MEET OUR PARTNER-OF-THE-MONTH
MARCH: Hawai‘i Uncharted Research Collective
Our featured partner this month is a group of researchers we have been very fortunate to collaborate with: Hawai’i Uncharted Research Collective (HURC). HURC is run by co-founders Maria Harvey, Travis Marcoux, and Stacia Marcoux. We got to sit down with Stacia and ask her about the roots of this non-profit that has been shedding light on whale sharks, which have long been thought to be one of the most elusive shark species found in the Hawaiian Archipelago. Due to their rarity, seeing a whale shark offshore was always big news in the harbor, and questions would fly: where was it? How big was it? How many whale sharks do we really see out here? Are they as rare as we think they are? Through these questions, the idea of HURC began to take shape. Then, when Maria captained a boat from California to Mexico, she met whale shark researcher Dr. Dení Ramírez Macías, Director of Whale Shark Mexico (https://www.whalesharkmexico.com/) and the idea of HURC was solidified. Dení studies a whale shark aggregation site in Mexico and wasn’t aware that whale sharks consistently visited Hawai‘i at all. She suggested forming a non-profit to study the presence of whale sharks here.
When Maria returned, the trio began looking into whale shark research in Hawai‘i: and they didn’t find much. One paper had mentioned the occasional sighting of whale sharks in Hawai‘i, but there was essentially no information about this species in Hawaiian waters. It was an exciting prospect. Any information they gathered would be new to the scientific body of knowledge on these sharks. An essential part of the program is community-based. It gives people a chance to report whale shark sightings. The HURC team then uses Interactive Individual Identification System (I3S) Software, a program developed and widely used to identify individual whale sharks (and many other spotted species) based on their spot patterns. To encourage public interest and participation, HURC rewards the first person to submit photos of a certain shark an opportunity to give it a name in the HURC database. In 2017, with no prior experience in running a non-profit, the trio started looking into the logistics. They learned the process from scratch forming the organization by the end of August, and in October, the company’s website and photo identification project went live and soon after they were granted 501(c)(3) non-profit status.
HURC generated a huge response from the community. They gave their first presentation a month after going live and so many people RSVP’d that they had to move the event to a larger venue. One of the messages they try to get across is how important it is that everyone send in all of their photos and videos of the whale sharks they encounter. Even if someone has already sent that animal in there are often still gaps in the data and re-sightings provide super important information. Through this community collaboration, and the countless volunteer hours that the co-founders commit to this project, HURC now has around three research papers in the works and got invited to present at an international whale shark conference in Australia last May. Since there is so little information on whale sharks in Hawai‘i, there’s a wealth of topics for this team to work on, but they are trying to prioritize time sensitive research questions. Gathering data from community-based submissions doesn’t allow for a summarization of the “total picture” of whale sharks, which is why they are now putting their energy towards the use of satellite tags and aerial surveys. This will give a more accurate depiction of where and how often whale sharks are present here, not just when they are seen by the community. This group relies on private donations, some research grants, and a high level of involvement from the community. A link to their website is here: https://www.hawaiiuncharted.org/ if you’d like more information on how to get involved or donate to the project development.
Shark Tagger has recently collaborated with HURC to expand our community-based science regarding oceanic whitetip sharks. The team at HURC conducts photo identificatio for oceanic whitetip fins (examining the mottled edge of the dorsal fin). This also requires a high level of involvement from the community, and will be a huge help for us to build a photo ID database (which has almost 100 individuals so far and is growing every day) on this species and better understand basic population demographics: gathering info on seasonality, sizes, and sex distributions which will inform conservation efforts. We urge everyone to send in photos of their interactions with this species via this link on our website (https://www.sharktagger.org/submit) but would also like to remind everyone that we do not encourage anyone to seek an interaction with this species of shark.
Thank you so much Stacia for taking the time to talk with us, thank you to Maria for helping us develop our beautiful new Shark Tagger website, and thank you to the whole team at Hawai‘i Uncharted Research Collective for your continued research efforts and collaboration!