Shark Baselines and the Conservation Role of Remote Coral Reef Ecosystems
Scientific monitoring has recorded only a recent fraction of the oceans’ alteration history. This biases our understanding of marine ecosystems. Remote coral reef ecosystems are often considered pristine because of high shark abundance. However, given the long history and global nature of fishing, sharks’ vulnerability, and the ecological consequences of shark declines, these states may not be natural. In the Chagos archipelago, one of the remotest coral reef systems on the planet, protected by a very large marine reserve, we integrated disparate fisheries and scientific survey data to reconstruct baselines and long-term population trajectories of two dominant sharks. In 2012, we estimated 571,310 gray reef and 31,693 silvertip sharks, about 79 and 7% of their baseline levels. These species were exploited longer and more intensively than previously thought and responded to fishing and protection with variable and compensatory population trajectories. Our approach highlights the value of integrative and historical analyses to evaluate large marine ecosystems currently considered pristine.