Sharks, Rays, and MPAs: New paper highlighting views from experts around the world on desired outcomes and success factors of MPAs for sharks and rays

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are increasingly advocated as a tool for shark and ray conservation. However, maximising outcomes for shark and ray MPAs requires understanding where and when spatial protections can provide the greatest benefits. This begs the question – what benefits are we seeking in using MPAs for sharks and rays, and how can those benefits be realised? Despite recent gains in the number of MPAs that have shark and/or ray conservation as an explicit goal, the answer to these questions are not yet clear.

Our new paper just published in Fish and Fisheries and led by Tracy MacKeracher with Amy Diedrich and Colin Simpfendorfer aimed to answer these questions by interviewing experts from around the world with different expertise and experience in MPAs and shark and ray conservation. We wanted to know:

1.     In creating MPAs for sharks and rays, what are the most important outcomes?

2.     What are the main factors that influence their success?

What we found was a disconnect. While social factors were recognized as most important for success, biological outcomes (e.g. increased shark abundance) were emphasized over social outcomes (e.g. livelihood benefits). However, given that achieving biological outcomes depends on local support and compliance, efforts to protect sharks and rays using MPAs can benefit from a stronger focus on achieving social outcomes. Achieving these social outcomes requires understanding the socioeconomic context within which an MPA is established. This socioeconomic information (e.g. level of resource dependence, capacity for enforcement, alternative livelihood options etc.) can then be incorporated with species-level information (e.g. distributions, habitat use) to prioritise areas for protection to regions with the greatest need and/or likelihood for long-term success.

This paper constitutes a key output of our Shark Ray MPA Project, which is funded by the Shark Conservation Fund, where we are working to produce a set of objective products that conservation decision makers, policy makers, funders, advocates and scientists can use to make informed decisions about the use of MPAs to improve population outcomes for sharks and rays.

Access our paper here:

"Toptal Blog for sustainable fisheries" by Meira Mizrahi

As a component of the application process for a Toptal Scholarship for Women, I have written a blog about my research goals, and my vision to change the world. (Let’s all wish Meira luck with her application : ).

Photos by Meira Mizrahi

Photos by Meira Mizrahi

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My Vision to change the world

 Sustainable fisheries and thriving oceans: My vision to change the world is to support small-scale fishing communities in achieving sustainable livelihoods, and to mitigate certain anthropogenic threats to shark populations.


How am I going to accomplish this goal?


As apex predators, sharks play a highly important role in the top-down control of marine ecosystem structure and function. Sharks also support livelihoods of small-scale and artisanal fishers throughout the world directly through shark fisheries, and by maintaining healthy ecosystems for other targeted species to thrive in. Unfortunately, shark populations are declining globally as a result of overfishing, with tens of millions of sharks are captured and sold internationally every year. In recent years, spatial management tools such as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have become a popular tool used to protect sharks. However, despite the aforementioned values that sharks have to people, socioeconomic dimensions are often neglected when planning shark-focused MPAs.


Working towards MPAs that benefit sharks and livelihoods

Earlier this year, my colleagues and I published a systematic review of socioeconomic factors that influence how MPAs impact on ecosystems and livelihoods ( This study highlighted that stakeholders (such as resource dependent fishers) who are included in the MPA planning process are more likely to accept and support conservation measures. Furthermore, an understanding of marine issues and environmental processes are key components that influence an individual’s engagement in conservation and pro-environmental behaviour. When stakeholders are not involved in the conservation planning process or don’t understand the reasoning behind it, they are more likely to be adversely impacted by restrictive fishing laws, and conservation goals are also likely to fail as a result of non-compliance. My work and research focuses in ensuring that MPAs are created in a way that takes into account the needs of local resource users, to ensure that fishers do not lose their livelihoods through MPA designation, and that shark-focused MPAs succeed in their objective to benefit shark populations.


Supporting sharks and fishers in Myanmar

Records suggest that Myanmar may be home to up to 58 shark species (including IUCN Red listed Critically Endangered (2), Endangered (2) and Vulnerable (18)). Despite legislation to protect these species, including two Shark Reserves and a nation-wide ban on shark fishing, a lack of resources to implement policy means that sharks are still being targeted and an active market exists today. Recent market surveys by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in partnership with Myeik University revealed that hundreds of juvenile sharks are sold at drying markets in Myeik, sourced from an active fishery in Myanmar. Prior assessments also suggest a significant decrease in shark biomass and landed catches compared to historical levels. A lack of resources within government agencies is resulting in weak enforcement of the shark fishing ban, with a direct consequence being that Myanmar’s shark fisheries are being overexploited.

