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The same year TV’s hit crime drama CSI came to the airwaves, the Guy Harvey Research Institute was launched at Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Florida. Coincidence? Well, yes, but the GHRI has done in real life the same science that makes CSI and similar shows so popular. Over the past decade GHRI research has helped nail some of the worst offenders of illegal fishing as well as expose consumer fraud in the restaurant industry. Along the way have been striking scientific discoveries such as new shark, ray and billfish species, the remarkable ability of sharks to give virgin birth and — more to the heart of the Institute’s mission — a wealth of research on habitat conditions and fish populations necessary for better oceans management and preservation.

Dr. Mahmood Shivji, the director and driving force behind the institute, sees the vital nature of this mission.  “What little ocean management practice exists worldwide, although well-intentioned, is often limited in its effectiveness,” says Shivji, “because there are large gaps in our understanding of how marine ecosystems work.”

Since its beginning in 2000, the GHRI’s objective has been two-fold, to provide scientific research on marine fish biology and ecosystems and to train up the next generation of marine researchers through the graduate program at NSU. Both aspects are close to the heart of the Institute’s namesake, himself a trained marine biologist and holder of a doctorate in fisheries management.

It’s also much needed. A steady decline in research and funding from the U.S. and other governments toward oceanographic and fisheries issues are coming at a time when the threats to fish populations and their ecosystems are skyrocketing. Two key studies of the last decade, the Pew Oceans Commission (2003) and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (2004) confirmed that America’s marine ecosystems and fisheries are facing real challenges in health and sustainability. At stake is much of the nation’s $60 billion commercial and $30 billion recreational fishing industries. The plot thickens when these issues are considered on a larger scale. Recent data suggests the oceans provide one-fifth to one-quarter of the protein consumed by humans world-wide, and the issues that affect American fisheries — coastal overdevelopment,  population growth, environmental concerns and commercial overfishing practices — are all felt globally.

Thanks to funding by Guy Harvey Inc., the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, private and federal research grants and NSU, GHRI is helping provide the critical scientific data that regulators need for making good ocean management decisions. The very nature of its global research is also allowing GHRI to have a significant impact both here and abroad. One example is related to shark fishing.

As apex predators, sharks are an integral part of their ecosystems. As pelagic hunters, they have wide ranges, sometimes migrating across whole oceans. This combination makes shark species both critical to the health of the oceans and also difficult to assess and manage. Added to this is immense pressure from the international fin market.  Sharks are being fished at an alarming rate with up to 70 million sharks being killed per year just to supply the international fin trade. “This overfishing is a serious issue for our oceanic ecosystem health,” says Dr. Shivji. “The continued high demand for shark fins for use in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup has made this commodity one of the highest priced seafood items, and is causing the decimation of shark populations worldwide.” Recent DNA work by GHRI has revealed that shark fins found in Hong Kong markets have come from endangered shark populations in the western Atlantic, underscoring the complexity of ocean management issues and the need for comprehensive, international solutions.

GHRI is tackling these issues with combination of innovative research tools – laboratory-based DNA research to identify shark stocks globally and using that information to identify the species and geographic origin of market shark fins, as well as field-based tracking studies using satellite and acoustic tags to better understand shark migrations. The tracking studies are currently focused on blue and tiger sharks worldwide and on eastern US populations of short fin mako and sand tiger sharks.  This work is being conducted in partnership with the Save Our Seas Foundation and collaborations with shark scientists from around the world. 

Also critical to the health of shark populations is reproduction, however little is known about the basics of mating behavior while low fecundity, slow growth and late age maturity make it harder for threatened species to recover. GHRI scientists are using both genetic profiling and field research to collect basic biological information on how shark mating systems work, with a current  focus on the scalloped and great hammerhead and blue sharks, all of which are experiencing heavy fishing pressure for the fin trade.

Another current area of focus for the GHRI is billfish populations. According to assessments by NOAA, blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish are all over fished. The immense popularity of these species among recreational anglers and their importance in the ecosystem amplifies the need for sustainable fishing and management practices. For example, white marlin stocks are thought to be at only 12 percent of what’s necessary for continuing a healthy population. GHRI involvement in protecting billfishes has come with the identification of a new species (see sidebar) and distinguishing it from the very similar-looking white marlin. The institute has also pioneered rapid DNA forensic techniques that accurately identify billfishes including their tiny larvae, helping to track billfish landings by species and define their spawning areas to assist in billfish management. 

As a compliment to its study of wide ranging pelagics such as sharks and billfish, new research initiatives for the GHRI include a focus on more localized coral reef environments, specifically the role of Florida and Caribbean grouper and snapper species. The target of both commercial and recreational fishing, these species are made more susceptible to exploitation because of their tendency to aggregate predictably in time and place in large numbers for reproduction. GHRI researchers are currently studying the population dynamics of the severely overfished Nassau grouper and plan to collect data on the basic biology of more reef fish species.

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