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Directed conservation of the world’s reef sharks and rays


Many shark populations are in decline around the world, with severe ecological and economic consequences. Fisheries management and marine protected areas (MPAs) have both been heralded as solutions. However, the effectiveness of MPAs alone is questionable, particularly for globally threatened sharks and rays (‘elasmobranchs’), with little known about how fisheries management and MPAs interact to conserve these species. Here we use a dedicated global survey of coral reef elasmobranchs to assess 66 fully protected areas embedded within a range of fisheries management regimes across 36 countries. We show that conservation benefits were primarily for reef-associated sharks, which were twice as abundant in fully protected areas compared with areas open to fishing. Conservation benefits were greatest in large protected areas that incorporate distinct reefs. However, the same benefits were not evident for rays or wide-ranging sharks that are both economically and ecologically important while also threatened with extinction. We show that conservation benefits from fully protected areas are close to doubled when embedded within areas of effective fisheries management, highlighting the importance of a mixed management approach of both effective fisheries management and well-designed fully protected areas to conserve tropical elasmobranch assemblages globally.

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Fig. 1: Effectiveness of fully protected areas in promoting shark and ray abundance.
Fig. 2: Effectiveness of fully protected areas and fisheries management for shark conservation.
Fig. 3: Relative importance of explanatory variables in predicting the effectiveness of fully protected areas in protecting reef-associated sharks.
Fig. 4: The effects of mixed management on shark abundance and fully protected area effectiveness.

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We thank the government permitting agencies that allowed us to work in their waters: the Global FinPrint volunteers from Stony Brook University, Florida International University, James Cook University, the Aquarium of the Pacific and Shedd Aquarium who watched the BRUVS footage and assisted with field work. We also thank J. Caselle for her review. J.S.G. was supported by a Niarchos Fellowship through the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). D.D.C. was supported by the Roe Foundation, and additional sampling for the Chapman lab was funded by the Moore Bahamas Foundation (Bahamas) and Earthwatch Institute (Belize). In the Dutch Caribbean, surveys on Saba, Saba Bank and St Eustatius were supported by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. Bonaire, Curacao and St Maarten were supported by the SAVE OUR SHARKS project, a collaboration between the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance and IMARES. Additional support for data collection in Solomon Islands was provided by grants to WCS from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (grant no. 13-105118-000-INP) and by the National Science Foundation (grant no. EF-1427453). Additional support for sampling in Malaysia was provided by Scuba Junkie SEAS. Additional support for sampling in Brazil was provided by Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológicov(CNPq) through the scientific programmes LTER [PELD-ILOC grant 441327/2020-6 and PELD-HCES grant 441243/2016-9; the latter with additional funding from Fundação Estadual de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado do Espírito Santo (FAPES) and CNPq/PROTRINDADE (grant 405426/2012-7)]. Data collection in Brazil was financed in part by the Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior, CAPES finance code 001. We thank the Brazilian Navy and SECIRM for the fundamental logistic support; C. and D. McCann for assistance in Sabah, Malaysia; the authorities for granting the research permit in KKP-TWP Nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia (No. 532/194/DPPK) and TWP Kapoposang, South Sulawesi, Indonesia (No. B.49.4/BKKPN/III/2016). Additional support for sampling in Indonesia was provided by Wasage Divers, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Operation Wallacea provided support to C.S.S. In Sri Lanka, we acknowledge the Department of Wildlife Conservation for facilitating this research project under permit number WL/3/2/23/17. Additional support for sampling in Taiwan was provided by NTSC (103-2313-B-029-004), permitted by the Marine National Park. We thank the Sandals Foundation and the Alligator Head Foundation supporting the work conducted in Ocho Rios and East Portland, respectively. Surveys in Jardines de la Reina were supported by Blue Sanctuary-Avalon. Additional support for sampling in Qatar was provided by a University Grant from Qatar University. Additional support for sampling in Saudi Arabia was provided by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. We thank the Department of Natural Resources and Forestry of the Tobago House of Assembly for their endorsement and granting of the research project and the necessary research permit. In Puerto Rico, the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources facilitated the research permit 2018-IC-040, whereas NOAA/NMFS acknowledges the Florida International University for sampling. We thank the fishers of Tintipán Island (Colombia) for assistance with the project. Research in Madagascar was carried out under permits from the Ministry of Environment, Antananarivo and supported by IH.SM, WCS Madagascar. This research was also supported by ‘GlobalArchive: Harnessing fish and shark image data for powerful biodiversity reporting’ (, which received investment from the Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC) (, funded by the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. Logistical support for this project was provided by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) and the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD), both of the Government of Western Australia. This is contribution no. 1681 from the Institute of Environment at Florida International University. Core funding for Global FinPrint was provided by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation 30 (to D.D.C., M. R. Heithaus).

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Authors and Affiliations



D.D.C., M. R. Heithaus, M. R. Heupel, C.A.S., M.A.M., M.M., E.H. and J.S.G. conceptualized the project. D.D.C., M. R. Heithaus, M. R. Heupel, C.A.S., M.A.M., M.M., E.H. and J.S.G. developed the methodology. All authors conducted the investigations. J.S.G. performed visualization. D.D.C. and M. R. Heithaus acquired funding. D.D.C., M. R. Heithaus, M. R. Heupel, C.A.S., M.A.M., M.M. and E.H. administered the project. J.S.G., S.W., C.A.S., D.D.C., M. R. Heithaus, M. R. Heupel, M.A.M., M.M. and E.H. wrote the original draft. All authors reviewed and edited the paper.

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Correspondence to Jordan S. Goetze.

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Nature Ecology & Evolution thanks Amy Diedrich, David Jacoby and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 The effectiveness of fully protected areas in promoting abundance of sharks and rays.

Effectiveness of fully protected areas in promoting abundance of sharks and rays, based on log-ratio effect sizes inside/outside of fully protected areas (n = 66). Green dots represent positive results where the 95% confidence interval of the effect size does not overlap zero and yellow a null result. 75% confidence intervals are also displayed, and the superscript H indicates that significant heterogeneity (* < 0.05, *** < 0.001) was associated with the effect size, with n representing the number of fully protected areas used to calculate the overall effect size.

Extended Data Fig. 2 The effectiveness of fully protected areas in promoting abundance of sharks.

Green dots represent positive results where the 95% confidence interval of the effect size does not overlap zero and yellow where they do. Effect sizes were weighed based on the inverse of the variance with smaller points having a lower weighting.

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Goetze, J.S., Heithaus, M.R., MacNeil, M.A. et al. Directed conservation of the world’s reef sharks and rays. Nat Ecol Evol 8, 1118–1128 (2024).

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