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Incorporating environmental factors is critical for determining conservation baselines for shark relative abundance of coral reefs

Naomi F. Farabaugh*, Mark E. Bond, Demian Chapman, Eric Clua, Alastair R. Harborne, Michelle Heupel, Jeremy J. Kiszka, Michael R. Heithaus

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Populations of sharks, including those inhabiting coral reefs, have experienced dramatic global declines. Setting appropriate targets for restoring reef shark populations requires estimates of expected relative abundances in the absence of intense fishing. It is, therefore, important to identify factors that drive the carrying capacity of sharks in relatively intact reef systems and to determine whether expected shark abundance varies according to easy to assess variables. These variables could then be used by managers for setting restoration targets, or prioritizing resource allocation, for particular areas in the absence of detailed data. French Polynesia, the world’s largest shark sanctuary, provides a model system for addressing this question. We used baited remote underwater video surveys (BRUVS) to assess relative abundance of sharks on 35 reefs across the broad geographic range of French Polynesia. Boosted regression tree models revealed that relative abundance of sharks varied significantly with island geomorphology. Overall, shark relative abundances at high islands were nearly 3 times lower than on atolls, and among atoll geomorphology types, open atolls had abundances nearly 20% higher than closed atolls. Island group, temperature and net primary productivity had more limited effects. Human pressure (market gravity) was not a significant factor. Although species-specific patterns varied, our findings suggest that environmental factors, particularly island geomorphology, should be taken into account when setting shark abundance recovery targets. Using this easy to assess factor can facilitate the allocation of conservation effort and improve assessments of species recovery efforts for islands in the Indo-Pacific region.