlyn and Charlie (a male zebra shark who had been released earlier that day) were a ray of hope for scientists from aquariums around the world who were working together to rebuild the wild population of zebra sharks that have been wiped out by overfishing and shark finning . This animal is a large shark that undergoes a radical color change as it ages. It lives in shallow coral reef habitats in warm tropical waters. As the zebra shark ages, it sheds its black and white stripes for small black dots on a brown body that closely resembles the leopard. Their ability to wriggle into narrow crevices and burrows allows them to find food such as small fish, snails, sea urchins, crabs and other small invertebrates. Many inshore fisheries take the zebra shark for its meat, which can be sold fresh or salt-dried in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and other countries. In addition to its liver for vitamins, shark fin soup is made from its fins.
ReShark is an international project that is releasing aquarium-bred zebra sharks to marine sanctuaries like Raja Ampat with the help of shark nannies and scientists. 44 aquariums consisting of 75 partners from 15 countries have bred these gentle predators from eggs to pups to hatchlings. Like Kathlyn and Charlie, future zebra shark pups are released into marine sanctuaries overseen by conservation rangers. The project is the first-ever attempt to restore sharks to areas where they’ve gone extinct… and it’s taken years to get there!
“While scientists are constantly releasing animals to land, no one has attempted to do the same to endangered sharks — until now. […] The first two baby sharks, Charlie and Kat, were successfully released, while the team hopes to release 500 more over the next few years,” the National Geographic press release said. Scientists hope the same framework can be used for other endangered shark species, slowly “renaturalizing” their struggling populations and giving them a much-needed numerical boost.
“The ReShark collective is committed to ensuring that wherever we work around the world, this work happens shoulder-to-shoulder with local communities, government agencies and elected officials, and conservation leaders,” the project’s website reads. “Our goal is to ensure our efforts are sustainable, culturally respectful and add value to both the local environment and the communities that live next to them.”