Zebra sharks, once abundant in waters around Raja Ampat, Indonesia, lost their numbers to near extinction due to extensive overfishing in the 1990s and early 2000s. Despite government marine protection improvements, the species had until now yet to re-emerge in Raja Ampat.
"[Today] it is very rare to see them…The population has been deemed to be no longer genetically or sustainably viable," Laura Simmons, regional curator for Sea Life Australia and New Zealand, told ABC RN’s Saturday Extra.
As part of efforts to help the unique species bounce back in Indonesia, the team at Sea Life Sydney Aquarium are aiming to reintroduce them through ‘rewilding’. The first phase, a breeding project involving two male zebra sharks Leo and Gohan, and two females named Zimba and Kaya, takes place at the facility.
Upon successful mating, the females lay brown, leathery eggs monitored by the aquarium to ensure steady development. As soon as an embryo is detected, preparations are made to quickly transport the eggs for smooth acclimatisation to Indonesian waters.
The timeline for eggs to hatch is around a month, after which baby sharks (also known as pups) will be placed in the care of expert aquarists, or “shark nannies”. In their “pup tanks”, the sharks will learn how to hunt sea snails before they spend time in a controlled sea environment prior to their released into the wild. Once the pups reach a length of 80 centimetres, the sharks are ready to swim solo.
Four zebra sharks from Seal Life Sydney Aquarium – named Mali, Audrey, Charlie and Kathlyn – have already been introduced to Raja Ampat waters as part of the breeding project.
"We've been very lucky that we were the first aquarium in the world to be able to provide eggs to this project," Simmons told ABC News.
The remarkable outcomes of the project were a huge milestone for the StAR Project team members who spent two and a half years gathering the support of local, provincial and national government stakeholders, as well as other non-government stakeholders, in Indonesia. Local communities also played an integral role in the initiative, participating in the construction of hatcheries and receiving related job opportunities.
Today, Raja Ampat has transformed into one of the few places worldwide where biodiversity is on the surge. Soon enough, the four zebra sharks already introduced to the area will be joined by others just like them as the StAR team continues to monitor their adjustments in their new home. According to Simmons, the project could be replicated in other areas and accomplish a far greater impact beyond Indonesian islands.
"Our ultimate goal is to have a healthy, genetically diverse population of zebra sharks in Raja Ampat," says Nesha Ichida, Marine conservation scientist and project manager for ReShark.
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