In November 2017, I completed a survey and participatory mapping exercise as a part of my PhD research, aiming to better understand the perceptions and interactions that people in Myanmar’s Myeik Archipelago have towards sharks ( This study, which is the first focused exploration of Myanmar’s small-scale and artisanal shark fisheries, provides a snapshot of the current status of small-scale and artisanal shark fisheries in a relatively under-researched region in Myanmar. My next steps are to use this information in spatial software QGIS ( and conservation planning tool Marxan ( to highlight areas that would provide the greatest benefits to sharks if they were protected, while minimising costs to local resource users. I hope that outputs from this study can be used by locally based conservation practitioners in Myanmar to support shark conservation efforts in the Myeik Archipelago, and to ensure that resource users are not neglected throughout the shark conservation planning process. I also plan to publish two scientific papers on the results of this study, so that this discourse of research can be modelled and repeated in other parts of the world.

Support and mentorship needed to achieve my goals

If I were to describe my personal career goal, it would be to build myself as a researcher of, and activist for sharks and their associated environments, and the people that live beside them. I strongly believe that the key to gaining support for conservation is to engage with recourse users, and find out what their needs and desires are first.

Obtaining a Toptal Scholarship will not only support me financially to pursue these goals, the mentorship program will allow me to build my capacity to develop strong, outputs based projects and communicate them to a wider audience. While I consider myself to have the technical knowledge, experience and academic support in conservation planning and stakeholder engagement, I lack the experience in marketing and communication to bring my work to public in a way that is useful and engaging. I would seek support to bridge that gap between science based conservation and communication by hopefully obtaining mentorship by someone from a marketing and communications background, who can guide me in this process.


About me

I am a marine social scientist with five years’ experience working in marine conservation in developing countries. I have gathered extensive experience working on a range of practical and policy marine issues in Belize, Cambodia and Myanmar. Moving from Belize to Cambodia late 2015, I joined Fauna & Flora International (FFI)’s Cambodia marine programme in March 2016 as a consultant and the Myanmar marine programme in January 2017. Key highlights of these projects were advising on seahorse and sea turtle conservation strategies, and finalising the Koh Rong Archipelago Marine Fisheries Management Area Management Plan (an LMMA-type conservation area) in Cambodia, and leading the stakeholder consultation process for the development of the Myeik Archipelago MPA (Myanmar).

I have a BA from James Cook University in Ecology and Conservation and am currently beginning my third year of my PhD at James Cook University (I’m an external student residing in Cambodia). My research involves developing an integrated socioeconomic approach to identifying areas that would provide the greatest benefits to marine ecosystems (in particular sharks) and associated livelihoods. I recently completed my field work in the Myeik Archipelago, Myanmar during which I conducted interviews with fishers to develop an understanding of people’s perceptions and interactions with sharks and rays. This research was part of a wider project titled Maximising Outcomes for Shark and Ray MPAs, funded by the Shark Conservation Fund, and led by Professor and co-chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist group, Colin Simpfendorfer, and JCU Senior Lecturer Dr Amy Diedrich.


"A Systematic Review of the Socioeconomic Factors that Influence How Marine Protected Areas Impact on Ecosystems and Livelihoods" by Meira Mizrahi


Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are not always placed in areas where they can maximise positive impacts on conservation and livelihoods. In other words, some reserves may be residual if placed in areas of high biodiversity where human threats are absent, or in areas of low biodiversity value. Whilst clear MPA guidelines are available that focus on biophysical criteria for maximising MPA impact, fewer considerations have been placed on incorporating socioeconomic factors into the MPA planning process. This systematic literature review identified 32 socioeconomic factors that influence whether MPA placement leads to improvements in biodiversity and/or livelihoods and weighted the quality of evidence using an “Evidence for Impact” Score. The influence of these factors varied with context. We found a generally poor evidence base for impact evaluation of socioeconomic factors, indicating the need for a more interdisciplinary approaches to MPA placement and more empirical studies that assess impact. Paper Link.

Welcome Megan and Siobhan to the Lab - the start of an exciting new collaboration with WWF-USA


We are happy to introduce two new members to the Livelihoods Lab! Megan Fraser (left) and Siobhan Threlfall (right) are MSc Marine Biology and Ecology students at James Cook University. For their minor thesis projects, they will be working under the co-supervision of Amy Diedrich and Stephanie Duce from the Livelihoods Lab, and Megan Barnes from the University of Hawaii, Manoa. This co-supervisory arrangement is a first step in our Lab's collaboration with the WWF-sponsered MPA Mystery initiative. WWF's initiative seeks to de-mystify the successes and failures of MPAs through interdisciplinary research and monitoring with a host of socio-ecological partners. We are excited to be collaborating in the analysis of an extensive dataset related to MPA success in two of the most biologically and socially diverse seascapes on the planet: The Bird's Head Seascape and Sunda Banda Seascape of Indonesia.

Welcome to our latest Lab Member - Kaylan Carrlson


We are excited to welcome Kaylan as the latest PhD candidate to join our lab. Kaylan is an external student working to incorporate the concepts of systematic conservation planning into the decision-making processes of the NGO Ducks Unlimited that she works for in the U.S. Although Kaylan is not working in rural fishing communities, her project resonates across multiple objectives of our lab including interdisciplinarity, applied, and participatory. You can read more about Kaylan and her work here.

Fieldwork Fridays - 'Walking Interviews' by Karin Gerhardt


Walking interviews are a really cool research method that lets you move and interact with people as they go about their daily lives (or in my case – particular activities).  The method literally involves you walking around with people – going to relevant places or doing specific activities – and discussing where you are or what you are doing. 

In 2015, I set up a collaborative project with the Yuku Baja Muliku Traditional Owners from Archer Point in north Queensland.  The project was to document/record the Indigenous knowledge that the Traditional Owners had about sharks and stingrays. 

Until I started my PhD I hadn’t used the walking interview method at all – usually opting for semi-structured or open interview methods where people sit together and discuss topics or  ‘chat’. However early on in this project, people in the group were struggling to recall information while they were just sitting inside with me (at the ranger base or at a kitchen table).  What they wanted to do was SHOW ME what they were talking about and get me to understand better by seeing and doing things.  So, we switched up the research methods and turned the semi-structured interviews into walking interviews. 

By walking on-country with Traditional Owners, going to places where they hunt and fish and ‘picnic’, people were able to recount very detailed information for the project.  Funny stories, solemn accounts, joyful family times were shared as I was taken through areas of cultural significance.  Rock formations on the beach prompted a memory, fishing on the banks of the river let stories flow, there were marks on trees that people talked about and setting up a fire on the beach to cook the ‘catch’ brought about many ‘cooking’ stories and information. 

Being ‘present’ and listening/watching carefully to what is going on around you is an important part of walking interviews.  It’s no good trying to take detailed field notes as you go along.  If you are busy looking down at your notepad – you might miss important interactions.  So, get organised with some key pieces of equipment.  I purchased a small hand-held recorder that could store over 180 hours of voice recordings and had a sensitive voice pick- up microphone.  Also look for a recorder that lets you ‘remove’ or decrease the messy background noises that happen when you are walking outside (wind, background conversations etc).  It’s handy to be able to focus in on the nearest conversation when you are trying to transcribe. 

I didn’t have the funds to go really high tech for my equipment – so in order to be hands free during the walking interviews I attached my recorder to the strap of my cross-body messenger bag with a zip tie!  It worked great.  Having it in a fixed position up high on my chest also meant I could quietly talk into the recorder if I wanted to make observations for my field notes later on.  My other handy tip for walking interviews is to carry Ziploc bags.  Working in north Queensland I found myself in the middle of the wet season walking along beaches or creeks getting completely saturated.  Pop your camera and your recorder into small bags and keep on moving.  Other equipment that you may want to include in your walking interview arsenal are a GPS (you can pin a location and read the way- point into the recorder for use later) and/or a mobile phone (which works as recorder, gps, notebook etc if you forget to pack something or have two conversations going on at the same time (group work).

Overall, walking interviews were a great research method for this project and the detail and depth of the cultural knowledge that was able to be shared was improved considerably from other interview styles. 

Fieldwork Fridays - "Burmese days" by Meira Mizrahi

Photos by Meira Mizrahi

Photos by Meira Mizrahi


Long closed off from the world, Myanmar (formerly Burma) has recently opened its boarders, with opportunities emerging alongside development for conservation. Two years ago, I was offered the opportunity to travel to this mysterious country to consult for an NGO in the early stages of developing a marine protected area. My task was to lead the stakeholder consultations, which would involve spending some time on Myanmar’s coast and islands (tough, I know!), trying to gather an understanding of how marine resource users interact with the ocean.

I’d been offered an exciting and privileged position because island tourism had not yet opened up to the international public. On my first trip out to the islands, the archipelago’s beauty struck me hard, as did the patience and willingness to engage that the people displayed. But such a simplistic description of the island communities would not do them justice. JS Furnivall describes Myanmar as a “plural society”; a society combining ethnic contrasts that have emerged from colonial rule. There are a multitude of ethnic groups residing throughout the country and I’d thoroughly recommend reading Richard Cockett’s Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma for a well-informed overview of the cultural makeup and history of Myanmar.

The islands where I was working encompassed a mixture of Bamar, Karen and Moken (semi-nomadic ocean dwellers living in Myanmar and Thailand) cultures. Mapping out fishing areas with these distinctive stakeholder groups taught me that there are many different ways to interpret and understand the natural world. As I approached each meeting I endeavoured to remain open to different ways of explaining natural resource use, and I quickly discovered that concepts of time and space are not always the same. It was therefore vital for me to listen carefully and not make any assumptions based on my own preconceptions. This has been, and continues to be, an enormous learning experience for me.

I also became an expert on spending hours on end at the local tea houses. Time flows at a different pace on the islands, and whether or not I had a daily agenda means very little when you’re running on island time. So, I learnt patience (and which tea house serves the best 3-in-1 coffees). You could say I habituated myself quite thoroughly!

I have been back to Myanmar eight times since then, which includes to conduct my PhD field work. This alluring country has taken me in, and I am fortunate to have spent time there during this transition period of an emerging nation. It’s difficult to anticipate where these communities will be as Myanmar opens up to the rest of the world, but ensuring stakeholders are engaged in the process, and resource users are understood, allows for the greatest potential for sustainable development on the islands of Myanmar.


Fieldwork Fridays - "The Sea is Green" by Amy Diedrich


I still remember clearly heading out on my first solo field trip for my PhD research. I had a one-way ticket, a pile of surveys and had never set foot in Belize before. As a social scientist, I was faced with the prospect of having to show up in six consecutive communities, live for a few months in each, and convince literally hundreds of people to talk to me. I was actually terrified. I tried to read up on what it’s like to be a young female researcher doing fieldwork in Caribbean Central America (or anywhere for that matter) and found very little. With this blog, we will share a series of anecdotes and stories that reflect the diversity of experiences, challenges, and idiosyncrasies that researchers faced while doing social science fieldwork in far-flung corners of the world. Some of them will be light-hearted, where others will reflect more serious dilemmas related to safety and scientific rigour (I’m casting my mind forward here to a blog I plan to write entitled; There is no such thing as “random as possible”).

I’ll start with an experience I had in Belize. Although a relatively frivolous entry, it actually highlights a very important facet of our understanding of the human relationship with the environment, traditional ecological knowledge. It also reflects a valuable lesson in life; when in doubt, follow the advice your elders. It was October 2005 and I was on Caye Caulker, 30 surveys away from ending nine months of data collection. Hurricane Wilma, classed as a category 5 storm was, according to NOAA, heading straight for Caye Caulker (think small, flat island … look left … there’s the sea, look right … there it is again). It was rumoured that all but one tourist had been evacuated from the island. Planes had stopped running and the sea would soon become too rough for a boat back to the mainland. I was staying in a wooden hut on stilts that swayed in the ocean breeze. I was faced with a difficult decision - stay and finish data collection or deplete the final dregs of my grant getting back to the mainland and forego those final surveys (those of you who have done quantitative survey research will appreciate the gut-wrenching nature of this dilemma). My father, a former pilot and Navy hurricane hunter called me and said, “Honey, please tell me you are not still on that sand bar in path of hurricane Wilma.”

I called my supervisor Richard Pollnac and said, “What do I do?” I guess I was looking for some justification for foregoing those final surveys and escaping. He asked me what the locals were doing and I told him they were preparing for a hurricane party. He said, “If you are really worried, go talk to one of the old local fishermen. They have been through this dozens of times and will know what to do.” So I found an old guy who always sat under his house fixing his net and told him NOAA was predicting Wilma would hit northern Belize. He cast his eyes out to the ocean and said, “the sea is green, it will go north to Mexico” and got back to the business of fixing his net. So I stayed on Caye Caulker and Wilma headed to Mexico.

So what was he seeing out there on the ocean? Was it that a combination of the wind speed, direction and temperature was changing the hue of the ocean, thus allowing him to predict which way the hurricane would turn? It’s hard to say although I have heard accounts that people in the Pacific also predict weather patterns based on the colour of the sea. Their predictions are based on accumulated life experiences, not the latest technology and scientific knowledge. In that moment, I trusted the old fisherman more than NOAA and felt safe enough to stay on the island (although, I admit I moved into a concrete establishment for the night!). I’ll never really know for sure if I took an unnecessary risk but, for me, it was one of those experiences that makes it feel good to be alive and lucky enough to have a job that allows me to explore and experience the diversity and beauty of the human connection to nature.  

Livelihoods Lab is Launched!

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Hello everyone! We are excited to announce the official establishment of the Livelihoods Lab at James Cook University. The idea has been brewing for some time now and we are excited to finally have an outward facing presence where we can showcase our work. There are so many challenges facing coastal communities and small islands in the tropics, and we hope that we can play our part in helping to understand the best ways to address them by working collaboratively with people living and engaged in those areas. With such rapid change occurring all around us, there is also an exciting opportunity for innovation and development. Harnessing these opportunities requires people with multiple disciplinary and practical skills, including those who have first hand experience of local challenges, to put their minds together and push the boundaries of traditional approaches to research and development. We hope to build such diverse collaborations over the coming years that will help us achieve our mission of providing support to coastal communities in the tropics in meeting their livelihood goals through collaborative research and capacity building.